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Australia’s Mining Boom: Boon or Doom? Development Proposals Threaten Unique Tasmanian Ecology

Another of Australia’s most pristine places is being threatened by the national mining boom. The World Heritage listed Tarkine, located in the north-west corner of Tasmania, is protected by neither Federal nor State legislation, rendering it vulnerable to economic exploitation likely to devastate local ecologies. Whilst current Federal Minister for the Environment Tony Burke sits on the fence, the Tasmanian State Government is favouring lucrative corporate mining contracts rather than protecting this culturally significant and ecologically sensitive location.

Tension has recently escalated over the issue as environmental activists are becoming increasingly critical of both the State and Federal Governments’ negligence in protecting the area. Proposed developments of Pilbara-style open cut mines, known for their significant destructive impact not only at mine sites but also downstream due to mineral runoff, constitute the main issue raised by concerned environmentalists. The toxic waste runoff from such mining operations, known as Acid Mine Drainage, can damage river systems for decades.

The Tarkine National Coalition (TNC) is at the forefront of opposition to short-sighted industrial development of the region. Originally formed in 1994, TNC is a not-for-profit coalition of locals, environment groups and businesses based in North-West Tasmania. Their concerns are currently focussed on the possibility of ten new mines being established in the region over the next three to five years.

Shree Minerals, a multi-commodity exploration and development corporation, poses the most immediate threat, having submitted a proposal for an iron ore mine at Nelson Bay River. Another corporation, Venture Minerals, is also planning three initial open cut mines for tin, tungsten and iron ore in the rainforest at Mount Lindsay, Stanley River and Riley Creek.

Tasmania’s State Government has recently granted 58 exploration licences over the Tarkine, with mining corporations driven by the seemingly indefinite Chinese demand for minerals. Yet despite their exploratory nature, initial mining activities such as drilling, geophysical surveys and pit tests are well understood to frequently entail destruction of pristine native environments through clearing, bulldozing and site erosion. Furthermore, the introduction of foreign contaminants can also exacerbate disease conditions in native flora and fauna.

Akin to the case of Walmadan (James Price Point Gas Hub development reported on in the last edition of Lot’s), the potential of mining developments in the Tarkine is particularly problematic because of the region’s unique environmental diversity and sensitivity. A relic from the ancient super-continent, Gondwanaland, the Tarkine is an expansive 447,000 hectare wilderness area that contains Australia’s largest tract of temperate rainforest, wild coastal environments, mountains, caves, heathlands and a large number of rivers that are in pristine or wilderness condition. It is home to more than sixty rare and threatened species, including the unique Giant Freshwater Lobster and the Tasmanian Wedge Tailed Eagle (Australia’s largest eagle), as well as being the last remaining disease free stronghold for the Tasmanian Devil.

Moreover, the Tarkininer people and other Aboriginal groups frequented Tasmania’s north-west coast for many tens of thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, thriving off its rich natural resources. Accordingly, this coastal region has been described as one of the world’s most important archaeological regions due to the richness and diversity of Aboriginal sites.

Although some mining does already occur within parts of the Tarkine – the most significant operation being the Savage River Iron Ore Mine, managed by the Grange Resources corporation – industrial scale development remains limited. This is largely due to the fact that the region was granted Emergency National Heritage listing in December 2009 by former Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett. However, this previous protective measure lapsed in December 2010 under the current Minister Tony Burke.

Despite the Australian Heritage Council (AHC) having already recommended a 433,000 hectare National Heritage Area, Minister Burke has instructed the AHC to reassess the area. Burke has also extended the reassessment deadline to December 2013, with no protection assured in the interim period. Even if the Tarkine is declared to be a National Park after 2013, current operations will not be restricted or shut down as their leases will be excluded from the Park proposal.

The TNC has launched a major public action campaign to ensure the Tarkine is afforded permanent National Park and World Heritage status. Such protection will ensure its survival for future generations while boosting Tasmania’s tourism industry, adding to natural icons in other parts of the state, such as Cradle Mountain, the Gordon River and Freycinet.

A recent latent-demand economic analysis commissioned by the Cradle Coast Authority found that the right planning combined with appropriate public investment in the Tarkine region has the potential to deliver $58.2 million in annual tourism revenue. It could also support over 1100 jobs in North-West Tasmania by 2017.

The protection of the Tarkine is of huge environmental significance, and has important implications for the future of Tasmania. It is imperative that the Tasmanian State Government and Environment Minister Tony Burke realise that engaging in mining projects that have short term financial benefits but spell long term environmental destruction is not the only, nor the best, option. If the Tarkine is suitably protected, revenue can be generated in conjunction with the magnificent region being preserved for future generations.

 

If you are interested in taking a stand to protect the Tarkine go to tarkine.org/ill-stand-for-the-tarkine.

Regular updates on the TNC campaign are available on their Facebook page.

Christine Dietrich

The author Christine Dietrich

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