SA Parliamentary Inquiry Into The Tailings System Leakage

On February 14, 1994, WMC reported that up to 5 million cubic metres of liquid had leaked from it's Tailings Retention System (TRS) at Olympic Dam. According to WMC the leak had been happening for at least 2 years but only became fully understood in January 1994. It has since become apparent that the leak occurred over several years and there are no plans to clean up the toxic radioactive material which leaked from the tailings retention system.

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WMC was not financially penalised for it's failure to prevent escape of the contaminated water.

Due to the immense public outrage that such a breach of public trust could happen, a major parliamentary inquiry was setup to investigate the cause of the problem, possible solutions, and comment on 'the desirability of the Department of Mines and Energy having prime responsibility for environmental matters in relation to mining operations'.

Overall Conclusions

  • credit for calling attention to the leak was due to Dr Phil Crouch of the SA Health Commission.
  • WMC and the Dept. of Mines & Energy and the Dept. of Environment were reluctant to acknowledge that there was a leak. Acknowledgement eventually occurred in May 1993.
  • By August 1993 an initial estimate had been made of the magnitude of the leak.
  • Government departments and WMC discussed the drafting of a press release in November 1993.

In view of the above, the Minister for Mines & Energy, Mr Blevins, should have known about the seriousness of the problem at Olympic Dam before the State elections in December 1993. The fact that a public announcement was not made until February 1994 is a damning indictment of the Labour and Liberal governments and of the Dept. of Mines & Energy.

The inquiry into the leak at Olympic Dam clearly shows that even experienced mining companies like WMC still cannot properly manage their dangerous wastes.

The leak at Olympic Dam was not an isolated event. According to WMC's Annual Environmental Progress Reports (1994-95 and 1996) there were at least two other cases of leaks at WMC operations in Western Australia, and negligent mismanagement of their Yeelirrie trial uranium mine :

  • Groundwater monitoring at the Baldivis nickel residue storage facility indicated that ammonium sulphate has leaked into the groundwater adjacent to Lake Cooloongup.
  • At the St. Ives gold mine at Kambalda, water from a TSF is seeping into the local aquifer causing a rise in the groundwater.
  • The Yeelirrie trial mine, abandoned in 1983 when the ALP Three Mines Policy was introduced, had been left without adequate fencing and signs for more than 10 years. Drums of uranium were left exposed, used for road building and the open pit dam, with high levels of radiation and salts, open to the public for swimming (see the Yeelirrie page for more info).

There was no substantive, quantifiable, accountable response of the SA Government to the failure of the Tailings Retention System (TRS) at Olympic Dam.

In the "bad old days" many embarrassing pollutants were disposed of by tanks and dams that "leaked". The cases of Roxby, Baldivis and St Ives suggest that we have progressed from leakage to seepage, but the result is much the same.

More regulatory power may be given to the EPA and the Health Commission but the recommendations from the leakage inquiry call for too little too late.

Principal Findings and Recommendations of Note

Below are excerpts from the Nineteenth report of the Environment, Resources and Development Committee of the Parliament of South Australia, released April 24, 1996, titled "Roxby Downs Water Leakage".


page 49 :
The Committee finds that the final design of the Olympic Dam tailings retention system was deficient in that there was only one storage area and no decant of tailings liquor was provided.

The Committee also finds that the decision remove the coarse fraction from the tailings exacerbated these design deficiencies and made management of the system more difficult.

page 49 :
The Committee agrees that the concept of unlined evaporation ponds was a deficiency in the final design of the Olympic Dam tailings retention system.

Comment :
This, the first major finding of the committee, sets an unfortunate precedent - it got it's terminology wrong, and thereby set the stage for confusion, a result which can be attributed to WMC.

The above statement was actually referring to Tailings Storage Facility (TSF), which is only one element of the Tailings Retention System (TRS), the other elements include the Mine Water Evaporation Pond (MWEP) and Wash Water Evaporation Ponds (EP). The confusion can be traced to the WMC submissions and WMC literature which defines the TSF as being "Holding areas for tailings, sometimes referred to as a Tailings Retention System".

What the finding refers to is that by not dividing the TSF into a number of cells so that the tailings could be rotated from one to another, and by not having a mechanism for drawing off excess liquid into a sealed evaporation pond, the tailings could not dry out sufficiently to provide a seal to the otherwise unsealed TSF.

The above finding amounts to a condemnation not only of WMC and the SA Department of Mines & Energy, which approved of the changes, but of the environmental impact assessment process. After going through the motions of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), receiving submissions, and modifying it's proposal, the operators were allowed to radically modify the design of the TSF, without public consultation, subject to the approval of the Department of Mines & Energy in consultation with the Health Commission and the Department of Environment & Planning.

page 54 :
While being satisfied that the approvals process was handled conscientiously and competently by the agencies involved.......the Committee is concerned that potentially valuable public comment or comment by disinterested experts was not available to the then joint venturers.

Such comment may conceivably have alerted agencies or the joint venturers to the deficiencies in design.......and may also have helped to reduce some of the problems experienced with operation of the system.

Comment :
Thus the committee acknowledges this deficiency in the approvals process. It then goes on to recommend the following :

page 132 :
Recommendation 13
The Committee recommends that the Minister for Mines and Energy reviews any statutory and practical impediments to the free flow of information about the environmental impact of Olympic Dam operations with a view to ensuring that all relevant information is freely available to interested members of the public.

Comment :
Indeed Recommendation 14 (below) states the need for more public scrutiny, but even here it is only for "information exchange" and not measures designed to improve assessment of environmental performance at Olympic Dam.

As long as the Dept. of Mines & Energy (now Mines & Energy South Australia, "MESA") maintains the environmental regulator of the mine it has a clear and unequivocal conflict of interest. It is both the promoter and regulator of mining - two very opposing roles.

This is contrary to the widely accepted practice of keeping industry and regulators at arms length as far as possible.

Not only was the TSF radically modified but the modifications were such that they were clearly contrary to the design concept which formed the basis of the original proposal and it should have been apparent to the most junior mining engineer that the redesigned TSF would leak profusely. Both the joint venturers and the Dept. of Mines & Energy were clearly at fault in permitting such a TSF to be built.

The fact that it was not the Dept. of Mines & Energy which raised the alarm, but Dr Crouch of the Health Commission, and the absence of any attempt until then, to carry out a mass balance is an indictment of the Dept. of Mines & Energy.

Despite clear evidence that the Dept. of Mines & Energy is not the appropriate department to monitor environmental issues the committee made the following two recommendations :

page 55 :
Recommendation 4
The Committee recommends that requests for approval for future developments at Olympic Dam beyond those considered in the course of the recent public Environmental Review should be made in a similarly public manner.

Recommendation 5
The Committee recommends that, as with the recent Olympic Dam Environmental Review, future reviews should be carried out in accordance with guidelines issued by the Minister for Mines and Energy which should be developed by the Minister following consultation with relevant agencies.

Comment :
Environmental Reviews and regulations should be set by the Environment Protection Authority in consultation with community, environmental and interested groups, not by an agency with a mission to promote mining. As pointed out above, this is a clear conflict of interest.

The Dept. of Environment and Planning was presumably considered to be either incompetent or too radical to be trusted with environmental management. The Committee, however, seems to recognise the potential conflict of interest with Recommendation 15 :

page 136 :
Recommendation 15
The Committee recommends that the Minister for Mines and Energy and the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources consult with the Olympic Dam operators and relevant government agencies with a view to establishing a system of periodic, independent, external, environmental audit arrangements in relation to Olympic Dam operations.

Comment :
The Roxby Indenture Act prevents such a process and until the Act is revoked entirely there can be no truly independent, external environmental assessment of the impacts of Olympic Dam.

page 63 :
The Committee finds that there were deficiencies in the monitoring and reporting systems in place at Olympic Dam....

Comment :
This finding is an understatement. The inadequacy of the monitoring and it's regulation were pitiful. Despite constant problems with surface water entering boreholes, as late as November 1992, the operators had still not secured all bore holes against contamination by surface waters.

page 73 :
The Committee finds that the Olympic Dam tailings retention system did not receive the degree of informed supervision of its various components it required to operate efficiently as designed and that this inadequate supervision by the operators of the tailings retention system, particularly the system as extended in 1991, contributed to the massive leakage from it.

Comment :
This understatement stops short of accusing the operators of negligence.

page 87 :
The Committee finds that, although admitting difficulties of interpretation, the operators were reluctant to accept that a leakage from the tailings retention system was occurring, despite mounting evidence to that effect.

Comment :
One disturbing aspect of this denial was the claim by WMC that a localized leak was not a breach of the restricted release zone (RRZ) because the zone extends underground indefinitely! WMC argued that as no lower boundary had been defined, and the leakage went straight down, there was no breach of the zone, and in any event the leakage would be returned to the mine.

WMC also tried to deny the deficiencies in the design and operation of the TSF :

page 87 :
The Committee finds that, confident of the benign impact of any seepage, the operators were reluctant to admit deficiencies in the design and difficulties with the operation of the tailings retention system which were contributing to the leakage from it and that this reluctance coloured their reporting of operations at Olympic Dam and delayed measures necessary to understand the leakage and reduce its impact.

Comment :
This recommendation refers to the fact that the operators relied on laboratory studies to support their contention that any leakage would be blocked by the underlying limestone. This ignores defects in the limestone structure and advice from mining consultants.

page 87 :
The Committee finds that it was only when the leakage was too big to ignore or to explain away and only in response to hard prompting from regulatory agencies that ad hoc operational changes were converted into radical remedial action to alter the original defective design concept.

Comment :
When this "radical remedial action" was finally taken, the agency which did the prompting was not, as one might have expected, the Dept. of Environment or the Dept. of Mines & Energy, but the Health Commission, especially Dr Phil Crouch. The Dept. of Mines & Energy was as reluctant as the operators to accept the obvious. Basic measures like doing a mass balance, ie., comparing the liquid put into the TRS with the amount lost by evaporation, were not even attempted until mid-1993.

The report then goes on to make a few more findings and proceeds to a gigantic leap of faith concerning the harmful effects :

page 87 :
The Committee finds that the monitoring systems designed in part to detect leakage from the Olympic Dam tailings retention system were defective....

page 95 :
The Committee finds that the leakage is not attributable to any single cause and that, although it does not come from any single source, the minewater evaporation pond has made a significant contribution to the amount of leaked liquid.

page 108 :
The Committee finds that, on the basis of current evidence, there have been no harmful effects to employees, the local community or the environment arising out of the leakage from the tailings retention system at Olympic Dam and that it is highly unlikely that any such harmful effects will emerge in the future.

Comment :
Despite recognising a "lack of knowledge about what has happened to the leaked liquor under Olympic Dam" and that "more scientific studies are obviously necessary", the report confidently asserts that there has been no harmful effects to date and any such effects are "highly unlikely" to emerge in the future.

Such polarized findings can hardly be an oversight. Bearing in mind that the mine is expected to have a life of more than 100 years and that many of the radioactive contaminants in the ground under the TRS will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years, it is very hard to see where the Committee finds it's confidence.

page 123 :
As in its Sellicks Hill Quarry Cave report, having looked at some of the mistakes of the past, the Committee is anxious to look positively to the future and to make recommendations which will prevent their reoccurence and increase public confidence in the operations.

Comment :
Thus it becomes clear that the Committee is not intending to seriously question Olympic Dam's competence in properly managing it's own operations, the Inquiry is merely an exercise in public relations.

page 126 :
Recommendation 11
The Committee recommends that the operators be encouraged to continue their commitment to improving their environmental management of Olympic Dam operations and that government agencies commit themselves to establishing environmental goals and overseeing their attainment while leaving the prime responsibility for day to day environmental management to the operators.

Comment :
In one sentence the Committee is openly critical of the recalcitrant behaviour which Olympic Dam displayed in their concern over the seepage, that the tailings retention system did not get the degree of professional supervision such a system unequivocally demands, and yet they are still allowed responsibility for their own environmental management despite proven gross incompetence ? This is clearly unacceptable.

page 131 :
However, with the company, the Committee sees considerable benefits in the Olympic Dam operations being more 'open to public scrutiny'.

Comment :
The Roxby Indenture Act provides a secure channel between the company and the government in order to fast-track approvals and permits and thereby avoid rigorous public scrutiny. If "being more open to public scrutiny" is going to achieve anything, it would have to involve the removal of the Roxby Indenture Act. So far this is not being considered at all.

page 132 :
Recommendation 14
The Committee recommends that the Minister for Mines and Energy consult with the Olympic Dam operators, other relevant state and Commonwealth agencies and other interested bodies with a view to providing a forum for information exchange and policy consultation among groups on the effect of operations at Olympic Dam on the environment.

Comment :
The Federal Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, has released a press statement saying that such a forum is currently being planned. As noted above, the recommendation is for "information exchange" and not a two way dialogue as it is being marketed as. It remains to be seen that even if such a form were established whether it would be anything more than a sleek public relations campaign.

page 136 :
The Committee finds that although there is a separate, fully professional environment group within the Department of Mines and Energy committed to a high standard of environmental management, this does not overcome the public's perceived lack of objectivity of the regulatory process currently in place in relation to the Olympic Dam operations.

Comment :
Until the Roxby Indenture Act is revoked there is no "perceived" lack of objectivity on behalf of the public at all - environmental regulation of a large mining operation by a body with a mission to promote mining is a clear and unequivocal conflict of interest.

Information from the "Environment, Resources and Development Committee - Roxby Downs Water Leakage", Parliament of South Australia (April, 1996) and the "The Tailings Leak at Roxby Downs" Briefing Paper - Nuclear Information Centre, Adelaide.