BHP’s Mt Keith nickel operation – open pit mine and 5-km wide tailings lake. Image: Conservation Council Western Australia

BHP pollutes Indigenous lands for future battery energy

BHP is one of the world’s most destructive extractive companies in terms of impacts on the climate, environment and communities.

The company has recently announced that it will expand its operations in Western Australia to become a ‘nickel hub’ for ‘cleaner’ futures. Located in the ‘Goldfields’ region, central WA, BHP’s Nickel West complex is a part of a larger mining district that covers Kalgoorlie and surrounding areas. In response to a supply deal with Tesla, Nickel West infrastructure is expanding. 

The company is jumping on the opportunity to clean up its image by aligning with clean energy futures, claiming that over 85% of production from Nickel West is sold to the future-battery supply chain. The company has opened Australia’s first nickel sulphate processing plant at Kwinana, saying the facility will refine ‘enough to make 700,000 EV batteries’. BHP plans to expand extraction at the Mt Keith site by 40% to meet this stated demand. While framed as ‘clean and green’ by industry proponents, the operation is heavily reliant on hydrocarbons across its operations and is associated with a number of environmental issues, Indigenous and workers’ rights concerns. 

BHP has a history of abandoning destruction and is supported by legislative loopholes to avoid rehabilitating mines after extraction – the ecological damage is so severe it is near impossible to repair and thus incredibly costly. The company attempted to abandon Nickel West from 2012-2014, yet was not willing to pay the cost of addressing contamination caused by toxic waste from smelting. Large mines such as Nickel West can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to rehabilitate. Water acidification is a risk, as is subsidence, which caused the collapse of Norilsk’s Lake Johnstone nickel mine after its closure in 2009. 

Water use is the biggest concern for operating mines and infrastructure in this region. The Goldfields has hosted grand-scale metals extraction since the 1880s. But the region’s communities, ecosystems and industries are all dependent upon a limited water supply from underground aquifers. The WA Government has no integrated water use plan for the Goldfields. Companies submit individual water use assessments for approval, with no existing long-term plan for the regional impacts of over-allocation to the mining industry. 

A number of serious workplace related incidents have occurred at BHP’s sites. These include a death at BHP’s Leinster mine in 2010, a major fire at BHP’s smelter at Kalgoorlie in 2018, and Legionnaires’ disease at infrastructure at BHP’s Kwinana site in 2020. 

The Goldfields covers several Indigenous native title claims. Section 18 of the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972) allowed a Government Minister to have final discretion over extractive projects on Aboriginal Lands. This law allowed such atrocities as the destruction of sacred sites at Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto in 2020. While Section 18 was removed in 2021 and replaced with an updated law requiring the involvement of Traditional Owners, it is implicated in mine operations approvals in WA prior to 2021. In 2020, Tjiwarl Native Title holders in the Leinster area (a site of BHP’s operations) filed a compensation case against the WA Government for damage and loss of access to land and Tjukurrpa (Aboriginal Law) due to industrial and mining expansions. 

Greening the image of BHP as a “clean” company is in stark contrast with the significant implications for communities concerned with climate change, cultural heritage, human rights, and the environment.