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Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Page: 2515


Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:39): Tonight I will speak on two projects. They are separated by thousands of kilometres, but both highlight the problems of a one-sided view of the economy—that is, that mining and power production take precedence over all else. Time and again, we see large companies that propose dangerous projects claim they will benefit the local community, but, meanwhile, they walk all over those communities. These companies often ignore local industries as their activities damage the diversity of local economies and the local environment. Internationally, we need to develop a stronger economic diversity that does not prioritise big corporate interests at the expense of our communities.

The two issues I will cover are the proposal for an antimony mine by Anchor Resources and its owner, China Shandong Jinshunda, in Wild Cattle Creek near Dorrigo; and a hydro-electric power station in Chile's Patagonia—clearly, this is far in distance, but very relevant, as it is part-owned by the Australian company Origin Energy. Both of these projects threaten local communities, environments and economies, and should not go ahead.

On my recent trip to Coffs Harbour, it became apparent that a number of people are very concerned about the prospect of reopening a 100-year-old antimony mine in the region. Anchor Resources, owned by China Shandong Jinshunda, is currently scoping the region for antimony, as well as gold and copper.

Antimony is a toxic element which works on humans in a similar way to arsenic. In fact, arsenic is a by-product of mining antimony. Antimony mining has a problematic history, with older mines known to leak, as well as often leaving the areas in which they are developed uninhabitable. In fact, we know that older mines have resulted in major contaminations for over 40 years.

The Hillgrove mine on the Southern Tablelands serves as a concerning example. In 2009, a spill of up to 3,000 litres into a nearby creek contained high levels of antimony, arsenic and lead. The company was fined $50,000 by the Land and Environment Court. But of course this cannot undo the environmental damage. Then, as recently as 2011, a sediment erosion control dam at another antimony mine near Hillgrove overflowed, releasing arsenic, copper and zinc into the Macleay River which will be detectable for millennia.

Anchor Resources have already recorded elevated levels of antimony, 126 times the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council's guidelines for drinking water, in the waterways near their exploration lease. It is evident that the risk of pollution from antimony mining is very real, and, not surprisingly, local communities are deeply concerned about this. The mine is on the Dorrigo Plateau, a location combining steep terrains with high rainfall—sometimes, as high as three metres per year. As my colleague in the New South Wales Parliament John Kaye has pointed out, this makes containing any run-off very difficult. It is not a good combination for mining such a poisonous substance. Further still, it is within the Nymboida River catchment which is where the rivers feed into the 30,000 megalitre Shannon Creek Dam rise. This catchment provides drinking and potable water for more than 100,000 residents between Coffs Harbour and Clarence Valley. As we see with coal seam gas and long-wall coalmining, the threat to water is clearly evident. At a time when we are facing the prospect of increasing weather events from climate change, actions that jeopardise our water supplies are downright criminal. Carol Vernon, the Greens deputy convenor, a local resident in this area and a former candidate for the seat of Cowper, has raised her concerns about the antimony mine. The rainforests in the region are part of the World Heritage listed Gondwana Rainforests of Australia—one of New South Wales's answers to the gorgeous forests of Tasmania. It is home to a range of four rainforest varieties. One of the unique aspects of the Australian landscape is the variation, and here you can see a variety of ecosystems within quite close range. The Dorrigo Plateau really is unique.

Not surprisingly, these forests are rich habitat for vulnerable species, including red-legged pademelons, spotted-tailed quolls, powerful owls, wompoo fruit doves and sphagnum frogs. Dorrigo Environment Watch have located both the giant barred frog and the stuttering frog near drilling sites. They have had their data validated and have called on the New South Wales government to submit a notice of action to the Australian government to enact the EPBC. Unfortunately, I would hazard a guess that, if the federal government's response is anything like it has been to Tasmania's World Heritage listing, this area is in trouble.

