Wednesday, May 19, 2010

it's the pits!

insert hole here? click for the 'undermined!' set on flickr
this is the arkaroola wilderness sanctuary...

Vanda K's picture of the Leigh Creek coalfield
...and this is a hole in the ground! if you can spot the difference - read on!

Reading Paul Howes' - National Secretary of the Australian Workers' Union - submission on Seeking a Balance, the state government's 'mining access' plan for the northern Flinders Ranges, is a rather extraordinary, and also disturbing, experience.

Extraordinary, for a start, for what it contains.

For one, a table, on page 4, under AWU letterhead, entitled 'Marathon's vision for an enduring legacy.' I think it's fair to assume this was drafted by the company. This sets a range of Marathon's proposed activities against a background of the specific targets of the South Australian Strategic Plan.

Now, why would they do that? There's already a specific plan for the Flinders Ranges, and the much-discussed Class A Zone is the core of it.

Perhaps because -

The AWU notes the concerns of Marathon Resources in this regard and also their support for a triple bottom line approach instead of zoning which was being pursued by the South Australian Government through Planning SA in 2008 but which has apparently progressed no further since December 2008.

In other words, it seems Marathon were expecting a 'get out of jail free' card with respect to the Class A Environmental Zone restrictions - which, after all, effectively make mining uranium in Arkaroola impossible if the document is read and understood in plain English.

This may help to explain recent press comments where Marathon have supported Class A as sufficiently restricting upon them without need of further regulation, despite its apparently going well beyond that and dealing them a death-blow; they were simply expecting to be able to effectively bypass these 'precluding' restrictions.

it's the pits!

But the real concern for me was to be found in the AWU's submission's appendix: 5 verbatim pages taken from online investment gurus Fat Prophets' November 2009 assessment of Marathon Resources position in the light of Seeking a Balance.

Marathon have a history with Fat Prophets, having originally seen their share price perform rather nicely, thank you, after it was made one of their recommended stocks in 2006. We can only assume that FP and MTN (Marathon) have worked pretty-closely together. So it's very striking to see the following included -

The mining concept for Mount Gee will include a mixture of open pits and underground mines targeting high-grade zones.

What is it with the open cuts? Marathon are supposed to know that any such program is absolutely out of the question. As minerals minister Paul Holloway told Parliament in February 2008 -

This government has... also made it clear to companies that we will not allow any mining involving significant surface disturbance; in other words, there would be absolutely no chance of getting any sort of open-cut mining or anything like that in the area. [Emphasis mine]

Could that be any more straighforward? And yet here, nearly two years later, is a declaration by a presumably well-informed party claiming open-cuts will be an integral part of the process!

We must also remember what Marathon told The Advertiser's Cameron England in regard to the legal dispute between former Marathon CEO Stuart Hall and the company. Hall, they alleged, had publicly announced a proposal to access the area exclusively via a very long decline (tunnel), so as to reduce potential environmental impacts in the ranges. This was costed at a fairly-alarming half a $billion, and Marathon complained that Hall had made the statements...

...'without authority from Marathon's board of directors', and at a time when the firm was assessing the feasibility of various options for mining Mt Gee.

Marathon said the statements did not reflect Marathon's then current intentions, and Mr Hall should have known the statements would have 'a material adverse impact on Marathon's capacity to procure debt.'

Yet the 'all underground' aspect was supposed to be one of the projects key 'environmental' selling points!

The public has a clear right to be told; is Marathon simply - and inexplicably - persisting in planning open-cut operations in the heart of the Arkaroola sanctuary, despite being repeatedly told it's out of the question? Or are they doing so with the state government's knowledge and consent, implied or otherwise?

(For more discussion see tunneling in for some pure black comedy.)

Could this perhaps help to explain why Marathon has chosen to withhold its own submission on Seeking a Balance from the public? Surely we are entitled to know what they are planning? Not only is Arkaroola a state icon, a unique wild landscape, and one of our premier tourism destinations - the minerals concerned are, after all, the property of the people of Australia.

And, before we stray too far, note the reference to 'mines' - plural - in the Fat Prophets quote above.

So, the AWU submission has sent us us an ominous message indeed! One that we cannot ignore if we care for the future of SA's truly wild areas.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

one-sided article stirs community indignation

in yudnamutana gorge near hodgkinsons - great mining country, do you think? 

Perhaps you have already caught The Advertiser's front-page article of Friday giving great play to the Australian Workers Union's claim that we need to mine the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary?

The article as originally published was strikingly one-sided, putting the case of the union, SACOME, Marathon, the Australian Uranium Association, and a brokerage house to spruik the supposed economic advantages of Marathon's plan, and specifically to negate the need to have further 'restrictions', as in those put forward in the state government's Seeking a Balance 'mining access' plan, placed on mining.

