Citizens versus mining in Greenbushes, Western Australia

by Jane Cargill

March 1997


Mining operations near the town of Greenbushes are having serious impacts on health and environment. Citizen opposition has been met by intimidation and government inaction.

Greenbushes is 257km south of Perth, in the southwest of Western Australia, directly inland and east of the Margaret River. The nearest major town is Bridgetown. The current population is 400.

The first mining lease in WA was pegged in Greenbushes. Tin was first mined. Now tantalum, spodumene and lithium are the major profit-making minerals. In the "olden days" prospectors fossicked, panned and dug shafts. Nowadays the miners drill, blast and excavate in order to extract the minerals for processing. Contractors work in huge, crater-like pits several hundred feet deep.

In May 1991, Gwalia Consolidated Limited was granted approval to extend a tantalum pit adjacent to the southern boundary of Greenbushes townsite -- hence named "the northern pit extension." A small (900 square metre) plot of land inside the townsite boundary was excised for this purpose. Approval was granted by both the WA Department of Minerals and Energy and the WA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

A formal assessment by the DEP was not considered necessary despite the fact that blasting, drilling and mining operations would be conducted in a pit whose edge was 450 metres from the centre of town and less than 50 metres from Greenbushes Primary School and residences. Mining leases 01/6 and 01/9 were placed over Greenbushes in 1983/84, allowing mining underneath the town. The Mines Act was not followed and owners were not notified.

The Bridgetown-Greenbushes Shire was aware of this northern pit extension plan, but ratepayers and residents were not. About 10 letters were delivered by Gwalia to those residents who were 200m or less from the edge of the tantalum pit in late September 1993, informing them of the northern pit extension and ordering some to "remain indoors" and informing the others that Gwalia would assist them to "evacuate your home" whilst blasting was being conducted and "road guards" would be positioned in streets to block them.

Townspeople "flipped out." Concerned Residents of Greenbushes was formed and several town meetings were held. Fifty to sixty people voted to investigate the possibility of applying for a court injunction on Gwalia to sort out issues before commencement of the northern pit extension.

The next meeting, in November 1993, was stacked by dozens of "out of town" mine workers. A town resident -- a former local shire clerk and Gwalia shareholder -- voted to allow the company access to town land (the 900 square metre plot). Intimidation tactics were adopted to put a stop to further meetings. One man rang me to say that his and others' car tyres had been slashed whilst he was at the November meeting. His wife had since lost her part-time job at Gwalia because, he believed, he was seen speaking with me after the meeting. He said he would be unable to attend any more meetings.

Business owners in town who were seen to be supportive of a court injunction lost custom. Threats of mine closure and loss of jobs are still used today by mine management if anyone protests.

In the years since 1993, numerous houses have been damaged. Windows have been "blown out," ceilings have fallen in, flyrock has been seen and heard to land on roofs and in backyards. Insurance companies do not cover this sort of damage. Thick dust clouds have contaminated rain water tanks. Fume emissions containing nitrous gases and carbon monoxide (from explosives) often shroud Greenbushes in a pungent, blue-white haze. Children and pets are frightened by the vibrations and noise of blasts. Blasting is now six days per week, with one to three blasts each day.

Numerous government officials have visited, inspected and occasionally monitored the blasts in parallel with Gwalia's "self-monitoring." All have said that Gwalia is operating within its licence conditions -- in spite of many breaches -- and that there is not much that can be done.

The state ombudsman's office has had a file open on the Greenbushes issue for years but refuses to investigate. I was told "We can't do anything because the issue is more than six months old." The Mines Department denies that the mining lease and the Mines Act are being breached and refuses to consider any compensation for residents and ratepayers as applicable within the Mines Act.

The DEP has the power to immediately review Gwalia's licence conditions to reduce blast limits but refuses to modify any of them. The air blast overpressure limit is currently set at 120dB, never to exceed a ceiling of 125dB. This has been breached several times and caused serious structural damage. The vibration limit is set at 5mm/second, never to exceed a ceiling of 10mm/second. Neither of these limits is appropriate for blasting operations in close proximity to residences. Atmospheric and geological conditions should be taken into account within licence conditions. The "10%" provision which allows the company the privilege of exceeding limits when conducting consecutive blasts should be deleted.

The Water Corporation and the Rivers and Waters Commission refuse to supply water analyses showing radionuclide levels in the Greenbushes town water supply. (Two years ago, I was refused access through Freedom of Information (FOI) to WA Water Authority documents on radiation levels.)

Recent WA Health Department documents obtained through FOI show National Health & Medical Research Council standards have for several years been breached for gross alpha and beta radiation levels in several groundwater monitoring bores adjacent to dams that have been used to top up Greenbushes and Balingup town water supplies. Lithium, aluminium and manganese levels are also of concern. An alternative town water supply is warranted immediately. The WA Department of Conservation and Land Management has been responsible for attempting to initiate "land swap deals" with Gwalia, for example state government land adjacent to the northern townsite boundary of Greenbushes in exchange for Gwalia's virtually barren, partly revegetated blocks in the middle of state forest. (This move was contested in state parliament. I believe the company acquired freehold title to this land adjacent to the northern boundary.)

I was refused access to the Gwalia share registry for two and a half months. The ASC eventually granted me access in January 1997. I have yet to sight the shareholders listing.

I have done hundreds of hours of research and years of work on all aspects of the problems. Hundreds of documents have been obtained under FOI. Reams of correspondence with scientists and other specialists have been collated. Continual lobbying of politicians in successive governments has produced mountains of paper also!

I have made repeated protests on behalf of residents who are reluctant to be identified because of direct or indirect association with the mine. It is general knowledge that there have been secret contract agreements with several residents, whose names are known, including special structural assessments and guaranteed insurance cover and monthly payments to those inside various "zones." Radiation dust levels are on an "upward trend" according to the Radiological Council. According to the Council, Gwalia has acknowledged that it is aware of the health effects on its workers. The DEP has attributed all these problems to both increased mining activities and "hard rock" mining.

The happenings in Greenbushes raise important issues of private and public accountability as well as health and environmental impacts. A number of journalists have received material and prepared stories but, for some reason, only a few have been actually published or broadcast.

This document is located on the

Suppression of dissent website

in the section on Documents