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Australia’s mining boom – a dirty business

By Helen Lobato - posted Friday, 13 January 2012


The true story of Australia’s mining boom is not pretty. While miners claim they’ve saved the country from financial crisis, the social and environmental costs are considerable.

In Dirty Money, The true costs of Australia’s mineral boom, author Matthew Bennsreveals how our soils are polluted, our children are made sick and our farmers are left helpless while methane bubbles in their waterways.

Benn’s story of ‘greed, pollution and murder’ is one that every Australian should read. To accuse the mining industry of murder may seem overly dramatic but in the 1990s when the local Congolese community protested the mining of their silver and copper for which they received nothing, the Australian company Anvil Mining retaliated by facilitating the shooting, beating and drowning of more than 100 villagers.

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As for being guilty of greed one need only be familiar with recent Australian politics to know that miners pay very little tax with most  companiespaying as little as 14 percent. Fortescue Metals, owned by Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forresthas not paid corporate tax for seven years and when the federal government threatened the imposition of the Resource Super Profits Tax on the big miners, the billionaire  claimed ‘it was an attempt to nationalise the mining industry’. For every $240,000 worth of iron ore that Fortescue Metals sells it gets about $200,000. Of this the commonwealth receives about $27,000 in taxes and the state around $12,000 in royalties. But the Yindjibarndi, the traditional owners of the land being mined, receive a miserly $136.

Pollution from mining is sadly commonplace. In the gold mines of Senegal landless farmers search for small fragments of gold in the polluted and depleted waterways after Mineral Deposits Limited have looted their homelands. The Australian mining company does not share its considerable wealth with the Senegalese preferring to send its profits to the tax haven of Mauritius. Then there’s the growing pollution that is being caused by coal seam gas exploration. CSG is set to be the next big mining boom; this time it’s taking place in the eastern states of Australia. Drilling down into the coal seams to obtain the gas requires the use of  toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene. It is our national wealth that giant mining corporations are digging up and our farmlands, waterways and society are being changed forever.

Broken Hill became a boom town in the 1800s due to the huge amounts of silver, lead and zinc discovered in the Barrier Ranges. There are predictions that the  mine will soon close and the population could shrink from 30,000 to 18,000 by 2020. And as the boom turns to bust, the other huge problem for Broken Hill is dust which comes from the tailings, which are blown around and cover everything. The dust is full of lead and is negatively affecting babies and young children with studies revealing that blood lead levels of the children in Broken Hill to be 15 to 20 percent higher than those in the Canadian city of Trail, home to the biggest lead smelting industry in the world.

Socially, the mining towns face huge issues with the influx of large numbers of young men many of whom ‘fly-in and fly out’, and who don’t belong to the community and care even less. The workers have been called ‘the cancer of the bush’ often taking home their large salaries untouched. These mining employees who live in dongas on the outskirts of the towns have created a boom in another industry – prostitution. Women fly in from Perth and even New Zealand to cash in on the boom earning up to $4000 a week for servicing up to 15 clients in a shift.

Australia, regarded as a giant quarry began its mining history in 1840 with the discovery of copper in South Australia. In the 1850s the discovery of gold in Bathurst led to gold rushes with the metal subsequently found and mined all over the country.

Today Australia mines large quantities of minerals and resources including iron ore, nickel, copper gold, silver, uranium, coal, zinc, petroleum and gas. Australia’s mining industry is vast and is undertaken in all states. Significant mining areasinclude the Pilbara in Western Australia, the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, the Bowen Basin in Queensland and Latrobe Valley in Victoria. Areas such as  KalgoorlieMount Isa, Mount Morgan, Broken Hill and Coober Pedy are known as mining towns.

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But then it’s all worth it, isn’t it? Take the example of gold. 80 per cent of the gold dug out of the earth is used to produce jewellery or is stored as bullion and the rest is used in mobile phones, dentistry and computers. There is five grams of gold in the average wedding ring.  To produce one gold ring the mining company moves 10 tonnes of rock, the weight of  ten ford falcons and two million times the weight of the ring. It takes ten litres of diesel petrol to dig the rock up and the processing uses two per cent of the annual electricity consumption for the average family and requires a lot of water – 8600 litres per ring. And for each ring a newspaper sized piece of land is destroyed.

So what happens when we run out of resources? At the current rates of mining there are only 30 years of gold and ten years of diamonds remaining. China and India’s need for coal means there are less than 90 years of it left in the ground. At the present rate of extraction it’s likely that Australia will be merely a big empty landscape by the end of this century.

The author of Dirty Money demands that our politicians stand up to the miners  insisting they pay the tax they owe and that the proceeds be kept in an offshore fund for when the boom ends. If this fails to eventuate then in the words of the famous London Sun headline, Benns asks that ‘the last person leaving the country please turn out the lights’.

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This is a review of Dirty Money, The true costs of Australia’s mineral boom, Matthew Benns.



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About the Author

Helen Lobato is an independent health researcher and radio broadcaster with community radio 3cr and at present is a co-producer of Food fight, a weekly program around food security issues. Helen has a background in critical care nursing.

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