Olympic Dam expansion on hold while more desalination and port threats persist

Yesterday heralded a rare windfall for the marine life of Upper Spencer Gulf, with a special statement from BHP Billiton’s head honcho, Marius Kloppers. The mining giant has announced that the company will be investigating alternative, lower-cost means to expand and exploit the Olympic Dam mine’s reserves of copper, uranium, gold and silver. As such, the project will sit mothballed, while the company focuses on realising projects which present lower economic risks. What does this mean for Cuttlefish Country? Well, no more 100 gigalitre per year desalination plant, dumping brine into the rip off Point Lowly… at least for the next decade.

The Giant Australian Cuttlefish can't hide from desalination brine

The Giant Australian Cuttlefish can’t hide from desalination brine

The Olympic Dam expansion as proposed was always prohibitively expensive.

In making this announcement, the company appears to have ultimately yielded to pressure from shareholders, who with good reason, are wary of sinking 30 billion dollars into the project over six years, before seeing a single dollar in returns. To say the earthmoving task ahead would be taxing on the Company’s cash reserves is an understatement, even for such a profitable company. BHP Billiton’s first challenge would be to remove 350 metres of waste-rock, simply to expose the paydirt hidden below. A million litres of diesel per day would be burned throughout that time period, as the pit is dug and Waste-rock Mountain is constructed in the desert to the north of Roxby Downs. Other capital works expenses include the construction of power plant and transmission infrastructure, new rail lines, a new airport, a marine landing facility (to bring in heavy equipment) and the famously contentious desalination plant.

BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam Mine Site 2011

BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam Mine Site 2011

While Adelaide’s mainstream media has already decried this news as an economic disaster for South Australia, for Cuttlefish Country, it shines as a beacon-light of hope. The cuttlefish and fish nurseries of Spencer Gulf will escape the looming threat of a new desalination plant, for the time being. As Dr Bronwyn Gillanders and Jochen Kaempf explained in our video interviews with them in 2011, cuttlefish are vulnerable to brine pooling, which could see the concentration of ambient salinity around the eggs of future cuttlefish generations on their reef, adjacent to the outfall. A salinity increase from the region’s typical 40 parts per thousand to 50 parts per thousand would result in total egg mortality for our dear cuttles. The return brine is 78 parts per thousand when it hits the rip off Point Lowly, where mother nature and an engineered diffuser system are relied upon to mix the brine to a safe dilution ration. How well this will work is debatable- but with cuttlefish numbers plummeting in recent years, one thing is certain. A large-scale experiment with desalination brine is one new pressure these amazing animals could do without.

So if Olympic Dam’s expansion as proposed isn’t happening, the cuttlefish are off the hook, right?

Sadly, this is far from the case. The Port Bonython iron ore export facility now has guidelines for an Environmental Impact Statement available from the South Australian Government, and the drafting of the EIS is well underway. The plan is to construct a new jetty, right through the cuttlefish reef, reaching out into a small pocket of deep water, resembling a maritime cul-de-sac. The jetty, like the BHP Billiton desalination plant, is a new pressure the Giant Australian Cuttlefish can live without.

Existing and future iron ore export locations on Spencer Gulf

Existing and future iron ore export locations on Spencer Gulf

Unfortunately, BHP Billiton isn’t the only company looking at Spencer Gulf to supply its future water needs.

It is a common misconception that Port Bonython’s expansion is to serve the interests of BHP Billiton. This is not the case, as the facility is strictly for the export of iron ore- a commodity BHP Billiton are not currently mining in South Australia. Junior mining companies Centrex Metals and Iron Road Limited both have large defined deposits of iron ore awaiting extraction on Eyre Peninsula, and they each want a new port and desalination plant of their own in order to transport their ore as slurry from their mines to sea. Predicted volumes for each of these are 50 gigalitres per year, each half the size of the proposed BHP Billiton plant. These ports and desal plants are proposed for the Western shore of Spencer Gulf. Meanwhile, the Braemar Alliance (a group of junior iron ore miners) are considering exporting their product from Port Pirie, with a desalination plant to be sited on the Eastern shore (50 gigalitres). With other port developments and expansion activities also on the cards (including Lucky Bay and Whyalla’s Arrium wharf) shipping will increase dramatically, and the bathymetry (the topography of the ocean floor) near Port Bonython suggests that future dredging, at least for that project, is likely. Our concern is that the legacy of over 100 years of smelting lead and silver at Port Pirie and fifty years of steel making at Whyalla will be mobilised from the sediment in Upper Spencer Gulf, and will enter the food chain. The churning of Cape and Panamax sized vessels’ propellers, and the crunching and blasting of contruction and dredging activities are all potentially harmful to cephalopods (cuttlefish, squid and octopus) and cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Then, there are the invasive species which will come pouring in via ballast water discharges and hitching free rides from Asia on the hulls of visiting vessels.

So with Olympic Dam’s expansion on hold, will we see these other smaller projects emerge from beneath its shadow? The best we can hope for is a genuine strategic assessment of the needs of these emerging mining companies, with close scrutiny paid to this fragile environment’s capacity to accommodate their needs. After all, the Giant Australian Cuttlefish and fish nurseries of Upper Spencer Gulf are under enough pressure as it is.


Dan Monceaux is a South Australian documentary filmmaker and the director of Cuttlefish Country.

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