The Northern Territories government abandons plans to include the mining industry in new environmental laws

In the scrubby bush near the turnoff to popular waterfalls in Litchfield National Park, a small metal sign is the only clue that something is wrong.

“DO NOT ENTER. The land beyond this point has been declared a restricted use area,” it reads.

The mining industry, with the exception of oil companies, should be exempt from new environmental “chain of custody” laws.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

This vast fenced area, 100 kilometers south of Darwin, was once the site of the Rum Jungle uranium mine, which fueled US and UK nuclear programs during the Cold War.

But nearly 50 years after its closure, Rum Jungle has left a legacy of environmental damage so severe it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to rehabilitate over the next decade.

Rum Jungle is just one of many former disused mines in the Northern Territory, where taxpayers have been forced to pay multi-million dollar bills to limit their toxic consequences.

But some fear they will not be the last of the so-called ‘legacy mines’, after the Northern Territory government abandoned plans to tighten mining company liability laws.

“Rum Jungle is just a signal of what we’re looking for here in the territory, in terms of old mines,” said Kirsty Howey, co-director of the Environment Center NT.

Chain of custody laws promised

In 2021, the Government of the Northern Territories announced that it would introduce “chain of liability” laws to ensure that even if an entity liable for environmental damage became financially insolvent, someone other than the taxpayer – as a parent company or a director – would be required to estimate.

But rather than limit the proposed laws to oil companies – as recommended by a scientific inquiry into hydraulic fracturing – the government said last year that the laws would apply to any activity that could harm the environment, including the mining industry at large.

“This was a watershed event in the history of environmental regulation in the Northern Territory,” said Ms Howey.

A mining site surrounded by trees is seen from above.
The Northern Territory government says it is putting in place “significant” environmental reforms.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

But 12 months later, the government bill shows that the proposed laws will not cover all mining operations and will only apply to oil companies.

“To our surprise… the territorial government reneged on its promise to ensure that all mining activities would be subject to these important ‘chain of custody’ laws,” Ms Howey said.

“It is unacceptable for the mining industry to be given a pass here, while the gas industry needs to ensure that it complies with this legislation.”

A woman wearing glasses sits at a desk, looking at paper and holding a pen.
Kirsty Howey, from the Center for the Environment, says the changes made by the Northern Territories government are a “step backwards”.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

The change in government policy has also drawn ire from the Northern Land Council, which says indigenous landowners have always borne the brunt of mining pollution.

“The NLC urges the Northern Territories Government to reconsider the approach taken in the bill to ensure that environmental chain of custody laws apply to all sectors of industry,” its chief executive said. , Joe Martin-Jard.

“The proposed narrow enforcement of (the) laws…only ensures that the potential for future legacy mine sites remains high.”

Queensland Nickel Refinery at Yabulu
Clive Palmer’s nickel refinery near Townsville inspired similar laws in Queensland.(PA: Andrew Rankin)

Mining industry says adequate laws are already in place

Queensland introduced its own chain of custody laws in 2016 over fears taxpayers would face an estimated $100million cleanup bill if Clive Palmer’s nickel refinery went bankrupt.

Victoria also has laws that allow the transfer of environmental responsibilities to associated entities.

But the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), which represents the mining industry, said such laws are not needed in the Northern Territory because of existing liability measures.

These include the requirement for mining companies to provide the government with bonds covering the estimated cost of rehabilitation.

In total, more than $1.6 billion in securities are currently held for 11 active mines in the territory.

Mining companies must also pay a 1% annual levy on their securities, which is paid into a separate fund to manage legacy mines.

“You have to be very careful in a jurisdiction like the Northern Territory when we’re looking for investment not to have legislation that’s too broad or too cumbersome,” said MCA’s executive director in northern Australia, Cathryn Tilmouth.

“Adding further legislation like chain of custody requirements, on top of what is already required for the heavily regulated mining industry, could cause investors concern.”

An aerial image of the waste rock dump - a large rectangle of water - at the McArthur River mine.
The mining industry says chain of custody laws are not needed in the Northern Territory because of rehabilitation bonds.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

The government proposes a “significant” reform of environmental law

The Northern Territory government said it was committed to implementing all the recommendations of the scientific inquiry into hydraulic fracturing, along with additional environmental reforms.

“The Territory’s Labor Government is delivering the most significant reforms to the Northern Territory’s environmental laws and regulations to ensure our environment is protected for our future generations,” a spokesperson said.

“This includes significant regulatory reform underway in the mining industry.”

Submissions on the bill closed last week.

It is unclear when the government will present the bill to parliament.