Crikey intern Esther Ooi writes: BHP Billiton refuses to back down from its controversial plans to build a desalination plant at Point Lowly, South Australia. The plant forms part of the proposed Olympic Dam mine expansion, but fears are growing over the possible risk of significant environmental damage.

“The fact is, it is just the worst place you could put a desalination plant,” Dr. Andrew Melville-Smith, chairperson of the Save Point Lowly group, told Crikey. He also says there will be severe ecological damage on Point Lowly’s recreational, coastal and living areas.

BHP recently released its Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which examined a range of environmental issues regarding the proposed desalination plant and found Point Lowly to be the most appropriate fit. Furthermore, its proximity to Olympic Dam mine, easy construction of a water pipeline and availability to land and utilities made it the most viable option for the company.

Both the Olympic Dam mine and township of Roxby Downs do not have a long-term sustainable water supply due to its isolated location, and if the mine wishes to expand it will need an alternative water supply, which the new plant would provide.

Olympic Dam is a multi-ore mine and produces copper, uranium, gold and silver. Robert Gottliebsen from Business Spectator reports that BHP has converted Olympic Dam into the most profitable mine in the world, with the worth of the ore estimated at “around $863 billion including $470 billion in copper, $270 billion in uranium, $116 billion in gold and $8 billion in silver.”

“There have been calls for us to find another location, but we’ve remained firmly convinced that from an environmental perspective, we have found the best place on the coast at Point Lowly,” said Dean Dalla Valle, BHP’s Uranium President, in a recent speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia (AMCHAM). He says that independent studies by leading Australian and international experts determined that Point Lowly was the best location.

Melville-Smith disagrees, arguing that Elliston, a town 150km up east of the coast from Port Lincoln, “remains the best option.” He cites the Elliston’s lack of fishing industry as a key reason why it would be suitable because it would have minimal ecological damage. Also, the town’s landscape of high cliffs and valleys would make it a viable option to be powered by wind.

BHP’s latest statement says that the expansion would deliver enormous benefits to the South Australian economy. They project that the Olympic Dam expansion would generate up to 6,000 new jobs during its construction and create a further 4,000 fulltime positions at the open mine. It is also expected to boost South Australian revenue by several billion dollars over the project’s lifetime.

Tom Koutsantonis, SA Minister for Mineral Resource Development, told Crikey that this development would be critical in supporting the prosperity of South Australia through the rapidly expanding mining industry.

However, Melville-Smith argues that the Rann Government’s lack of foresight is being clouded by the short term financial windfall created by the mine. “It’s just the cheapest, nastiest alternative,” said Melville-Smith. “There is no planning for the future of South Australia, if it’s not in Adelaide than it doesn’t count.”

Koutsantonis continually referred to the planned industrial development as Port Bonython instead of Point Lowly. He insisted that the Rann Government had no plans to undertake industrial developments at Point Lowly, adding “I think it is a bit cute for the Save Point Lowly group to be referring to the entire area of Port Bonython as Point Lowly,” he said.

But Melville-Smith says this is another example of the Government’s dirty tactics. He said that what locals refer to as Point Lowly or Point Lowly Peninsula changed names to Port Bonython. “It’s still the same place. Just because it’s on the Port Bonython Peninsula doesn’t mean they can trash Point Lowly. Everyone continues to refer to it as the Point Lowly Peninsula, but we’ve been reduced to a speck on the map.”

In copies of Whyalla News ‘Letters to the Editor’ sent to Crikey by Melville-Smith, it shows locals referring to Port Bonython as the Point Lowly Peninsula. One reader named G. Butt from Whyalla wrote in a letter published on May 17: “Mr. Koutsantonis should check his geography. It is obvious he has not visited the area.” An anonymous contributor added on May 19: “If the minister bothered to visit Whyalla and speak to the locals, he would find that most people would have always referred to the area as Point Lowly. So making a claim that the area will not be industrialised is just trying to play tricks on the locals.”

Arguments over names and geography aside, the debate over economic versus environmental issues in the mining industry isn’t going anywhere.