BHP responds to greens' fears over its $1.1 trillion Olympic Dam deposits

Australia's BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining company, released its response to over 4,000 queries relating to its environmental impact statement (EIS) about the proposed mining of its Olympic Dam copper, uranium and gold deposit, which has resources estimated at $1.1 trillion.

"Our work is done. It's now up to government to either approve or not approve this project," BHP uranium president Dean Dalla Valle said in Adelaide yesterday.
The Olympic Dam mineral deposit in South Australia was discovered in 1975 and mining began in 1988. BHP Billiton acquired the site in 2005 and issued a draft EIS four years later. The supplementary EIS, in response to the 4,000 queries, has now been released.
The Commonwealth, South Australian and Northern Territory governments are expected to respond to the draft EIS with conditions later this year, while the BHP Billiton board will vote whether to proceed with the expansion by March 2012.

Analysts estimate the company will have to invest more than $20 billion in expanding operations at the deposits, which in about a century will emerge as the world's biggest open pit.

BHP plans to ramp up annual mine output from 200,000 tonnes of copper and 4,000 tonnes of uranium at present to 750,000 tonnes and 19,000 tonnes, respectively, in about 10 years. Eventually, it hopes to raise copper production to 1.3 million tonnes a year.
The company, however, is seeking government approval to export copper concentrate containing uranium, gold and silver to China via Darwin, annoying anti-nuclear groups who fear Australia might not be able to control the end use of the uranium.

The South Australian government wants BHP to enhance processing at the site, but the company prefers to focus only on digging minerals, before exporting them.

According to Valle, "ultimately, our aim is to help supply the world's population with the vital resources it needs to power homes, build cities and grow communities. We have addressed the environmental, social, cultural and economic issues raised in those (4,000) submissions and in doing so we have ensured the project will deliver the most advanced and responsible outcomes."

However, environmental and anti-nuclear groups continue to oppose the expansion. "In the same week, the German and Japanese governments have made decisions not to proceed with new nuclear reactors, BHP Billiton has released a mammoth document that completely dodges the question of international responsibility," notes David Noonan, campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). "BHP Billiton hopes to lock in the world's largest uranium project in the shadow of the continuing nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan."

Lawmaker Mark Parnell said the company's latest proposal largely ignored the concerns raised in submissions and would pose major risk to local marine life, groundwater supplies and air quality. "This stuff can only be dug up once," he remarked. "They've got to do it right. Becoming China's quarry is not the way to do it."