Could drilling in Lake Torrens be South Australia’s version of the Juukan Gorge tragedy?

Drilling in Lake Torrens will go ahead by minerals exploration company Kelaray, a subsidiary of Argonaut Resources early this year, after approval was granted by the Premier Steven Marshall.

Authorisation was announced during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve giving Kelaray permission pursuant to Section 23 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act to “damage, disturb or interfere” with sites, objects and remains in the Murdie Project, which is targeting iron oxide copper-gold in its explorations.

Lake Torrens is recorded on the South Australian Governments Register of Aboriginal Sites and Objects as a site of significance according to Aboriginal tradition and anthropology.

“Kelaray have little or no regard for Aboriginal culture through their continued efforts to drill on Lake Torrens. The antiquity of Aboriginal culture is a fact, and the integrity of the sites and stories associated with Lake Torrens is unquestionable,” said South Australian Native Title Services CEO Keith Thomas.

“The land adjacent to the lake in the area to be drilled is a rich cultural landscape. There’s a cave there, a water spring, rock etchings and work areas where Aboriginal people have sat in the past to make scrapers and cutting blades.”

Premier and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Steven Marshall said that the decision was made to approve drilling after extensive consultation with Aboriginal people and organisations. However there is a question mark over what the Government calls ‘extensive consultation’. Aboriginal groups SANTS has contacted have advised that they put in submissions in response to the Section 23 notice, but that there had been no consultation.

“The exploration program will not permanently impact the anthropological and cultural heritage of Lake Torrens,” said the Premier’s office in a statement.

SANTS now understands from the public comments made by the Chair of the Aboriginal Heritage Committee Mr Mark Koolmatrie, that his Committee recommended strongly against the exploration approval.

Andrew Starkey, a Kokatha senior law man and Lake Torrens site card holder said, “We were one of 22 submissions put in and it sounds as though all of those opposed it, but we were not consulted at all, despite the Aboriginal Heritage Act mandating that people with connection to the land should be.”

“You can also still see evidence of early drilling from the 1970’s on the lake, so it will permanently impact it not just culturally, but also environmentally. Just because they got Government approval doesn’t make it right, just look at what happened at Juukan Gorge. All our great lakes are being targeted by mining companies here in SA.

“To limit damage, the Premier expects Kelaray to adhere to its Cultural Heritage Management Plan, which apparently has consultation built in before, during and after the project. The only problem is Kelaray have not given us a copy of that plan. We are still waiting for them to contact us. Our hope is that the Premier will sort this out.”

Aboriginal groups the Kokatha, the Adnyamathanha, the Kuyani and the Barngarla people have contested for Native Title over the Lake unsuccessfully to date, so there is no existing claim over the waters. Native Title exists on either side however, with the Kokatha people to the west and the Adnyamathanha people to the east.

“We are deeply disturbed at how the Premier has arrived at the decision to approve drilling, despite so much opposition,” said Kokatha Aboriginal Corporation’s Heritage Services Manager Glen Wingfield.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to reverse this decision on behalf of the community.”

The Premier has added a condition that mining activities cease in the event that new finds of remains or artefacts are made that are suspected to be of archaeological or cultural significance.

“It’s disturbing that such a decision can be made to damage a recorded Aboriginal cultural site by focusing only on its physical aspects and completely neglecting its spiritual significance (the Tjukurpa),” said Thomas.

“It is disappointing that real concerns from Aboriginal groups were not taken into consideration by the Premier and SA Government. The fallout from the Juukan Gorge tragedy continues nearly a year later, but as always, money speaks louder than protection for the oldest living culture on earth.

“Shame on Kelaray and shame on the State Government for this wanton destruction of an Aboriginal sacred site.”

SANTS is also concerned that the Minister for Energy and Mining, Hon Dan van Holst Pellekaan awarded Argonaut Resources $320,000 for exploration drilling in the Murdie Project on Lake Torrens in June 2020, some six months before the Section 23 authorisation was given by the Premier. 

Image: Lake Torrens from above, courtesy of Tony Magor, National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia

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