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Marshall over-ruled advice about drilling at Aboriginal heritage site

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Premier and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Steven Marshall was warned by his department not to allow a mineral exploration company to drill at a “pivotal” Aboriginal heritage site as it would damage the area and cause “hurt, sorrow and sickness” to Traditional Owners – but he allowed the work to proceed.

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Marshall in January signed off on a proposal put forward by mineral exploration company Kelaray to drill up to 1230 holes at Lake Torrens in search of iron-oxide-copper-gold.

The lake is Australia’s second largest salt lake and plays a significant role in Adnyamathanha, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Arabana, Barngarla, Kokatha and Kuyani beliefs and songlines.

It is not protected under native title law, but the site is listed as an Aboriginal heritage place, with the government warning that ancestral remains are likely to be buried around the lake’s perimeter and islands.

Marshall, who is responsible for the protection and preservation of Aboriginal sites, has repeatedly defended his decision to approve drilling at Lake Torrens, saying Kelaray must abide by “strict conditions”.

But his own department warned against granting authorisation, with a document obtained by SA Native Title Services under freedom of information laws revealing government advisors said that it was “not possible to mitigate against the impacts the exploration program will have on the intangible Aboriginal heritage values at the site”.

The decision is now up for review in the Supreme Court, with the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation last month launching judicial review proceedings in an attempt to halt drilling at the site.

According to a report signed by Marshall in December, the Department of the Premier and Cabinet’s Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation (AAR) agency warned that drilling for ore at Lake Torrens could damage a “pivotal” heritage site and cause “personal impacts” to Traditional Owners.

“Like all large salt lakes in the state’s far north, Lake Torrens plays a significant role in the cultural beliefs of a range of South Australian Aboriginal language groups,” the report, also signed by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet’s then chief executive Jim McDowell states.

“A decision to grant the authorisation may be subject to judicial review, media attention or other scrutiny brought by a disaffected Aboriginal party.”

The report lists a series of reasons why government advisors warned against granting authorisation.

They include:

The report went on to list a series of reputational risks the government might face if Marshall granted authorisation.

It highlighted widespread outrage following Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia as a factor to consider, as well as “recent adverse local media attention”.

It also cited “assertions of resort to the United Nations or other means of review if the exploration program proceeds”.

“The proposed exploration program will damage, disturb and interfere with (the) central archives site,” the report states.

“While the Applicant’s (Kelaray’s) proposed heritage management measures should minimise impacts to any tangible heritage within the Application Area, in AAR’s view and in accordance with consultee feedback, they will be insufficient to stop significant negative impacts to the intangible values of the site.

“Some consultees said this will lead to negative personal and physical consequences to Aboriginal people connected with the site.”

The Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation agency listed a series of proposed conditions that it recommended be attached to a decision to approve authorisation.

They include ordering Kelaray to provide the government with progress reports documenting all ground disturbing works and to encourage the company to “consider” Aboriginal employment “wherever possible”.

But the report noted that the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Committee was against attaching conditions “in case that should be seen in any way (as) endorsing the proposal”.

Kelaray, a subsidary of Argonaut, has developed a “cultural heritage management plan” and a “chance find procedure” to help it manage heritage sites while the mineral exploration takes place.

It has also committed to ongoing consultation with the Kokatha Aboriginal Corporation, whose native title determination area overlaps a section of the exploration boundary, and has developed a plan to minimise disturbance on the shoreline and surface of Lake Torrens.

In a statement, a government spokesperson said that Marshall approved the drilling “after extensive consultation with Aboriginal people and organisations”.

“The exploration can only be carried out in accordance with strict conditions set out in the Premier’s authorisation which include the provision of detailed and regular progress reports to Aboriginal parties and site visits for those parties at the conclusion of the work,” the spokesperson said.

“As well as Aboriginal cultural heritage interests in Lake Torrens the Premier also took into account that there is a history of mineral exploration activity on Lake Torrens and close to its shoreline.”

The spokesperson said that the first exploration hole was drilled at the site in 1960 and over the past 50 years, 282 exploration licenced had been granted over areas of Lake Torrens by former governments.

“Should exploration lead to the development of any proposal to undertake mining at Lake Torrens, a separate authorisation would have to be sought for mining,” they said.

The spokesperson said it would be “inappropriate” for Marshall to make further comment, given the ongoing judicial review.

It comes as a parliamentary committee launches a review into Aboriginal heritage matters in South Australia, with submissions for evidence currently open.

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