Lake Torrens – Salt Lakes, Copper exploration and Cultural Heritage

By Claire Burgess & Liz Downes

A large ephemeral salt lake in central South Australia, of significance to the local Aboriginal groups, is under threat from mining. The deposit of copper, gold and iron-oxide is estimated to be larger than that of Olympic Dam. The area has been subject to the granting of 282 exploration licences over areas of Lake Torrens since the early 1970s. In 2020, Premier Steven Marshall approved exploration permits for the Kelaray company (a subsidiary of Argonaut Resources) to drill in Lake Torrens, for the Murdie Project.

The Murdie Project has had easier access to approvals given a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 that stripped the land title rights held since 1993 from the Kokatha, Barngarla and Adnyamathanha/Kuyani peoples due to a judgment that deemed there was not enough evidence that these groups had occupied the region before colonisation. This decision was in relation to members of the Kokatha resisting the ‘Torrens Iron-Oxide-Copper-Gold’ (IOCG) project initiated in 2016, concerned that exploration could endanger cultural heritage and significance of this region. This ruling made way for future mining in the region.

Lake Torrens is recorded on the SA Government’s Register of Aboriginal Sites and Objects; however,  section 23 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1998 (SA) allows the minister to approve acts which may ‘damage, disturb or interfere’ with Aboriginal sites. Dan van Holst Pellekaan (Minister of Mining) 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.

The site is Aboriginal heritage listed, with ancestral remains likely to be buried around the lake’s perimeter and islands. The South Australian Heritage Committee recommended that the government refuse mining applications in the area due to the cultural significance for local Aboriginal groups. According to the Western Australian newspaper, committee members are not allowed to make public comments about the issue under state government guidelines. Despite opposition, drilling commenced at Lake Torrens in March 2021. The Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation has launched a bid for judicial review. In July of this year the Kokatha Aboriginal Corporation made applications to the Federal Environment Minister to protect Lake Torrens from exploratory drilling by Kelaray under section 9 and 10 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (Cth).

Lake Torrens is one of several large copper mining prospects in the Gawler Craton region of South Australia which includes major projects like BHP’s Olympic Dam and  two OZ Minerals major copper mines, Providence Hill and Carrapateena. Local Aboriginal traditional owners have raised concerns over disrespect of sacred sites and failed promises.  South Australia has branded itself as a “clean energy” exemplary state, however much of the policies are predicated on green extractivism – owing its achievements to increased copper mining production (see Copper Strategy 2021). Already, SA hosted 67% of Australia’s demonstrated copper resources. South Australia produced 305,000 tonnes or around 67% of Australia’s total output; the state aims to produce 1 megatonne per annum by 2030 to meet global and domestic ‘green copper’ demand. 

This case demonstrates the inadequacies of current legislation and regulations around ATSI cultural heritage and land rights more broadly, as indicated in the recent Commonwealth Government report ‘The Way Forward’, in response to the destruction of sacred site Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto.