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12/12 - Digging deep: Modern-day miners' quest for community approval

Unity Mining's Managing Director Andrew McIlwain answers questions from Majors Creek residents at his company's tailings dam in Henty, Tasmania

Unity Mining's Managing Director Andrew McIlwain answers questions from Majors Creek residents at his company's tailings dam in Henty, Tasmania
 

It's 6:30am and the managing director of Unity Mining is standing on the tarmac at Canberra airport.

"G'day, I'm Andrew, welcome."

Andrew McIlwain is dressed in jeans, boots and a rugby jumper as he enthusiastically greats critics of his company's proposed goldmine near Braidwood, between Canberra and New South Wales' South Coast.

He is about to board a small plane, chartered to take half a dozen people from Majors Creek, Araluen and along the Deua River in NSW, on a day-trip to the company's mine in Tasmania.

It's all part of a concerted effort to persuade them Unity's plans for their region aren't to be feared.

"We want to live and work in those communities, we want to be accepted and we want people to understand what we're about," Mr McIlwain said.

The company already has approval for an underground mine at the site, but locals, who initially acquiesced, are now crying foul.

Last month Unity announced it was scrapping plans to truck the ore away.AUDIO: seeking social licence, how far will mining companies go? (ABC Rural)It will instead seek approval to build a sodium cyanide processing facility and tailings dam onsite.

That change has upset many.

"Some of us in the community do feel a little bit betrayed," said architect Matt Darwon, who moved to Majors Creek eight years ago.

"I am fearful."

'No Cyanide' has been painted in large capital letters on the road outside the mine's entrance.

"Certainly trust is something that has been put to us," Andrew McIlwain acknowledged, having just completed a tour of the Henty goldmine and tailings storage dam, which is surrounded by western Tasmania's rugged beauty.

"People refer to social licence, but it's about in fact the stakeholders we engage with understanding our business.

"It's very difficult sitting in Majors Creek to understand what a goldmine might mean.

"I think people were quite taken aback by the lack of scale and the impact we have here in what's a very pristine environment."

The big worry for people living in Majors Creek and downstream is that steep slopes below the site mean any spill, however small, has the potential to reach Araluen's orchards or affect Eurobodalla's drinking water.

Among the group is the Eurobodalla Shire Council's water manager, Brett Corven.

"My concern is for the fate of the contaminants and the mine's tailings facility," he said.

Majors Creek is a tributary of the Deua River, and Mr Corven was anxious to see how the company plans to safeguard the catchment.

"Eurobodalla gets 60 per cent of its drinking water from the Deua River."

Easing those concerns is why Unity has spent $10 thousand to bring this group to Henty, to see, hear and smell a goldmine in operation.

"If you look around here, we're in a wilderness area of Tasmania with three metres of rainfall a year you know," said Mr McIlwain.

"This is what we do for our business," he says of the company's experience.

With an explanation and tour of the cyanide processing facility complete, he's showing the group the tailings dam where the operation treats and releases water used in extracting the gold.

"That water flows into Lake Plimsoll, where people fish for trout," he said of its cleanliness.

Future in the balance

The stakes for Unity are high.

With the known reserves at Henty likely to be exhausted by late next year, the company is counting on extracting the estimated 327,000 ounces of gold at Majors Creek for ensure its survival.

Unity has already spent $70 million on developing the Majors Creek mine, which Andrew McIlwain says would employ 100 people.

Damian Big, who lives in the town and runs nearby Braidwood's hardware store, believes the benefits outweigh the risks.

"It's been very interesting to come down and have a look at all this and see how well they've done it. That makes you feel a little bit better about it.

"They're a good customer, also [in] any small town, this kind of industry coming in only benefits the town."

But although all are complimentary of the company's effort to engage, not everyone in the group is convinced.

"The questions remain," said Peter Cormick, as he prepared to board the plane at Burnie, on return to Canberra.

"If everything is done according to plan, there really is no problem.

"But it's not the operation itself, but where it is placed that is the concern."

The company expects to submit an environmental impact statement to the Department of Planning early in 2015.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-11/majors-creek-residents-shown-tasma...

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