Environmentalists are praising the State Government’s decision to include a 500m buffer of protection around Cape York’s Coolibah Springs, but Cape Alumina Limited (CBX) managing director Paul Messenger argues the land is not unique at all. He talks to Brisbane Business News about what he believes is the Government’s disregard for independent scientific research, the concerns of local Indigenous elders and why a $1.2 billion bauxite project is now under review.
If the Wenlock River Basin was included in Wild Rivers Legislation, but with a 200 or 300m buffer zone instead, would your Pisolite Hills bauxite mine still go ahead?
We’re still reviewing the project but can say with some certainty that if they had a 200m buffer zone there would not have been any real impact from the legislation. As for the 300m buffer, that was proposed by the Queensland Department of Environment and there was a high probability we would have proceeded with the project even then. But they have given this arbitrary 500m figure covering every dry gully in the area.
How do you rate the ‘heritage’ status given to the area?
It’s not heritage. Terri Irwin bought a cattle station there with a generous donation from the tax payers of Australia courtesy of John Howard before the 2004 election in a bid to support the environment. It was a political decision at that time, like this is a political decision of the State Government. The area has been cattle grazing land for over 100 years, heavily infested with a feral pig population that are frequently in the environmental waterways, and there were no efforts from the cattle grazers or Mrs Irwin to protect the environment from that, so there’s a double standard there.
What environmental plans did you have planned for management of the area’s ecosystem?
We must always carry out due process with an environmental impact study (EIS), and we’ve spent over $5 million on it. But the Government has used Wild Rivers to subvert due process. I’ve got 40 scientific reports that would comprise the EIS, and they would have been presented in September but there’s a cloud over that now. It would have been several telephone books worth of environmental management planning.
We would have successfully rehabilitated the country, and there are good precedents in other communities and mining operations that this Darwin Stringybark, which is abundant in north Queensland and not unique, would be rehabilitated. The tributary, the small springs and the wild rivers would have been fully protected by management schemes. The type of landscape is abundant in north Queensland, including on Rio Tinto’s leases where they are mining within 100m of these types of springs without any impacts on their features.
With indigenous lawyer Noel Pearson launching a high court challenge over the decision, how do you feel about the level of consultation given to the Aboriginal people about the legislation?
The government has taken away the Aboriginal people in the area’s rights to use their land. Tensions are red hot in Cape York and Mapoon and the traditional land owners are extremely disappointed, because no attempt has been made to identify the traditional owners of the land. If a mining company treats consultation in the same way the government has they wouldn’t get past the first base.
Stephen Robertson (Mining Minister)went to Mapoon and happened to meet traditional owners, because I was meeting with them, so it was fortuitous for him, and they complained that they had not been consulted about Wild Rivers legislation. He said he didn’t have time to talk about it but he would be back in two weeks, but he didn’t do that. They wrote him letters expressing their concerns, and he ignored their letters.
What level of investment has Cape Alumina put into the Pisolite Hills bauxite mine thus far?
We started in April 2004, long before Mrs Irwin knew about the cattle station, long before the government imagined Wild Rivers. We’ve invested $22 million, so there’s now a significant increase in sovereign risk in Queensland. Just after this happened, in the despotic regime of Fiji, (Frank) Bainimarama comes out and said he’s going to start a bauxite mine. Well, that’s interesting.
So what’s your backup plan?
We are continuing to review our Western Cape York tenements and continue reviews of Pisolite Hills itself, and we’re looking at opportunities outside Cape York, outside Queensland and outside Australia.
When you talk about the $1.2 billion in net present value (NPV) terms towards GDP and 1700 jobs that would have been created through the Pisolite Hills mine, where would this have been exactly?
The numbers were from an independent economic impact assessment through a company called Synergies (Economic Consulting), which the State Government uses too, and they found that $600 million would go to north Queensland, while 1300 jobs would be in far north Queensland. We also had a 25 per cent target for local Aboriginal people to be employed in the mines.
You’ve also called on the Queensland Government to once again call for tenders for the development of the Aurukun bauxite deposits in western Cape York. What’s the process there?
The right thing for the Queensland Government to do now is to call for tenders once more. The bauxite deposits in western Cape York are a vital public asset and should be developed in a way that serves the best interests of all Queenslanders. The best way for the Queensland Government to get value for money and maximum return for taxpayers and the Aurukun Aboriginal community is to reactivate the tendering process.
This would be in the best interests of all Queenslanders, and particularly for the Aboriginal people of Aurukun and western Cape York. It is particularly important to call for tenders again if the terms of the original tender are to be changed – that is, if the Government no longer requires the developer of the Aurukun bauxite deposits to build an alumina refinery on Queensland’s east coast.
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