‘Corporate abuse’ hits Great Artesian Basin

Michael Owen, SA political reporter From: The Australian September 21, 2009

THE Great Artesian Basin — one of the largest underground water reservoirs in the world — is in danger of going the same way as the ailing Murray-Darling Basin because of reckless corporate abuse, aided by political ignorance, says South Australian senator Nick Xenophon.

The independent senator will tell a groundwater conference in Adelaide today that greed will drive companies, such as mining giant BHP Billiton, and governments, such as Mike Rann’s Labor administration, to “outpace research, and we will do to groundwater what we have done to our rivers”.

Senator Xenophon will open the Australian Groundwater School, the nation’s peak groundwater training program, endorsed by the South Australian, West Australian and Queensland governments.

He will highlight BHP Billiton’s proposal to turn Olympic Dam, in far-north South Australia, into the world’s largest open-cut mine as “one of the most outrageous examples of corporate abuse of water resources anywhere”.

“The amount of groundwater this mine currently extracts is staggering. It sucks 37 million litres of water from the Great Artesian Basin every day,” Senator Xenophon will tell the gathering of water management professionals. “BHP Billiton can increase this to 42 million litres a day. And the price BHP Billiton will pay for all this water? Nothing … not a cent.”

The basin lies under one-fifth of the country — under Queensland, NSW, the Northern Territory and South Australia, and is believed to hold about 8700 gigalitres of water.

Scientific experts, such as Nobel Prize-winner and Australian of the Year Peter Doherty, warned last month that South Australia might have to rely on the Great Artesian Basin’s water if the stressed Murray River became unusable.

The impact of BHP Billiton’s operations on the basin is one of the key environmental concerns raised in a Rann government submission published a month ago into the company’s draft environmental impact statement, released in May, of its multi-billion-dollar expansion plan for its copper, gold and uranium mine.

The state government submission says there needs to be further examination of the long-term impact on groundwater, in particular the Great Artesian Basin.

South Australian Premier Mike Rann said he believed the concerns would be addressed by BHP Billiton, as he continued to spruik the long-term economic and social benefits of an expanded Olympic Dam mine.

Senator Xenophon, however, will today call on the Rann government not to allow any expansion of water extraction from the Great Artesian Basin by BHP Billiton, and to have a plan to wind it back.

“There is strong evidence to show our ignorance of water, even a reckless disregard for it in this country, has led to the systematic destruction of our most important river system, the Murray-Darling,” Senator Xenophon will say. “Yet again, the state at the end of the Great Artesian Basin — South Australia — will bear the brunt of this apathy, this neglect, this wilful ignorance by those who hold the policy levers.”

Senator Xenophon will say the NSW government’s controversial auction in July of water from the Great Artesian Basin, and its plan to sell off more licences, “is further proof the states can’t be trusted with groundwater”.

“Just as we need a federal takeover of the Murray-Darling Basin, a national approach is needed over the Great Artesian Basin and our groundwater resources across the board.”

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