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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.


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.



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

  1. nicolino

    The mining industry as such is vandalism personified. Very rarely do they restore land and once they’re milked the ground for all they can get out of it they’re off. Governments trip over themselves to co-operate with these environmental brigands at our cost. What hurts even more is the majority of them are foreign owned and couldn’t give a toss about Australia or Australians. So much for our government looking after our interests. Hurry on the RSPT.

  2. dragonista

    This article would have more credibility if Bernard Keane wasn’t coincidentally running a campaign against the mining companies to help the Government’s ailing RSPT “information” campaign. Mr Keane should be ashamed to call himself a journalist when he shows such little objectivity. His title should be demoted to “columnist”.

    In response to @Nicolino, in most countries (including Australia) it is illegal for mining companies to leave a former mine site without rehabilitating that site first. It is usual practice for mine projects to have the cost of rehabilitation included in their costings from the outset. Some governments require the cost of rehabilitation to be held in bond until the project is complete. If you are going to be blatantly anti-mining @Nicolino, at least do your homework like Mr Keane does.

  3. stephen

    Dragonista, thank you for setting us all straight. People need to understand the mining industry is constantly on the verge of bankruptcy and can be relied upon to always do the right thing enviromentally. I think it’s also fantastic that you have pointed out the fact that to say anything critical of mining in any way, is actually anti-mining. That is a very true and helpful insight .
    Without you wisdom people might try to improve on current not completely satisfactory arrangements instead of shutting up and being grateful . Thank you again.

  4. stephen

    Oh and the mining industry is always interested in improving societies too ,and never ever undertake anything harmful or inequitable. There primary responsibility is to a fair and just world, and definitely not to their insatiable shareholders. To suggest otherwise is and anti-mining.

  5. Lorraine

    Dragonista, how can you talk about credibility, when we have mining companies talking about changing the government just to get their own way, I think it’s disgusting the way they are going on especially the way water is being used and that’s not being paid for.

  6. Mark Duffett

    Rack off with your overwrought sarcasm and straw men, Stephen. What part of Nicolino’s ‘contribution’ was not blatantly anti-mining? As such, Dragonista’s response was completely justified.

  7. David S of P

    No doubt Dragonista and Mark Duffett are not connected in any way with the mining industry and are completed unbiased in their views and opinions. you might not like or appreciate Stephen’s humour but it obviously touched a raw nerve! I’m with @Nicolina, roll on the RSPT

  8. dragonista

    Stephen, while I enjoy your sarcasm, it really has to be based on fact to have any impact. I said nothing about mining companies being on the verge of bankruptcy. And yes, you can rely on them to do the right thing environmentally and socially, because they have learned from their mistakes in the past. Perhaps it would help you and Lorraine to get some first-hand information about modern mining companies rather than depend on Mr Keane’s coloured view.

    As for David S of P – I am not connected in any way with the mining industry. However, I do try to be informed about things before I air my views.

  9. so95678@bigpond.net.au

    If Gov’t and mining companies can be trusted to clean up a mining site, then why Wittenoom been erased from the map?

    I’m the Greens Candidate for the Seat of Durack and I would like to have my Pilbara in the best possible condition for future generations to benefit from, not just one or two recent generations.

  10. bakerboy

    Has The Australian reported this matter? I bet not.

  11. Rena Zurawel

    The only thing that seems to be worth doing in this country is digging holes in the earth. Good for CEOs.
    With a very high quality iron ore we should be able to produce high quality steel and sell it all over the world. We cannot do it because … it does not pay and, apparently, our labour is too costly. Slave labour is most profitable.
    We have already missed the train with South Korea having a different view. (Can we hire some economists/steelplant degree engineers from South Korea?)
    So, we sell iron ore and buy steel.
    Dragonista &co. I would rather ponder on what is good for Australia rather than for foreign nationals. By the same token an Australian businessman in i.e. the Philippines does not give a toss about the country as such.
    Would you accept invitation to Iron Knob in South Australia and see with your own eyes ‘the rehabilitaion process’ there?. The settlement is dead, no jobs, no inhabitants, no water, no electricity; ghost town, empty houses in decay, and a huge crater in the background. I freaked out when I saw this post- mining graveyard..

  12. Bob the builder

    DRAGONISTA and the rest of you mining boosters, come up to the Katherine region and see all the unrehabilitated mine sites. Come and see the tax perks, subsidies, roads and all the rest for yourselves. Come and see the almost total lack of Indigenous people employed. Come and see the economic benefit for the region – that’s the only one you won’t see!

    Whether or not one agrees with mining (and unless one advocates a very different lifestyle and society there must be some allowance for mining) that does not mean one has to have a blanket stance. Just because mining is necessary for our current society does not mean, ipso facto, that anything and everything that mining companies do is acceptable. You just have to look at less democratic countries and the behaviour of mining companies there to see that their good behaviour – as far as it goes – in our country is because of our democracy and critiques from civil society, not because the mining companies are intrinsically well-intentioned.

  13. Venise Alstergren

    The Mining Industries behave like rabid animals because they can. They’re not in the business of environmental care, because there’s no money to be made out of it; all they want is the dollar. And, being in a huge country in a remote part of a remote state, gives them every chance in the world to be their seedy selves.

    I am astonished that the Greens Candidate for the Seat of Durack thinks A) He’s in there with a chance B) So far hasn’t been eliminated. As in meeting with an inconvenient accident-for him. Convenient-for the miners.

