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Goldmine swallowing historic town

by Kevin Andrusiak and Paige TaylorPerth Now
February 9th, 2008

IT is Australia's biggest goldmine, swallowing what is known as the world's richest square mile of dirt.

But the Super Pit, in historic Kalgoorlie-Boulder in Western Australia, is also eating the booming city it is helping sustain, and literally shaking its residents to their foundations.

With gold prices hitting record modern-day highs, its North American owners plan to make the Super Pit even bigger, unlocking billions of dollars' worth of extra gold and extending the mine's life through to 2017.

The expansion would make the mine 4km long, 1.6km wide and 600m deep, enough to fit two Eiffel Towers on top of each other.

The only problem is the pit can be extended only in the one direction to follow the gold-bearing ore - west towards the city and to within 200m of the homes of already disaffected residents, who say they have had to put up with noise, dust and pollution for too long.

Locals say Denver-based Newmont Mining and Toronto-based Barrick Gold - the joint owners of the project, who manage the mine through their company Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines - have put profits ahead of people's livelihoods.

Originally the brainchild of Alan Bond in the 1980s, the mine currently yields close to 850,000 ounces of gold a year, close to $1 billion worth at current spot prices.

It's become the ultimate story of two immovable forces - city versus mine - at a time when the mining industry is going gangbusters.

While guidelines in Western Australia mean that big open-cut mines must have a buffer zone of at least 1500m, the Super Pit could now encroach within 200m of some homes. In Kalgoorlie-Boulder, the locals have warned authorities that the expansion could mean their death or the death of their family members.

The pit's bunt wall is at the end of the street where truck driver Roy Halliday lives and he says the noise and dust are maddening.

Tom Vulhop claims a mighty blast from the pit wrenched a light fitting from his ceiling last March, while Agnes Miller blames the cracks in her floor on KCGM.

Even retirees at the local church group have turned activist against the Super Pit, claiming daily blasts damaged historic All Hollows Church. "We had to put a metal bar across the width of the sanctuary," said church volunteer Kevin Bartle.

Residents of the Aboriginal community of Ninga Mia, on the outskirts of the town, say they will not shift even though they are slowly being surrounded by the mine's waste dumps and the 24-hour hum of the dump trucks that use them.

KCGM spent $268 million with local businesses last year and is the city's biggest employer.

However, it has a poor track record when it comes to keeping pollutants at a minimum and is the nation's biggest-single emitter of mercury.

Williamstown resident Dianne Mills, whose battles with KCGM go back 10 years, said the company's massive financial contribution to the economy and state coffers made it appear untouchable. "In many ways the community feels like it's being eaten alive by this Super Pit," she said.

KCGM general manager Russell Cole sees it differently. "There are many challenges working in close proximity to a major regional city centre," he said. "KCGM works in a very strict regulatory environment, and we continue to strive to meet our ongoing obligations.

"We are a highly regulated company that works within a strict regulatory environment, it is for others to form an opinion of us," Mr Cole said. "Our record shows the Government does not hesitate to use its regulatory strength to control our industry and this operation."

None of the upset locals spoken to are against the mine. To be anti-mining in Kalgoorlie-Boulder is liable to get you run out of town.

But many affected residents come under a local ruling that means their homes are not zoned residential, so they are not protected by the safety zone of 400m, which is unique to the mine and designed to protect them from flying rock.

The mine expansion has been approved by the West Australian Environmental Protection Agency. The final say rests with state Environment Minister David Templeman.

Locals say the EPA has a poor record of protecting citizens, and the Super Pit expansion is no different. They point out that the EPA approved the shipping of lead through Esperance port on the state's south coast and knocked back proposals to protect underground spiders and rare fauna.

Noise from the mine is also a cause for complaint. KCGM has asked the EPA to vary its noise regulations for the mine, which the EPA has approved with a promise of better enforcement. Locals say they were told in 1995 that the then department of environmental protection would prosecute KCGM if it breached the noise regulations that were introduced two years later.

Current noise limits for KCGM are not to exceed a maximum of 51 decibels in the evening or on Sunday at one location, a level just under what could be heard during normal conversation at a distance of two metres. But KCGM's own monitoring shows otherwise.

"Monitoring indicates noise from the existing KCGM operations exceeds the assigned noise levels in the noise regulations at all five reference locations, during both day and night," the company said in applying to the EPA for a variation to the legislation.

It has certainly not been lost on one Boulder resident, who said: "When I knock off from work in the early morning it's so loud it's unbearable."

The EPA claims KCGM has a defence for non-compliance with the regulations because it complied with ministerial conditions for the mine that pre-date the 1997 regulations. A spokesman said the confusion for residents was a "historical accident".

This week, the mine was hit by a massive pit-wall failure on its southern edge, something KCGM said was expected.

KCGM's mine consultants, Snowden, said in preparing a report on the expansion that it still had some doubts about pit-wall failure, despite concluding that the cutback plans "appear adequate".


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