No Toxic Waste Dump

The Tellus Chandler Salt Mine proposal is more about toxic waste than salt.

The salt mine is to be located about 20km from the Finke river and is proposed to be 800m underground. It is a huge salt deposit 8 kilometres wide, 200-300 metres thick - about the size of Uluru! The company proposes to mine the salt and backfill the void space with hazardous waste materials.

ALEC has made a submission on the Environmental Impact Statement for the Chandler Salt Mine and Permanent Waste Storage Facility (the Project) and has reviewed the Tellus EIS supplement in response to submissions.

ALEC conducted a public meeting in Alice Springs on the 2nd of November that was attended by around 40 people from Alice Springs, including native title claimants for Maryvale and Henbury stations and members of the community of Titjikala. ALEC has also held a community meeting in Titjikala earlier in the year, letting residents know about the proposal to permanently store toxic waste at the salt mine.

Community members do not feel they have been adequately consulted about hazardous waste storage component of the project, and the implications of its permanent storage. They are concerned about the loss of capacity to practice cultural activities like hunting, and the lack of clarity around the storage of hazardous chemical waste.

The project is currently being assessed by the NT Environmental Protection Authority. The next step is that the NTEPA will make a recommendation to the NT Environment Minister to either approve or not allow the project. ALEC has written to the NT Minister expressing our concerns.

ALEC does not believe the Tellus Chandler Salt Mine project should be approved for the following reasons:

  • There is significant local opposition to the project
  • The Northern Territory regulatory framework relating to waste is not sufficiently robust to be able to manage the complexity and scale of such a large project
  • There is a lack of information on the long term management of the hazardous waste beyond the lifespan of Tellus
  • Contamination legacy risks

About Tellus

Tellus is a young Australian company that does not currently have any operating mines. The company is proposing to build another project similar to the Chandler project in WA.

They do not have experience in this type of waste storage and it has not been tried in Australia on this scale before.

What waste will be stored?

  • Lead and other heavy metals (poisons): from batteries, computer parts, television screens
  • Asbestos, industrial waste, ion scrubber, industrial sludge.
  • Contaminated and poisoned soil, chemicals and poison from factories. Fly ash. Some Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials eg. contaminated soils
  • Waste salty water and chemicals from potential fracking around Australia.

There will be up to 300, 000 tonnes per year of waste and poisons stored, the equivalent of 18,000 bus loads per year. 50 busloads of waste every day of the year!

Risks and problems of waste storage

The waste is proposed to be stored on the surface at a short term facility called Apirnta for a couple of years before it goes underground with risks including flood events, and cracked containers.

Most of the hazardous waste will then be permanently stored in the salt void.

Some wastes may be pumped underground in a liquid form called hydraulic back-filling. If water leaks into the mine at some point in the future, it can leach the poisons into the environment.

The main risk is that the poisons will not be monitored in the long term and they might leak into the environment.

If there is a leak, poisons can move through water into soil and into food and animals.

Many of the poisons that will be stored can cause health issues including cancer, brain and birth problems.

In Germany an old salt mine with nuclear waste stored in it from the 1960’s, collapsed in 2011 when the rock cracked and water started leaking in. 

Work opportunities for Indigenous people

The company says they will only provide less than 20 jobs for Indigenous people, and they do not have to come from Tjitjikala community: this is stated in the Stakeholder Engagement Appendix of the company’s Environmental Impact Statement. 

Claims of misleading consultation

The Titjikala community has reported that they were not made fully aware of the true nature and scope of the proposal. Many were not aware that the company planned to store hazardous waste. They thought it was just a salt mine. 

Native Title areas over the mine areas

The salt mine, accommodation village and haul road is proposed to be built on the Maryvale Native Title Claim.

The short term above ground waste storage facility is proposed to be on the Henbury Native Title Claim. This part of the project is the Arpinta facility and includes a rail siding to receive waste by rail from around Australia.

Tellus, the mining company is in the process of developing Indigenous Land Use Agreements with both the Maryvale and Henbury Native Title claimants to build the mine and associated infrastructure.

The Indigenous Land Use Agreement is a way the Native Title claimants of Maryvale and Henbury can negotiate for conditions of the project that benefit the community and protect country. The Native Title groups can say yes or no to Indigenous Land Use Agreements to access some benefits from the project, but they can't say 'no' to the project and it not proceed.

Types of toxic waste including fracking waste

Up to as much as 50% of the waste stored will be stored using hydraulic backfilling. This will mean mixing solid or sludge waste with salty water and pumped underground. The water produced in the process of Coal Seam Gas extraction and Shale Gas Extraction is suggested by the company to be an ideal source of the salt water needed.

Long term responsibility of waste management

The operational period of the mine is uncertain. Wastes will be stored permanently underground which poses a monumental challenge in environmental monitoring. It presents a significant legacy challenge for environmental management as it is not clear who will be responsible for the sites management over the next decades or centuries.

Risk of accidents and spillage

There is an admitted a very real possibility of accidents occurring in the transportation of the waste to the Mine. The project will involve a significant increase in heavy vehicle movements which could be involved in accidents that spill waste into the environment.

Transportation of toxic chemicals on local roads

The local roads are not currently suited for the proposed increase in heavy vehicle traffic. They are dirt roads exposed to erosion and flooding.

Inadequate regulations

The currently environmental regulatory regime is being reformed to address deficiencies in the management of mine sites and environmental contamination. Mines are exempt under environmental laws to monitor and control contamination that occurs outside of the mining tenement. It is thus unclear how the wastes will be monitored and how contamination events will be managed.

Suitability of the site

There are critical aspects of the project that are yet to be confirmed by the plans of the company. They have not completed all the necessary assessments of the salt formation or decided on a method of hydraulic backfill. This decision will be made after all opportunity for public comment has been exhausted.

Possible trojan horse for nuclear waste?

The company has stated through their waste acceptance criteria that they will not accept nuclear waste. However this criteria is not a legal obligation imposed on the company but rather a voluntary guideline. It is possible the project could be repurposed in the future if another company amends the waste guidelines or a Federal Government places pressure on it.

The Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC) is Central Australia's own environmental organisation. Our vision is for 'healthy futures for arid lands and people.' This means we work to ensure the community is engaged on issues that impact on them. The proposed salt mine and permanent hazardous waste storage facility is one of those issues.

For more information contact

ALEC Policy Officer Alex Read Email: policy@alec.org.au

Phone: 8952 2497 Drop in: 90 Gap Rd, The Gap, 0870 

Image: Concerned community members at a a public meeting in Alice Springs on the 2nd of November

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