It then gave space for limited counterclaims, focussing mainly on film-maker Rolf de Heer, which perhaps also explains the fairly remarkable choice of a still from 'The Tracker', featuring the film's villain - a very hissable Gary Sweet - holding David Gulpilil in a collar and chain, as a front-page image to accompany the article. (The internationally acclaimed film was made in Arkaroola, for reasons of landscape spectacle that de Heer makes clear, but this still photo scarcely conveys a sense of this.)

Now Rolf de Heer is a fine man to defend the sanctuary, and a great film-maker, but such a limited sample is no way fairly represents the breadth and depth of the opposition to any proposal to mine Arkaroola. I have tackled these issues in a letter to the Editor that is attached below, but I will point out here that, apparently after objections and the intervention of Senator Nick Minchin, the article has been significantly revised to put the case opposing mining much more strongly.

In fact, the AdelaideNow (The Advertiser online) SA homepage banner for the article has transformed itself to 'Arkaroola too precious - Minchin.' This is interesting given that the headline of the piece is still 'Union calls for uranium mining in Arkaroola sanctuary'!

This may also be a response to The Advertiser's own online polling - as of the time of writing the responses to the question 'Should mining be allowed in Arkaroola?' were running as follows -

Yes, we need the cash - 7.16% (105 votes)
No, it'll cause irreperable damage - 79.88% (1192 votes)
Under strict conditions - 12.96% (191 votes)

('Strict conditions' are nowhere defined.)

worthy of comment

Online comments on the article appear to have closed on Friday afternoon at number 102, overwhelmingly - and I do mean overwhelmingly - favouring complete protection for Arkaroola. They're well worth a read and should greatly cheer any real friend of wild Australia.

Again, the message to the state government could scarcely be clearer; if this is, in fact, a democracy the miners must pack up and leave the sanctuary! Or be made to do so.

My letter is as follows -

Dear Editor,

I was dismayed to read your front page article of Friday that reported that the Australian Workers Union and some mining and brokerage firms are promoting the mining of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary and the adjacent wild ranges.

I do not feel that this piece gave an accurate assessment of the situation, or managed in any way to convey the depth and extent of opposition to mining that was clearly indicated by reading the publicly available submissions made on the state government's Seeking a Balance 'mining access' plan.

In fact, it seems likely that the forces in favour of mining, which amounted to only 10% of the submissions received by the government's own count, ran to the media shortly after the release of submissions in order to attempt to confound a very clear message; that the overwhelming majority of respondents call for Arkaroola to be protected for posterity.

Your paper has already highlighted the SA Museum's opposition; not only did it produce a formal submission to this effect, there were further submissions on behalf of individual staff members.

To these we can add calls from other academics - biologists and geologists, including a Primary Industries SA former chief geologist - from across the state and across the globe. In the light of all these the government cannot hope to maintain that it has adequately assessed the biological and heritage values of this unique region.

The tourism industry was particularly prominent in submissions, both at a small business and association level. Ecotourism Australia's submission reminds us that the Flinders Ranges attracted 439,000 overnight stays and $169 million in 2007, and that 97% of foreign visitors participated in nature-based activities while there. The industry, a major employer, and local government are understandably gravely concerned at the damage any mine will do to the appeal of the ranges.

Marathon's claims for the value of the uranium resource and its benefits to the economy, on the other hand, are both speculative and controversial.

The Sprigg family have benefitted the state enormously in their role as custodians of this magnificent landscape. They deserve our full support in ensuring it endures forever. The Advertiser's own online poll, and particularly the comments attached to the associated article, have served to spectacularly reinforce this unambiguous message from the people of South Australia.

Bill Doyle

it's the minimum!

old exploration workings in hodgkinsons, yudnamutana gorge - we are apparently to believe this is 'rehabilitation' - what do you think?I must also point out here that Seeking a Balance contains one very clear message 'The area zoned in this document is the minimum area for protection.'

Call to mind that the utter inadequacy of existing levels of protection, and the lack of any capacity to enforce them, was made abundantly clear by Marathon's waste-dumping scandal, and yet certain industries and organizations, in calling for no extra protections whatsoever, are apparently so used to getting their own way that they feel any such constraints - however feeble they might be (and most respondents certainly recognised SaB's as feeble) - simply cannot be intended to apply to them.

Inadequate to the task of protecting the ranges as it is, Marathon and the industry brought SaB on themselves in response to community outcry - let us never forget - and yet they are happy to rattle on about 'Sovereign Risk' as though this was some caprice on the part of government!

The word 'arrogance' comes quickly to mind, if not outright 'hubris'!

(The 'mission creep' of the phrase 'Sovereign Risk' as it evolves from an economic term applying strictly to a given state's willingness and capacity to meet its debts into a standard tool of the deregulationist mantra when faced by any potential new restriction, no matter how reasonable or obviously called for it might be, is a discussion for another day!)

punching the numbers

I am systematically working through the list of publicly-available submissions.

