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Cabinet resumes debate on BHP mine at Coronation Hill, Kakadu National Park; Graham Richardson is considering other mine sites in the area

PETER THOMPSON: Federal Cabinet resumes debate today on the future of BHP's proposed mine in Kakadu National Park. The Prime Minister's Department has been working on a submission to Cabinet; the Attorney-General's Department has offered an opinion saying a decision should be delayed, while an Aboriginal sacred sites claim is considered; and now the Environment Minister, Graham Richardson, has called for more studies. Senator Richardson wants more information on the impact of possible mining at two other sites near Coronation Hill. BHP also wants to develop mines at El Shirana and Rock Hole. The three sites are near the South Alligator River and it is feared a chemical or tailing spill could affect the ecology of the entire Kakadu region.

On Monday's AM, the chief of BHP Gold, said his company was prepared to wait while the Government made up its mind. It may be a long wait, at least until after the next election.

Last night, Senator Richardson told Stephen Crittenden that further studies would take at least three months.

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: You are reported as being in favour of mining, with some reservations. Is that the case? And what are the reservations?

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Well, what's on the public record is that I have advised that, in my view, Coronation Hill ought not to be approved until we see how many mines are going to be permitted along the banks of the South Alligator River and, of course, Coronation Hill would be the site of processing for all of those mines. So that's the advice that I've given. It is then, of course, up to Cabinet to accept or reject that advice, along with some submissions that have been put in by other Ministers like Stewart West and Peter Cook.

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: The matter's been deferred from Cabinet a number of times now. Surely BHP must be getting fairly impatient with the Government?

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: I don't know that it's been deferred a number of times. We debated it last week for several hours - we hadn't finished. Cabinet, today, didn't meet at all and it will meet tomorrow, so it will be debated tomorrow. I don't think ....

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: Are you, in fact, hoping it will be deferred again until after a future election?

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: No. I think the matter's got to be dealt with by the Cabinet, and my understanding is that it will happen tomorrow.

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: So you'll be seeking a decision, yes or no, rather than a deferral?

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: I don't seek a decision, I just put my case, and I've already outlined to you what the case is. It is up to Cabinet what it wants to do.

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: If the decision goes against BHP, will compensation be payable, given they've got a mining lease?

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: I won't be commenting on what Cabinet may or may not do. I've commented on my advice because that is a matter of public record, but I don't believe it is appropriate to comment any further.

STEPHEN CRITTENDEN: Do you think the green vote will only be appeased by a `no' decision from Cabinet?

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: I'm not looking upon this issue as a green vote issue. There's an important conservation issue and it is the one that I've argued.

PETER THOMPSON: The Environment Minister, Graham Richardson, in Sydney last night.