Thursday, March 27, 2008

Arkaroola: It can be done; it was done.

In August 2000 a Liberal government, not known for its conservation ethic, banned magnesite mining in the Gammon Ranges National Park, which abuts the southern end of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. There's a lesson to be learned from its history.

Weetootla Gorge (above) has long been known to hold economic mineral deposits. Gold, copper, and magnesite have all been mined at some stage or other. It's been the site of a gold rush, and of terrible despoliation. Blast scars, drill holes and mullock heaps mar the landscape even today. Despite this, the area retains much of its original charm, and all of its important Aboriginal heritage. It is home to the rare purple spotted gudgeon, a fish that somehow survived eons of climate change, only to be threatened with extinction by mining. Its survival was not secured by accident.

(Rockpools like this one in Weetootla Creek are key to the survival of the rare purple spotted gudgeon.)

BHP held and exercised an exploration lease over the area until the 80's. It knew all too well what was in the area and wisely walked away in favour of more accessible deposits in less sensitive areas. It's not often we see big companies do this, but it has been done, more than once. A small group mining interest, Manna Hill took to the area, attempting to talk up mining.

(Magnesite deposits in the Weetootla Creekbed.)
Conservation groups lobbied actively and protested visibly. An unaligned activist tipped off local member, Liberal Party (and later Independent) Dr Bob Such, who not only visited the area but came back with the words, “There's no way they'll ever mine that.”

And he was right. Not long afterwards Liberal Iain Evans, probably with a little urging from Dr Such and others, visited the place himself and left a record of his visit in the log book maintained in Grindell's Hut. It's still there.

By August 2000 he had taken action to block the mining proposal, and that action was upheld under challenge in a court of law.

There are many parallels between Weetootla and Mt Gee. Both are in the middle of recognised wildlife sanctuaries. Both are home to rare and threatened species. Both have long been known for their mineralogy. It's not new, it's not some recent discovery. Both have important Aboriginal histories. Mt Gee was supposed to have the added protection of being listed on the National Heritage to protect its rare outcrops.

Like Weetootla, large mining interests, including Exoil, explored the area and walked away in favour of more accessible high grade deposits in less vulnerable and sensitive locations.

Like Weetootla, Mt Gee attracted interest from a small scale opportunist to talk up mining in the area.

Unlike Weetootla, Mt Gee hasn't been visited by the Environment Minister, nor has it been afforded that Minister's protection. Silence. Mark Parnell (Greens MP) tried to provide it with some protection, but that too failed because politicians from both major parties rejected it.

Now, Iain Evans, this time working from Opposition benches, is about to have another try. Let's hope he is successful. But it would be good wouldn't it, if we saw some of the spine that Labor was thought to have for protecting the environment.

Instead it's gone to water. Marathon hasn't even been fined, let alone banned, for destroying rare fluorite crystals, turning Mount Gee into SA's largest illegal uranium dump. It is time this government, and that Minister, took action.

1 comment:

Xanthopus said...

Hear Hear!

Surely we must ask if an Environment Minister who cannot bring herself to visit this area or express an opinion is really worthy of the name or the responsibility entrusted to her?

I might add that there were also a lot of ordinary people who wrote to Evans expressing a view that the Weetootla Gorge should be fully protected. Just as they have in the case of Arkaroola, but seemingly to no avail despite Labor's frequent claims to green credentials.

Evans not only listened, however, he followed-up, and had the Gammon Ranges Park singly-proclaimed (i.e. entirely excluded from mining) in 2001. Mission (actually) accomplished!

However, his subsequent showpiece new park - the Gawler Ranges National Park - was not so lucky. It remains a jointly-proclaimed (mineable) reserve, along with most of the SA parks system, and is currently covered with exploration leases accordingly.

This is not so much a reflection on Evans himself as on the institutionalised and enduring power-imbalance between the Depts. of Environment and Mines (whatever they be labelled on the day). The 21st Century story of SA's environment may be a grim one indeed if this imbalance is not redressed...