As of the first 100 submissions alphabetically - this out of more than 450 - I find that 90% wish to see no mining in Arkaroola and/or the adjacent ranges, and a further 5% want restrictions on mining greater than SaB would afford. Only 4% wish to see the area opened up to mining.

I will complete my own assessment of all submissions, but I will observe here that the state governments' own count that suggests 82% wish to see 'further restriction', while doubtlessly roughly accurate, does not make clear the extent of outright opposition to mining, full stop.

I will close this post with a quotation that concludes a submission for a former senior geologist for Primary Industries SA, which indicates the extent to which protection for Arkaroola gets support across the spectrum of opinion on mining -

In conclusion, I am pro-mining (in the right environment) and I am pro-uranium as a source of energy, but I (and every other sensible person) would not consider condoning mining under Wilpena Pound if an economic mineral resource was discovered there. The Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in its entirety should be seen in exactly the same light.

 old exploration workings in hodgkinsons, yudnamutana gorge - we are apparently to believe this is 'rehabilitation' - what do you think?


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

seeking is unbalanced!

a view from the ridgetop tour - great mining country, do you think?

Submissions on Seeking a Balance, the state government's 'mining access' plan for the northern Flinders have been assembled and made available online. And the message could hardly be clearer.

Overwhelmingly the public do not want to see mining in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.
They also want to see the heritage values of the Flinders Ranges protected.

And virtually no-one loves 'Seeking a Balance' no matter which side of the argument they're on! Some submissions are particularly scathing - embarrassingly so for the state government, given their provenance, in several instances.

We know the following from the state government's own preliminary assessment, obtained via a Greens FOI request:

485 submissions in total

57% South Australian
23% other Australian
15% indeterminable (but probably largely Australian)
4% from overseas

86% from private citizens, 14% from companies and organizations.

On Seeking a Balance itself -

Generally there was little support for the document's proposals. However, many responses did not attempt to discuss the document or the zones proposed by it. Discussion overwhelmingly focussed on feelings towards mining in Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.

The figures given for this are -

50% unspecified (it would be be interesting to see how many of these simply say 'Don't Mine Arkaroola'
39% unsupportive
10% supportive 'with refinement' (More detail required here, methinks!)
<1% supportive

for and against

On mining in Arkaroola -

Supporting further restrictions on mining 82%
Supporting reduced restrictions on mining 10%
Unclear 8%

Now, I've quickly downloaded 50 submissions where I wasn't already familiar with the contents. From this rough sample I found the following:

For 'reduced' restrictions on mining in the Arkaroola Sanctuary: the SA Chamber of Minerals and Energy, the Australian Workers Union, the Australian Uranium Association, some Mining companies, and, we can only assume, Marathon itself, but interestingly Chairman Peter Williams hasn't chosen to share his submission with us.

Supporting further restrictions - or simply outrightly opposed to - mining in Arkaroola, and frequently also in much of the rest of the Flinders also: Flinders Ranges Tourism Operators Association, (in fact many and various tourism operators), Adelaide Bushwalkers, Eco Tourism Australia, District Council of Mount Remarkable, Port Augusta City Council, academics from universities here and across the world, Rolf de Heer (Director of 'The Tracker'), the Nature Conservation Society, the Friends of Flinders Ranges National Park, North Flinders NRM, Operation Flinders, the Conservation Council, Flinders Ranges National Landscape Project Committee, Warraweena Sanctuary, the SA Tourism Industry Council, the Scientific Expedition Group, the president of the Field Geologists Club of SA, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

And let's not forget the extremely difficult to refute - and thereby politically embarrassing - submission from the SA Museum that caused a stir in the week leading up to the state election.

Even Geothermal explorers Petratherm can't see why there are any 'standard mining regulations only' access areas in the core of the Arkaroola Sanctuary!

In summary; when considering mining in Arkaroola - those who stand to gain financially from mining either specifically in Arkaroola, or from the industry more generally, might be comfortable the idea of mining the Sanctuary. (Even that's not completely sure!)

But the remainder - and this is more than 4/5ths of those who responded - love the environment of the northern Flinders as it is and wish to see it enhanced and preserved. They also strongly support existing businesses that they suggest any mining project may severely impact.

It could hardly be clearer. The state government has nowhere to go from here but to declare the Arkaroola Sanctuary off limits to the mining industry, as they should have decades ago.

I have recently spent some time in Arkaroola, and some new sets of images can be linked to from the slideshow at right. I will be posting samples form several of these shortly on this blog as 'walk through' tours of the regions in question.

the mouth of yudnamutana gorge - a great spot for a pipeline, haulage road or processing facility, do you think?