I have noted that the federal member for Cowper, Mr Luke Hartsuyker, has called the standard battle cry for the mining industry: 'It'll create jobs.' Yet Mr Hartsuyker ignores the very real risk that the mine would pose to the industries which are already prominent in the regions, industries that support many more jobs than the mining sector would potentially create in this area. It is home to Australia's southernmost cane fields and to tourism and is a rich area for prawn fishing. These are diverse industries which underpin the local economy. Should they be affected by mining, the consequences would be dire.

Of course, the company have moved to reassure residents, listing all of the processes which they will have to go through, feasibility and regulation, but we know that most companies see these as box-ticking exercises and indeed try to assert a right to mine once they have put in the forms. A recent article on the topic in The Conversation points out that they know only too well the risks involved.

China is the world's largest supplier of antimony, about 75 per cent in 2011. In 2009, an accident at a Chinese antimony mine owned by Hsikwangshan Twinkling Star Co. Ltd, then the world's biggest producer of antimony, led to 26 deaths. The company followed by closing down their antimony mines, sending the price skyrocketing.

The evidence is clear: mining antimony is dangerous. It is dangerous to the local environment, to the local economy, to water supplies and to its workers. The intention to mine antimony at Wild Cattle Creek is all about money. There is no doubt that communities will continue to campaign to prevent the mine from going ahead. I would like to commend the work of Dorrigo Environment Watch, and my colleagues John Kaye and Mark Graham, who are following the developments in the region and working to raise awareness and ensure that the antimony mine being proposed does not go ahead.

A similar campaign is underway on the other side of the world, in Chile, where Patagonia Sin Represas are also working for their communities to try to stop a number of damaging developments that also threaten their water resources, their communities and the diversity of their economy. The broader region of Patagonia, in the far south of South America, is not an official territory. It is actually shared by Argentina and Chile. Most Australians would probably think of it as a place of adventure, somewhat remote. It is the dream getaway for those looking for hiking adventures in a pristine environment surrounded by glaciers and lakes. The area has a thriving tourist industry of about 300,000 visitors each year.

Unfortunately, this industry and Patagonia's natural environment are under serious threat from a multitude of proposed dams from multinational companies seeking to fundamentally and permanently alter the landscape for their profit. The HidroAysen project proposes to build five dams, flooding about 6,000 hectares of land on two fast-flowing rivers that run into the Pacific, two on the river Baker and three on the river Pascua. Because of sustained community opposition, the project has already been delayed for four years and is now under review by the Chilean government. But this is only one of many projects to threaten the area.

Another, the Rio Cuervo project, is somewhat closer to home. That is because this project is part owned by the Australian company Origin Energy, which recently bought the hydro-electricity development company Energia Austral, inheriting a share in the project, along with Glencore Xstrata, which controversially pushed through the Anvil Hill coalmine in the Hunter region. That became such an embarrassment for them that they chose to change its name to Moolarben.

The Rio Cuervo project will flood 13,166 hectares, building three dams—the first on the Cuervo River, with two more on the Blanco and Condor rivers. The reservoir will destroy the Yulton and Meullin lakes as well as several other lagoons and their unique ecological characteristics. The Yulton lake is clear water, possibly the largest in Chile that has not had species introduced. There are over 40 conservation species in the project area. One is the huillin, a southern river otter that is already listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered because of accelerating habitat destruction and degradation. The IUCN states that the particular populations in Chile's fjords and islands are likely to reduce by 50 per cent over the next 30 years. Origin Energy needs to explain to its shareholders and the people of Chile and Australia whether it has considered the impact that the Rio Cuervo project might have on this.

Despite popular ideas about hydro-electricity, it is not sustainable. It diverts water from natural streams, changing its flows and affecting all of the ecosystems that live off them. As the water from this project is taken from the Cuervo River to be used in turbines, by the time it is returned to the river 14 kilometres downstream it will lose about 98 per cent of its water flow, impacting the adjoining Aysen Fjord. This is likely to impact on the local fishing industry, another major industry in the region which is under threat, and clearly could result in job losses. The power from the plant will require 1,700 kilometres of transmission lines from the Aysen region to Santiago, the capital of Chile. One thousand kilometres of this will be above ground, requiring a corridor that will be cut through the region and permanently damage the local environment.

