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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

McArthur River Mine

Interview with Julia Christensen, ABC Darwin Breakfast
15 January 2009

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CHRISTENSEN: An interesting trip to the top end, a lightning trip from Peter Garrett, Federal Environment Minister to take a look at the McArthur River Mine and speak to people around Borroloola after last month's Federal Court decision saying that the expansion of the mine into open cut mining and the diversion of the river to allow that was in fact illegal.

Peter Garrett, good morning.

GARRETT: Morning, Julia.

CHRISTENSEN: That would have been an interesting trip for you, I imagine flying over the mine at - the Borroloola region and seeing the impact. What was your reaction when you saw how that river had been moved and the environmental impact?

GARRETT: Well, I don't think you see any specific environmental impacts in relation to the diversion, Julia. The fact is that it's - it's a pretty significant diversion of the McArthur River that goes around the mine now, so I did have an opportunity to see it, both on the ground and from the air.

And the critical question is - not so much about the diversion specifically but whether or not, in terms of remaking a decision that Senator Campbell had already made - there are matters of national environment significance that I think are critical and need to be addressed and I had an opportunity to take a good look at the mine site. I had good and constructive discussions with the senior officials and others there at McArthur River as I did in the morning at Borroloola with traditional owners and other members of the community.

So, look, it was a very useful visit and it was a visit which I thought was necessary because this is a decision which has effectively come back to me even though it's a mine that's built, and a mine that’s operating and so I just wanted to be absolutely sure that I'd seen it and also that I'd heard people's views.

CHRISTENSEN: It's a pretty dramatic thing though to do to divert six or seven kilometres of a river. I mean, you railed against the impact of mining as the lead singer of Midnight Oil. Did you not have an emotional reaction to seeing that?

GARRETT: Look, Julia, these sorts of questions that you ask absolutely valid, but again, my decision making powers under the EPBC Act are quite strictly defined and I think I've spoken to you about this, I know I have to other people in the media.

I have to look very carefully and clearly at whether or not there are going to be impacts on matters of national environment significance. It's through that prism that I look at these issues. Of course I've got a really strong view about protecting the environment, as I know that everybody listening to this program does and an expectation and a delivery, frankly, that we would see as being the normal course of business in the country, whether it's something like the McArthur River Mine or a proposal for a desalination plant in Victoria or the other issues and proposals and existing developments that are around the place that people are interested in.

I didn't and I don't pass a view on whether or not that matter is desirable or otherwise. My specific task is to make sure that I consider the relevant matters that I am meant to when I make the decision. Something I should say that the former minister Senator Campbell didn't do and that's why we're in this situation now, because that decision that he made has been overturned.

CHRISTENSEN: Traditional owners told us yesterday they're looking for compensation now instead of demanding the river be returned to its original course. Is that an option?

GARRETT: That's a question for traditional owners. Their representatives, the Northern Land Council, the Government and NRM. It's not a matter that comes within my brief.

CHRISTENSEN: So who would be liable? Would it be the NT Government?

GARRETT: Well, again, that's a matter for...

CHRISTENSEN: It must be something you've thought about though, after hearing that yesterday.

GARRETT: Well, look, I heard what people had to say, Julia, but my specific purpose here is to remake the decision which was invalidly made by a former environment minister. And the...

CHRISTENSEN: But given that it was a decision by a federal minister, surely if there is compensation payable then it would be the Federal Government.

GARRETT: No, look, I don't think that's the case here. The case here is whether or not, in remaking the decision I need to consider other additional matters in terms of the impact on, you know, listed and threatened species, migratory species and the like, that's specifically the responsibility I have under the Act.

These bigger questions that you're referring to are significant questions. I am certainly not saying they’re not but they don't come within my decision making remit. I wasn't there to specifically identify those issues, I was there to hear from people and I did hear from them but specifically about the decision that I now have to make about this McArthur River Mine. And those bigger questions that you've raised are matters for the Northern Territory Government, they're matters for the NLC they're matters for MRM and the traditional owners.

CHRISTENSEN: So what did the mining company tell you, Peter Garrett?

GARRETT: Well, I had an opportunity to see the measures that they've put in place in terms of the bund that they've created there to stop any potential overflow of waters coming into the mine itself. I've met with some of the traditional owners that were on-site and we had an opportunity to look around the mine and get a sense of what had actually happened in terms of the diversion, what measures they had in place, protection of sacred sites and the like....

CHRISTENSEN: But what did they tell you about what needs to be done now? Because, I mean, we've heard that a decision needs to be made by the 21 January because the ore is running out, can you meet that deadline?

GARRETT: Well, look, that 21 January date isn't a date which I am bound by. What I am bound to do is make a decision effectively and as quickly as I can but in a thorough fashion and I intend to do that. I think it would be highly unlikely if the decision were made before the 21 January given that the brief has only just reached me. It's a significant and extensive brief.

I want to look at the material that Senator Campbell had in front of him - there's quite a bit - before I make that decision and also I need to determine whether I need any other additional advice or information and on that basis that work would then have to be done. But I certainly don't want to delay the decision. I am actually a quick decision-maker, but I am a thorough decision-maker as well and that's how I'll approach this issue.

CHRISTENSEN: So when will a decision be made?

GARRETT: Well, I am not going to be putting a date on it because I haven't gone through the process of actually absorbing all of the brief and reviewing all of Senator Campbell's material, nor considering whether or not there's going to be a need for additional material. That might require someone else to do a certain amount of work.

CHRISTENSEN: Could it be by the end of the month though?

GARRETT: Well, you're going to try and tie me down to a date, I am not going to give you one. I am going to do my job thoroughly and expeditiously.

CHRISTENSEN: Peter Garrett, thanks for your time.

GARRETT: Thanks, Julia.

CHRISTENSEN: Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett.


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