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Uranium Mine Threat to Rare Habitat

Australian anti-nuclear campaigners and green groups are fighting to stop the country's biggest uranium and copper mine from destroying a unique desert ecosystem.
29 September 2006 - Doug Weir

The Olympic Dam/Roxby Downs mine's statistics are truly staggering. In one year it creates 10m tonnes of radioactive tailings, accounts for 8% of South Australia's carbon dioxide emissions and uses 30m litres of water a day.

Tailings dam at the Roxby mine. Image courtesy SEA-US

Its huge appetite for water has brought it into conflict with environmentalists and anti-nuclear groups. The source of the huge volumes of water that the mine uses is the Great Artesian Basin, a vast and ancient store of groundwater that lies underneath most of central Australia.

The basin supports unique wetland oases called Mound Springs where groundwater flows to the surface. The springs are home to dozens of species of plants and invertebrates found nowhere else on Earth and they are of profound cultural significance to the Arabunna Aboriginal people of the region.

BHP Billiton, the firm behind the mine, has just submitted an application to boost their groundwater abstraction to 120m litres a day for the next 70 years. They will pay for none of this, in spite of the fact that it is already the largest single-site user of underground water in the Southern Hemisphere.

Such is the size of the mine that BHP enjoys completely unjustifiable legal privileges. These include the Roxby Indenture Act, which overrides the South Australian Environment Protection Act, the Water Resources Act, the Aboriginal Heritage Act and even provides exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act.

Uranium from the Roxby Mine is soon to be sold to countries outside of the remit of the Non Proliferation Treaty such as China, and as yet, the mine has no long-term plans in place to deal with the 60m tonnes of radioactive and chemically toxic tailings the it has produced. It is boom time for uranium mining 'Down Under' - as countries re-examine nuclear power programmes, the price of uranium ore has rocketed.

BHP is the largest mining company in the world and recorded profits of AU$8bn last August. However, in the last month, it has been implicated in the UN Oil for Food scandal after it emerged that UN contracts were inflated by $8m to recover a debt Saddam Hussein's regime owed the London-listed group. The head of the inquiry, Terence Cole QC, said evidence suggested that BHP might have breached UN sanctions when it provided $5m worth of wheat on credit to Iraq in the mid-90s.

For more information on the Roxby Dam mine visit: