McArthur River mine environmental reporting synthesis

McArthur River at Borroloola, 2011. Credit: Carole MacKinney

Recently members of the UNSW water community had the privilege of visiting the town of Borroloola in Australia's Northern Territory and listening to the concerns of different groups of First Nations people about the impacts of lead and zinc mining on the environment. 

The recent approval to expand Glencore’s McArthur River Mine (MRM) lead-zinc-silver mine is the latest in a long history of decisions by the Northern Territory’s Mining Regulator which have resulted in unacceptable risks to the Northern Territory environment and the downstream community of Borroloola. 

Despite the oversight of an Independent Monitor assessing the environmental impacts at, and downstream of, the mine site annually, the regulatory process has failed to protect the interests of the environment and the community. Short term impacts, including the spontaneous combustion of waste rock in the northern overburden emplacement facility (NOEF) from 2014 – which was the focus of extensive media reporting - are likely minor compared to the long-term risk of contamination from acid and metalliferous drainage (AMD) to the groundwater system and the McArthur River. 

The UNSW Global Water Institute (UNSW-GWI) and the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory (ECNT) have undertaken a longitudinal assessment of the publicly available information on water-related issues at MRM over the period 2007 – 2018. This analysis shows repeated failures on behalf of the mine site Operator and Mining Regulator to act in a timely manner to address risks to sensitive aquatic environments. In this summary report, UNSW-GWI highlight three of the key risks to water resources to exemplify deficiencies in the regulatory system and propose improvements to protect the interests of the community going forward. 

The analysis is described in this report, which can be cited as:

HIGGINS, P., ANDERSEN, M., HOLLEY, C., HOWEY, K., JOHNSON, F., KEARNES, M., KHAN, S., LESLIE, G. & MOLLOY, S. 2021. Monitoring the monitor: a temporal synthesis of the McArthur River Mine Independent Monitor report. Sydney: UNSW-GWI & Environment Centre NT. 8 pages.

Future research will focus on ways to continue to support communities downstream of industry and recommending improvements to the environmental regulatory processes to prevent similar problems occurring in the future for the McArthur River but more generally across Australia.

Please feel free to get in touch:

A/Prof Fiona Johnson
Water Research Centre, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Phone: 02 9385 9769


Image: McArthur River in Borraloola 2011, by Carole Mackinney.