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Jun 15, 2010

Iron ore's raging thirst could consume an entire industry

Mining's thirst for water in the Pilbara is starting to scar one of Western Australia's most pristine national parks. It's a warning sign for a region that relies heavily on groundwater to survive.

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This article has been updated – see below

One of Australia’s most pristine national parks could be under serious threat from Rio Tinto’s Pilbara mining operations.

The Karijini National Park is one of the most spectacular in Western Australia, with gorges, chasms and rockpools and waterfalls fed by groundwater. However, the park abuts a number of major Pilbara mining operations and their thirst for water has been causing growing problems throughout the region for well over a decade.

Now sources inside Rio Tinto have told Crikey the company’s mining operations have breached the water table beneath the national park, potentially contaminating the aquifer.


The revelations come at a sensitive time for Rio. Its subsidiary Hamersley is on the verge of securing approval from the WA government to expand its Marandoo mine — which is physically inside the national park — beneath the aquifer. Marandoo was approved in 1992 on the basis that it only operated above the aquifer.

Following hydrological testing of the aquifers in the region (there are two; the water in the national park is from the shallow one), in 2007 Hamersley began a lengthy process to obtain approval to expand the mine below the level of groundwater in the area. The WA Environmental Protection Authority in April released a report recommending Hamersley be permitted to proceed, subject to conditions. The WA Environment Minister Donna Faragher has yet to make a final decision.

Marandoo, almost in the shadow of Mt Bruce and 35 kilometres north-east of Tom Price, was carved out of Karijini National Park by the Lawrence government in 1991. A specific condition imposed by the then-government was that “there shall be no unacceptable impact on the conservation values of the Karijini National Park resulting from groundwater abstraction associated with the project, particularly the coolibah woodlands to the east of Mt Bruce”.

Mining operations in the region are heavily dependent on groundwater, both for mining use and for town water supplies. The whole region is under permanent water restrictions, and the WA government recently released a 20-year water strategy for the region. The mining boom means even greater stress on water resources already at the limit of supply. There is talk that groundwater supplies are being rapidly used up even as the region spruiks its growth credentials.

The stress caused by reliance on groundwater has been showing in the region for years. WA Greens MLC Robin Chapple told Crikey he tried to alert the then-WA government to the impact of groundwater extraction in the region in 1990s, when the floor of the Southern Fortescue valley, west of Marandoo, had sunk several metres and large, fissure-like sinkholes had started to appear. Sinkholes can occur naturally. However, more recently, the National Park itself has started to witness subsidence and sinkholes.

In 1999, the WA Department of Conservation and Land Management reported that five sinkholes had appeared in the Tom Price Bore Fields on the edge of the park. We ran a tip nearly three years ago that contractors were being dispatched by Hamersley into the park itself to erect fences around new sinkholes. The same tipster recently contacted Crikey to say that, three years on, contractors were regularly being sent into the park to fence off sinkholes up to 50 metres wide and 15 metres deep.

Rio Tinto claims it has “a framework for addressing water related business risk and improving performance, and we focus on ways to minimise the amount of water we remove from the environment”. In 2008 and 2009 it produced sustainable development reports for its iron ore operations the previous year. In neither report was Karijini mentioned other than casually.

Both reports showed rocketing water use in the company’s Pilbara operations, with freshwater per tonne railed increasing by 45% between 2005 and 2008 (to its credit, however, Rio does a far better job than Pilbara rival BHP Billiton of reporting its water usage).

Greens senator Scott Ludlam has written to Rio Tinto’s Sam Walshe asking for a response to the claims about interference with the water table.

The national park might be the short-term victim of the miner’s ever-greater thirst for water in the region, but the whole Pilbara mining industry is under threat from its own unsustainable consumption.

Rio Tinto was asked to respond on these issues but did not do so by deadline.

Update: Rio Tinto spokesman Gervase Green provided a response to Crikey’s question shortly after deadline

The company’s sustainable development reports do not discuss Karijini National Park directly but do show that the company’s iron ore-related consumption of water (even per tonne railed) has increased very significantly since 2005. What plans does the company have to curb this increase?

Water is extracted from licensed borefields across the Pilbara, and feeding into domestic use in the several towns across the area, as well as mining camps and operational use (such as dust suppression) at our mines. Certainly 2008 was a dry year, with increased town consumption and late season rains leading to higher extraction. Apart from that, our consumption per tonne has been quite flat for several years, and is currently at less than 2007/08 levels. Rio Tinto takes its responsibilities seriously and employs water conservation strategies (including maximising recycling) to reduce consumption where possible.

Can the company confirm that Hamersley Iron has sent contractors into the Karijini National Park or to locations close to the Park at various times in the last 3 years to fence off sinkholes – in which case, how often, and has the company undertaken any work to identify the causes of the sinkholes (which can occur naturally as well as as a result of groundwater depletion)?

Not recently, though prior to 2007 we did place some temporary fencing around sinkholes where we felt a safety was a concern – notably if difficult to see while driving. The modest fencing was a precautionary measure, and if near the National Park was done with the full knowledge of appropriate officials.