    When the population explosion finally reaches the Pilbara there will be enough voices to tell the miners how to behave. Let’s hope the voters don’t have to walk over the Green’s skeleton, in order to do so. 😳 😈

  14. Rena Zurawel

    Would the Mexican Gulf disaster teach us anything?

  15. stephen

    oh Mark, you’re so attractive when you’re abusive

  16. 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.

  17. Mark Duffett

    @Stephen, I don’t know about attractive (there’s a reason why my face is no longer my avatar), but I guess I must be convincing, since you’re apparently incapable of critiquing anything I’ve said.

  18. Julie Matheson, for Durack

    Further information from the locals regarding their concerns for the Marandoo area and the use of underground water.

    In the 1990’s, underground water consumption caused large sink holes (cracks) that had opened up the valley floor in the upper reaches of the southern Fortescue. The effects of mining are far reaching and water is the most precious asset for future generations.

    Imagine the Pilbara as one big cavernous sinkhole that swallowed the mining resources of the area like it did to an entire intersection in Guatemala City if underground water is not a permanent feature of the land?

  19. Bob the builder

    @Mark Duffett
    Are you serious in bringing up Mt. Todd mine? A great example of mining pollution and unrehabilitated land – or not so great if you happen to live around here.
    The economic benefits of roads may or may not be fantastic, but the roads are not built by the miners, they’re built from the public purse – a public purse that receives very little benefit from mining. They could have been built anyway, with little difference in burden on the public purse.
    And the existence of Katherine, as much as I love it, is hardly a reason to justify mining – I’m sure more than a few Jawoyn would be happier without the mining and without Katherine!
    And as regards Leliyn, last time I went there I walked there from Nitmiluk and a 60km foot track was very good access. Once again, I’m sure Jawoyn people would be happier to have one of their favourite spots less infested with staring tourists, so I don’t think the road is a big plus for them. And, as stated, the road could have been built with the same burden on the public purse anyway.

  20. stephen

    Mark, well the simple reason is you hadn’t said anything other than told me to “rack off” and said I was misrepresenting the issue. I notice you have actually said something since but not much. As for Nicilino’s contribution, the question isn’t so much “what part wasn’t blatantly anti-mining”?, but “which bit isn’t true”?
    I stand by my tongue-in-cheek remarks, and I am in no way anti-mining but I am free to criticise short sighted and inequitable practices.

  21. 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.

  22. Bob the builder

    Well, I don’t view this debate as about ‘tactical errors’. Or about being ‘anti-‘ or ‘pro-‘ mining. It’s about discussing whether current mining practices are environmentally damaging and, in the comments at least, about whether mining is economically beneficial to areas being mined.
    If you wish to engage in tactics go for it, I’m content to discuss the substantive issues.

  23. stephen

    Mark, it maybe not be directly in relation to the above article, but I’d say the current campaign by miners against a Rspt tax captures the selfish mind set of the industry and industry in general. The tax is intended for profits above expectations.
    We have mining industry adverts running at the moment saying an RSPT would threaten our way of life. Talk about straw men.
    At the same time a leading miner recently bought his 16 yo daughter a $3m yacht. Fair enough, but on the same day he was crying out against a RSPT my phone rang asking for money for a wheelchair for a kid with muscular dystrophy. The next day it was for the kids cancer ward and so on,etc,etc.
    That’s a systemic issue.

  24. dragonista

    So Stephen, I take it from your comments about the yacht and the wheelchair that now you are railing about the injustices of capitalism, not just mining. Why shouldn’t a CEO who has created value for his or her shareholders be well recompensed for his effort? There was a time during the dot com boom when the mining industry was dismissed as “old economy” and was devalued considerably by the market. But some canny investors and managers stuck with their instincts and optimism about the growth prospects of China and India. And now they have reaped the benefits. Why do you let your envy of others’ well-earned bounty colour your views? Why not focus on the finance sector, who almost destroyed the global economy altogether…..

  25. Bob the builder

    “Well-earned bounty”?!? Bounty, yes, well-earned? Hard job sitting in an office…..

  26. dragonista

    Bob, how would you even know what a mining company CEO does? Most have worked their way up from being geologists and engineers. Most manage business plans and budgets that span many decades and millions of dollars. Stop being so juvenile.

  27. 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.

  28. 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!

  29. Venise Alstergren

    ENGINEERINGREALITY: It would be possible to mix sensitive environmental land care with mining if governments mandated against present mining rapacity which sees companies not shaving costs (BP anyone?) and governments taxing, heavily, mining companies that don’t do worthwhile environmental practises of creating wilderness areas or park-lands.

    An even more startling idea to any government would be to reward companies who do do the right thing.

    In Australia ❓ silly me. I keep forgetting we were settled by a bunch of Northern England shop keepers. Irish pub dwellers and brothel keepers and sundry riff raff.

  30. Venise Alstergren

    Erratum “companies not shaving costs” Should read ‘companies shaving costs’

  31. stephen

    Dragonista, with respect that is a over simplification of my position. I believe in reward for effort and the right of people to profit from their work. I have shares in a publically listed company, free enterprise definitely delivers a lot of benefits.
    However I also believe in taxation and social welfare and enviromental protection. I’d love to think CEO have a 30-50 year plan but that is very evidently not the case.
    It’s quite irritating hearing the mining adverts claiming to be doing us a favour, when without non miners buying the stuff that’s made from what they dig they’d be out of a job. We’re all stakeholders, if not shareholders.

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