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Cyanide Leak at One Australian Gold Mine
Could Block Another

CANBERRA, Australia,  October 26, 2004 (ENS)

Green legislators, environmentalists and indigenous people are concerned that a gold mining company with permission to develop a mine in southern New South Wales has contaminated the waters around another of its gold mines with cyanide.

The developer of the Lake Cowal gold mine, Barrick Gold, is under fire over a gold mine it half-owns in Western Australia, where cyanide contamination has polluted groundwater and boosted salinity.

The Greens have warned that the findings of a Western Australia government review of the Fimiston 1 tailings dump at the Kalgoorlie Super Pit mine, a 50-50 joint venture of Barrick Gold and Newmont, sets an alarming precedent for Lake Cowal.


Greens MP Lee Rhiannon opposes cyanide leach gold mining. (Photo courtesy Office of the MP)
"Recent events in West Australia are an ominous but timely warning for the communities and pristine environment of Lake Cowal," said Greens legislator Lee Rhiannon.

"The release of this report makes it all the more urgent that both Labor and the Coalition support the Greens' bill to outlaw cyanide-based mining, which is now before Parliament. The people of western NSW cannot afford to run the risk of Barrick causing similar spills or contamination in this region," Rhiannon said.

The Western Australia report, released last week, found that a large area around the Kalgoorlie Super Pit's Fimiston 1 tailings dam shows increased salinity, heavy metal contamination, cyanide contamination and elevated cyanide levels in groundwater.

Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit is the largest gold mine in Australia. Located 360 miles (580 kilometers) east of Perth, when fully developed, this open pit mine will be 2.7 miles (4.3 kilometers) long, 0.9 mile (1.4 kilometers) wide and 1,650 feet (500 meters) deep.


Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit is the largest gold mine in Australia. (Photo courtesy Barrick)
Gold mining is big business in Australia. Equity sales from Kalgoorlie were 404,700 ounces of gold in 2003 at total cash costs of A$263 per ounce. For 2004, gold sales at Kalgoorlie are expected to total 440,000 equity ounces at total cash costs of A$305 per ounce, Barrick said.

The government of New South Wales Premier Bob Carr has proposed legislation that will help Barrick Gold establish a mine at Lake Cowal in central-western NSW.

Barrick Gold wants to build an open pit cyanide leach gold mine next to a pristine wetlands area at Lake Cowal, an ecosystem inhabited by tens of thousands of migratory birds that has special significance to the Wiradjuri people of the area.

Situated 47 kilometers northeast of West Wyalong in central New South Wales, Lake Cowal is the state’s largest natural inland lake. The lake is ephemeral but is substantially full for seven out of 10 years.

The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Services says, “Lake Cowal is listed on the National Estate because of the diversity and number of species that inhabit the lake."

Wiradjuri Elder, Neville “Chappy” Williams, has rejected calls from the mayor of West Wyalong for him to work with the mining company, which he says is destroying thousands of years of cultural and natural heritage at Lake Cowal.

“Cyanide is a highly toxic chemical," said Williams. "There are frequent leaks and spills from gold mines around the world. There are no guarantees that cyanide won't leak into the groundwater around Lake Cowal and eventually make its way to the Lachlan River."

“In the early 1990s a train carrying cyanide pellets derailed at Condobolin, putting the town on high alert. Luckily it didn’t rain. If it had rained the pellets would have turned into a lethal gas, putting people and animals in the area at risk of death and injury," Williams said.

"About 6,000 tonnes of cyanide will be transported to Lake Cowal for up to 13 years from Queensland. We still do not know what is being done to assure everyone on the route that there won’t be any cyanide related accidents," he said.

The Wiradjuri have other concerns about the Barrick mine as well - depletion of the aquifer, flooding that would break the tailings dam, and destruction of an ancient sacred site.

"The Cowal gold mine is destroying our ancient sacred site at Lake Cowal," said Williams. "Some of the artefacts there have to be at least as old as the Pyramids of Egypt."

Few Wiradjuri want to work with the mining company, said Williams. "A lot of Wiradjuri people who have worked for the company do not want to return to Lake Cowal because they now know it is against Wiradjuri law to disturb our heritage there," Williams said.


Pelicans on Lake Cowal. The lake is frequented by endangered birds such as the Australasian bittern, Botaurus poiciloptilus, Black-necked stork, Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus, and the Blue-billed duck, Oxyura australis. (Photo courtesy Rainforest Information Centre)
The Lake Cowal mine would cover some 2,650 hectares or 10 square miles. One hundred and twenty-eight million tons of low to medium grade ore would be excavated from an open cut pit one kilometer wide and 325 meters deep on the lake shore and partly within the high water level of Lake Cowal to produce an estimated 2.7 million ounces of gold.

In February, 1999, following the findings of a second Commission of Inquiry, the New South Wales Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning Craig Knowles, signed a consent to the development application for the open-cut cyanide leach gold mine.

But concerns about environmental risks and key flaws in the project's engineering have prevented the mine from going ahead.

The only barrier between the lake and the open pit would be an earth wall or bund. Tailings would be stored in dams 3.5 kilometers from the lake. Water would be supplied from a bore in the Bland Creek Paleochannel borefiled, 20 kilometers east of the mine site and would pump up to 16 megalitres per day.

Now, the development consent for the mine, issued nearly five years ago, is about to lapse.

Under present law, Barrick Gold must apply for consent again, and provide up-to-date information on the environmental impacts and risks of the project. Instead, new legislation proposed by the Carr government would allow Barrick another three years with the same development consent.

Rhiannon said she and the Greens are still working to defeat the Lake Cowal mine. "Barrick's Western Australia problems are just the latest in a string of environmental mishaps around the world caused by cyanide based gold mining. New South Wales should act now before we end up with a disaster in our own backyard."

Copyright © Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.

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