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Australian court okays MMG’s Tasmania tailings dam study to proceed

In what has been labelled a ‘pro-mining judgement against the environment’ by a non-governmental organization, Chinese-owned base metals producer MMG Inc. (HK: 1208) has won the right to continue preliminary works for a controversial mine tailings dam inside the takayna/Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania’s west.

In a statement released on May 2, the Hong Kong-listed and Melbourne-headquartered miner welcomed the Federal Court of Australia’s decision to allow its Rosebery subsidiary to push forward with an assessment of the tailings storage facility (TSF) at South Marionoak. The facility is required to keep the mine operating past the tailing facility’s safe design limits, expected to be reached by 2024.

MMG has been reviewing several possible sites since 2008 and has done extensive work on maximizing current facilities and other options available.

After seeking expert advice, conducting risk assessments and progressing the options deemed to offer the most balanced solution in terms of social and environmental impact, MMG decided on the South Marionoak site.

However, the site stoked the ire of NGO The Bob Brown Foundation (BBF), which argued MMG’s work would cause “irreversible damage” to the habitat of the rare Tasmanian masked owl.

But the move was dismissed by Justice Mark Moshinsky, which said an injunction restricting the company from undertaking the proposed action altogether “appears to go too far.”

In January, the federal Environment Department found design and assessment work from MMG did not require approval under the Commonwealth’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).

The company had to include measures to protect various species, including wedge-tailed eagles and Tasmanian devils, but not the masked owl.

In his decision, Justice Moshinsky said it was unnecessary to impose an injunction because MMG had now given an undertaking to protect the masked owl.

“Had MMG not offered to give the undertaking, I would have considered it appropriate to make an order restraining MMG,” he said.

MMG has agreed to apply a 15-metre exclusion zone to trees suitable for masked owl nesting, with the trees to be marked with tape and their GPS coordinates recorded.

In its May 2 statement, MMG accused the foundation of attempting to halt activity required for the Commonwealth Government to assess the project under the EPBC Act. “It is disappointing that the BBF continues to try to stop this project from even being assessed,” said MMG Rosebery GM Steve Scott.

“It is important to remember there is still a rigorous process to be followed before any facility can be built, including many opportunities for the public to have its say,” he said in a statement.

Preliminary works for the tailings facility include flora and fauna surveys and geotechnical investigations to determine the feasibility of constructing a TSF at the site.

Habitat in trouble

However, the BBF remains defiant. “This finding reminds us that the EPBC Act is a farce. If a Masked Owl is not safe from this proposal in takayna/Tarkine, and it is not, then it is not safe anywhere,” campaign manager Jenny Weber said in a statement.

“We are now left with the protest option to continue to hold MMG out of takayna’s forests and Tasmanian Masked Owl habitat at an inconvenience to hundreds of citizens who will take a stand for this ancient pocket of takayna.”

While an appeal against the Commonwealth approvals will not be heard until July 19, the May 2 judgement dealt with an application from the BBF for an injunction to prevent the Chinese state-owned miner from pushing ahead with roading, clearing and drilling for its proposed toxic, acid-producing heavy metals tailings dam.

The BBF believes that if it fails to stop MMG, the miner will level 285 hectares of rainforest and melaleuca forest to flood it with 25 million cubic metres of toxic, acid-producing heavy metals tailings.

According to MMG, the Rosebery operation is about 300 kilometres north-west of Hobart and 125 kilometres south of Burnie. Rosebery is 100% owned by MMG and has been operating continually for over 85 years, starting in 1936.

In 2021, the Rosebury operation produced 1,613 tonnes of payable copper, 59,562 tonnes of zinc, 24,820 tonnes of lead, 37,537 oz. gold and 2.96 million oz. silver. Rosebery is expected to produce between 55,000 and 65,000 tonnes of zinc in zinc concentrate in 2022.

The mine uses mechanized underground mining methods, followed by crushing, grinding and a flotation processes.

Peru woes

MMG is embroiled in controversy elsewhere, with locals blocking the Las Bambas mine in Peru to protest alleged non-compliance with land-purchase obligations. The mine produces about 2% of the world’s mined copper supply.

MMG said on April 29, a 30-day state of emergency in the Challhuahuacho and Coyllurqi districts had been implemented to reinstate public order.

“Regrettably, we are aware that a number of injuries were sustained by police, security personnel and community members. All injured persons are receiving medical treatment, and the company expresses its sympathy for those injured,” it said in a statement.

Bloomberg reports MMG is facing the possibility of a prolonged disruption at the mine after failing to clear the site of all protesters by April 29.

Before production at Las Bambas was suspended, the mine was forecast to produce 300,000 to 320,000 tonnes of copper in concentrate in 2022.

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