A group of native title holders from the McArthur River region in the Northern Territory has won a High Court battle to prevent the expansion of an open cut mine on the Gulf of Carpentaria.
A dispute between three native title holders — Mr Friday, David Harvey and Thomas Simon — and Mount Isa Mines, a subsidiary of Glencore which operates the McArthur River Mine, began in 2013 when the mining giant applied for a mineral lease to construct a new dredge dumping area.
The McArthur River Mine, sitting on one of the world's largest zinc and lead deposits, has long faced fierce opposition from traditional owners over the mine's effects on their native title rights, alleged damage to sacred sites and concerns about degradation to local ecosystems.
Since the mine opened, the lead and zinc deposits have needed to be trucked about 120 kilometres to the Bing Bong port for global export. VTo get deposits onto larger export ships, barge vessels must pass the cargo across a shallow navigation channel, which is regularly dredged.
Mount Isa Mines was applying for more space to contain the dredge material not far from the Bing Bong facility on land it owns, as the Dredge Spoil Emplacement Area, which had a limited capacity, had been filling up.
But the native title owners argued that the new lease would be a future act that would affect their native title rights.
On Wednesday morning the High Court agreed, striking out an earlier Federal Court ruling and ordering the Northern Territory government not to grant the lease.
Before the Federal Court judges the native title holders, represented by lawyers from the Northern Land Council, argued they were entitled to procedural rights under the native title act. They submitted that the construction of a new dredge spoil storage area shouldn't be included under the mining company's "right to mine" in the native title act, but these arguments were rejected.
On appeal, in a 47-page judgement, the High Court concluded that a new dredge dumping area would be constructed on land that is separate to where mining takes place and it would be concerned with the shipment of zinc and lead. The judges agreed the ordinary meaning of mining "does not encompass the transportation of mined ore to customers".
As a result, the activities which would be undertaken at the dumping area would be too "remote" from mining and could not "be regarded as necessary for the meaningful exercise of a right to mine", according to the judges.
Court documents state the capacity of the current dredge spoil area, which has been regularly filled with silts and mud from the channel over 15 years, has been reached.
The documents also say that because it is "essential" for the lead and zinc to be transported to the Bing Bong loading facility a new dredge spoil area is "needed" to continue the operation.
Mark Furlotte, the general manager of Glencore's McArthur River Mine, says he "acknowledges and respects" the High Court's decision.
"McArthur River Mine continues to be engaged in discussions with the traditional owners and with the Northern Land Council (NLC) in relation to the land which is the subject of the decision of the High Court and other matters," he said.
Asked if the government was concerned that operations would stop at McArthur River Mine, as a new dredge dumping area was critical for the export of deposits, NT Minister for Mining, Mark Monaghan said the government would be working through new options. "The Territory Government acknowledges and respects the decision of the High Court in relation to the McArthur River Mine and the Bing Bong loading facility," he said.
"Glencore will not need to cease its operations at McArthur River Mine, however the Territory Government will continue to work with Glencore and Native Title holders to ensure the best outcome for all parties in regards to the land which is subject to the decisions of the High Court."