Have there been any recent events in the company’s Pilbara operations involving contamination or some other interference with either the lower or higher aquifer (I understand there are two) beneath or adjacent to the Karijini National Park?

No. All our borefields are monitored, and the results are followed by the Department of Water (and subject to separate verification). This level of assuredness is important, as the extracted water contributes to town domestic supply.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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31 thoughts on “Iron ore’s raging thirst could consume an entire industry

  1. Mark Duffett

    @Bob the Builder, been there, done that. Are you saying that roads are of no economic benefit to the region? Would Edith Falls access be as good as it is now without the Mt Todd mine being situated half way in? How much of Katherine itself, whose main economic source has often been gold, would exist without mining? Do you expect a big sign a la Julia Gillard saying ‘This piece of infrastructure was brought to you with the help of mining’ on every second road, power pole and house?

    Just because they’re not obvious to you, doesn’t mean the local benefits don’t exist.

  2. Mark Duffett

    @Bob, yes, possibly a tactical error to bring up Mt Todd, though I would still contend that in terms of present-day mining practices, it is the exception that proves the rule. The mining industry is far from the only one to have cowboy operators that give the rest a bad name. Having said that, can you truthfully say that your quality of life is measurably worse as a direct result of the state Mt Todd is in?

    Yes, the roads could have been built anyway, but would they have been?

    As far as the 60 km foot track being “very good access”, that strikes me as more than a little elitist, effectively barring Leliyn to all but a tiny fraction of the population if that were the only egress. With all due respect to the Jawoyn, the reality is that it’s not all about them. And even if it were, I’m not at all sure that on balance they would want Katherine taken off the map, given that the hospital, schools, supermarkets with abundant fresh food, mains electricity and all the other benefits that come with regional centres would disappear as well.

    @Stephen, as for which bit of Nicolino’s post isn’t true, how about “the mining industry as such is vandalism personified”, “very rarely do they restore land”, “Governments trip over themselves to co-operate”, “at our cost” and “the majority of them are foreign owned”, i.e. pretty much all of it. Sure, you’re free to criticise short sighted and inequitable practices, just as I am free to criticise the typically risible hyperbole of Julie Matheson, above. But I’d be much more ready to listen if you can point to some systematic instances instead of blanket exaggeration and, as you say, misrepresentation.

  3. EngineeringReality

    @Reno Tues 6:58pm

    Hear, hear – exactly the issue – all this country is concentrating on is digging holes in the ground – and our massive current account deficit every month shows how stupid it is to sell low value iron ore and buy back the hugely more expensive value added steel in goods manufactured (by someone else).

    To Mark & Dragonista – how can you seriously say that mining companies rehabilitate the land and restore the environment back to the way it was? After blowing up & moving billions of cubic metres of soil, creating huge holes in the ground or tunneling under water courses or water tables, cracking huge ridgelines and other geologic structures and potentially changing the water tables and direction of watercourses how do the companies rehabilitate?

    To do any proper rehabilitation would be to move back the huge amounts of earth – but that would cost billions so all they do is plant a few trees, remove most of the infrastructure and bury most of the worst of the contamination.

    My home town has a sinkhole that opens up every so often in the local Coles carpark – and clifflines all around the town are now fenced off due to frequent landslides and cracking clifflines. The council’s undercliff walk which they spent quite a lot of money developing walkways and lookouts has had to be closed.

    Mining cannot mix with environmentally sensitive land. You can have one but not the other – once an area has been selected for mining it will become a broken, polluted and changed landscape. Its criminal that so many mines have been allowed to be built in and around National Parks – in every state in Australia – from uranium mines in Kakadu to coalmines in national parks in the Blue Mountains in NSW.

  4. Liz45

    @DRAGONISTA@ MARK DUFET – Tell me this, whyare we selling uranium toChina for example, when there’s no method we canuse or certainty, that our uranium isn’t going into China’s weapons program What guarantee is there, that uranium for another source is being used for domestic electrical purposes, and not used for bombs? There isn’t, apart from China saying so!

    Mining companies including the one mentioned here have been causing havoc and disease in every country they’ve been in, why not in the Pilbara? Why not?

    BHP Billiton at its uranium mine at Olympic Dam got its water for nothing – from the SA govt. This was when the people of Adelaide almost ran out. To overcome this, BHP intend building a desalination plant – who knows what damage that will do! This company consistently refuses to even converse with people in the area when they want answers to legitimate concerns. They’ve done it recently in my local area re mining for coal near aquifers?

    Rio Tinto has a reputation for the despicable way it treats both the environment and workers. As for the health of citizens? What a joke!
    BP probably gave all sorts of assurances prior to the latest travesty? The govts here and in other places get a free run to do as they please, and to hell with the people let alone the environment!
    Show me where they’ve left the place as they found it! Big bloody holes in the ground. Polluted rivers and catchment areas, and they don’t give a damn!

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