One of the things about these beautiful mountainous regions is that they are often near fault lines. The area of Puerto Aysen is no exception. It is an active fault line which was at the epicentre of a major 6.1 magnitude earthquake in 2007. There is potential, then, for the movement of large quantities of water to impact on this, as well as for seismic activity to impact on any power stations built in the region.

As with many such projects in Australia, it is an understatement to say that the community in Chile is deeply concerned about this issue. There have been protests of up to 40,000 people, and they have not been confined to the region of Aysen. People all over Chile are actively opposing these projects. There have been street protests and many other actions and interactions with the government, sending a clear message of opposition.

It is true that Chile has an oil shortage and is reliant on imports. As we have also seen in Australia, the companies play on this, creating their own public relations campaign, showing television ads where the lights suddenly go out. The reality is, though, that the damaging proposals currently being presented are not as necessary as the companies make out. There are alternatives.

Hydraulic experts in the region have noted that a run-off river hydropower design could produce around 85 per cent of the power of the proposed project without the dramatic impacts that would result from the Rio Ceurvo project. If only the companies were willing to invest in an ever so slightly smaller project they could provide worldwide environmental leadership. Instead, there is a familiar story: Origin and Glencore Xstrata are sidelining community processes for their own profits.

In terms of democratic process, this project has some serious questions to answer. In May 2012, Chile's Supreme Court revoked the approval of the project because they did not submit all of the required documentation, forcing the company to reapply for their approval. In addition, the allocation of water rights to the company goes against the official national policy, which suggests that water should not be used for productive activities. Water in Chile is privatised, which in essence means Origin and Glencore Xstrata are getting special treatment at a huge cost to the public.

The dam projects and the power station go distinctly against the agreed development strategy that has been negotiated between business, community and government. This strategy states that the key activities in the area should be fisheries, tourism and agriculture. The company did not even address the impacts its project would have on these alternative industries. The citizens of Aysen participated in this development strategy process in good faith only to have multinational companies, including this Australian company, ignore their wishes.

The communities in the region are small. Many live in remote places. The Rio Cuervo project threatens to riddle their land with new roads, powerlines, large infrastructure, and a temporary but very large influx of mostly male workers who will have to be brought in from outside the region. In this regard, the Rio Cuervo project is a terrible mark on the reputation of Australia—depicting us all, once again, in a colonial light.

I remember when Origin Energy first began offering power to Australian homes. They actually had a good reputation as one of the few companies then who would offer proper renewable energy. How they appear to have changed since then, both here and in their business model, which seems to just replicate the multinational push to squeeze communities for their resources to maximise profits at any cost. I am sure that the people of Australia will be empathetic to the plight of those in Chile facing this major fight against corporate giants.

The Greens will be monitoring the situation in Aysen. Together with the fantastic group Patagonia Sin Represas—Patagonia Without Dams—we will continue to make the Australian public aware of the issue. Many Australians would be concerned to see such a pristine and beautiful region under threat from an Australian company. Not only will Origin Energy damage its international reputation if it continues to be involved in this project but its reputation here is also under question. Origin should pull out now. The Rio Cuervo project should not go ahead.

I would like to quote Patricio Segura Ortiz of Patagonia Sin Represas, who asks:

When you look at a mountain full of forests do you see furniture and plywood or do you see a national park? Is a river the vein of our natural resources or is it nothing more than a producer of megawatts?

The executives of Origin, Glencore Xstrata and Anchor Resources have many questions to answer. For all their power, communities from Australia to South America and beyond have put these companies on notice. There are ways to maintain our environmental integrity. It contributes to the economy already. What we need is smart solutions and a diversity of industries to support our economy. Most importantly, we need to sustain ourselves. We need health, we need water, we need clean air and we need biodiversity. And we need a government that will stand up to mining companies and assist citizens to have their concerns listened to and acted on.