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To  a wombat, most human activity is crazy. Some however is crazier than most.

In February 2013, Unity Mining began work next to the NSW village of Majors Creek on their Dargues Reef Gold Mine project. Twelve days later, after heavy but normal rainfall for the area, athick sludge of mud slid down into Majors Creek.

Majors Creek feeds into the water system for the orchards and market gardens of the Araluen Valley, through Conservation Reserves with more than 23 endangered, vulnerable or critically endangered species, and then into the drinking water of nearly 70% of the residents of Eurobodalla Shire on the far south coast of NSW. 

Over the next six months there were five breaches of environmental conditions. The company was prosecuted in the NSW Land and Environment Court for three of them, with fines and costs imposed that come to nearly $200,000. At this stage the company had actually not yet begun to mine – part of the initial workings collapsed after another normal rainfall event, and the mine subsequently went into a “care and maintenance” phase as the price of gold fell.

The mine had been approved subject to stringent conditions, many of which had been gained by appeals by local community groups to the NSW Land and Environment Court. But it appears that even Court conditions can be overruled by the NSW Department of Planning – and many were.

The company now only has to “generally” comply with the approval conditions (rather than follow them to the letter).

But the critical key to the mine’s original approval was that the company stated there would be no cyanide processing on site and that the ore, containing lead and other heavy metals as well as gold, would be removed, leaving an inert tailings dam.  This promise to the community, the Court and the Palerang and Eurobodalla Shire Councils was repeated right up to September this year when, at the Community Consultative Committee meeting, we were assured that gold processing at Majors Creek was not, and never would be, on the table.

Two months later the company announced that it plans to seek permission to process gold at its Majors Creek site in a refinement process that uses cyanide. Instead of mostly silica, the tailings will contain cyanide residues, as well as lead and other heavy metals.

Mission creep is a common danger with mining applications. A company submits an initial proposal for approval and, once that approval has been granted (often hedged about with stern conditions) and the operations begin on the proposed mine, the company applies for a ‘variation’ to that original approval. Several years down the track the actual on-ground situation bears little resemblance to the initial proposal. As more and more people and money are involved it becomes difficult to rein in the operation, even when the company is far from the project originally approved.

A single accident with cyanide or lead contaminated tailings on the steep escarpment at Majors Creek could create disaster, not just for the village nearby, but for the entire water system from the Araluen valley to the South Coast. The company claims it will provide a hundred jobs, but the community is worried about the many more jobs that are at risk, some already lost due to the uncertainty of what may happen.

Cyanide can have a catastrophic impact on the environment. Lead dust is more insidious. A series of small accidents over five or ten years could mean a toxic build up over tens of kilometres, almost impossible to remove.

I live four kilometres downstream from the proposed mine, cyanide works and smelter.

We lived with the mud and residues in the creek during the 2013 breaches, repeatedly emptying and cleaning out our water system, junking a pump destroyed by grit, hearing only silence where once there had been the call of many frog species, trying not to weep at pools empty of the fish that used to swim there.

Although not all signs of the sediment have gone, much of the creek has recovered. Any accidental residues from cyanide, lead, zinc, arsenic and cadmium once mining and processing are underway would be more deadly and far longer lasting.

 This valley is the centre of my life, my work, my heart and my community.

  Peach harvest at Wisbey’s orchard in Araluen near Braidwood, January 2013. Photo: Andrew Meares

These holidays my grandson will play in the creek; the wombats will drink, the green and gold bell frogs will croak from the damp gullies, the mother quolls guide their young across the sheltered steep cliffs of the Majors Creek State Conservation Area. We will eat Araluen peaches and watch the eagles float up on the thermals above the valley.

One spill, one accident, has the potential to destroy it all.

If you were to choose the most inappropriate place for a cyanide–using processing plant, it would be on a hill above a village; on the edge of a steep escarpment where pollution after a rainstorm can reach the first downstream household in minutes, the first orchard in half an hour. A place where over 100,000 people living downstream depend on an unpolluted water system – and all for 100 jobs, which may be a most optimistic estimate, in an area that already has a shortage of workers.

Accidents happen. In February 2007, a road train carrying three twenty-tonne containers of solid sodium
cyanide in the Northern Territory tipped over, spilling pellets onto the side of the road
and into a non-flowing watercourse. Most of the contamination was cleaned up before it contaminated a wider area. But on the steep escarpment of Majors Creek, water, wind and dust can carry contamination far and fast.

This will be a lush Christmas for the wombats. But the drilling planned upstream is not a wombat hole. It is a threat to lives and livelihoods.

And, of course, to wombats.

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