We’re holding an olympic blog series these couple of weeks focussing on gold, silver and copper mining in resource rich countries as well as on gold, silver and copper mining companies.
Following Australia's plethora of bronzes, PWYP Australia's Claire Spoors has blogged on BHP Billiton's copper exploitation at its Olympic dam mine in South Australia.
Australians are in the habit of striking Olympic bronze. As of Tuesday night the swimming team had secured two medals of that hue at the London Games. For the last seven years Australian mining giant BHP Billiton has also been striking Olympic bronze (or copper in the context of this blog) at its Olympic Dam mine in South Australia. In terms of describing the size of resources that both go into and come out of the mine, ‘Olympic’ pretty much covers it. While the mine is famed for being the site of the world’s largest uranium deposit it is also home to the world’s fourth largest copper deposit (as well as the world’s fifth largest gold deposit). And in order to extract the glut of resources beneath the surface the mine uses a lot of water. In fact it is the largest industrial user of underground water in the southern hemisphere, using 35 million litres of water from the Great Artesian Basin every day.
The huge water use is having a deleterious effect on the ecology surrounding the mine including endangered plants and animals that rely on the natural springs – rare sources of water in this arid area of Australia – that are now drying up. While the mine continues to suck up this vital water supply, perhaps more worryingly, it also has a history of leaking water contaminated by radioactive tailings directly back into the water table. Even BHP, which has been granted permission to expand the mine, estimates an expanded mine will see eight million litres of effluent drain from the tailings dam each and every day of the first decade of operation.1
Understandably there has been much public concern about the mine expressed by a wide ranging group of people such as local Aboriginal communities, environmentalists, anti-nuclear activists and mine workers. There is also little faith that the public at large is receiving its fair share of payments for the extraction of the natural resources at Olympic Dam. Paul Cleary who has written widely on the “resource curse” in Australia has stated that the royalties agreement ‘has robbed the state's citizens and all Australians of the opportunity to share in the profits of what will become the world's biggest mine’.
Greater transparency around the revenues flows from BHP to the federal and state governments and traditional owners for access to the resources at Olympic Dam as well as of the site’s environmental and health and safety policies is vital if BHP is serious about building public trust as they commence its expansion. In the meantime I don’t imagine the Australian swimming team will be choosing Olympic Dam as a venue for a future training camp any time soon.
 The Australian, 21 October 2011