The Tasmanian Electro Metallurgical Company (Temco) has not had to post a financial bond to cover potential rehabilitation costs at its Bell Bay manganese smelter site despite having discharged thousands of tonnes of heavy-metal laced waste into on-site tailings dams over the last decade alone.
The company has also not finalised a rehabilitation plan for the site with the state Environment Protection Authority (EPA), even though the closure of the smelter could be announced within weeks.
South32, Temco’s parent company, has a rehabilitation plan for the smelter site and the three tailings dams that contain the waste, but has not made it publicly available.
South 32 submitted its closure plan for the site to the EPA in 2017. However, additional requirements for the plan have been set out in the company’s current environmental licence.
Since 2008-09 Temco has discharged over 17,000 tonnes of manganese to its current tailings dam.
Data disclosed to the Australian Government’s National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) by South32 reveals that Temco has discharged a cocktail of heavy metals into its tailings dam.
Since 2008-09, Temco has piped over 17,000 tonnes of manganese, hundreds of tonnes of zinc and 98 tonnes of lead. Small amounts of cadmium, selenium and arsenic have also been discharged into the dam, which was first commissioned in 2002. The plant has been operating since 1962.
In a review published by South32 in 2019, the company acknowledged (p. 19) that if the current Temco tailings dam failed it could pose a “significant” hazard.
Two other decommissioned dams, the oldest of which was first used in 1989, contain even more tailings. South32 did not respond to a request for clarification for what happened to waste from the smelter prior to the commissioning of its first tailings dam.
All three of Temco’s tailings dams are within several hundred metres of the Tamar River estuary.
Best practice engineering standards specify the use of liners in tailings dams to limit the flow of contaminated seepage into the surrounding environment. South32 did not respond when asked whether any of Temco’s dams were lined.
In its review of its tailings dams, South32 stated that all three tailings dams were covered by a closure plan that includes long-term monitoring. However, the plan is not a public document and the company declined to provide a copy.
Public may be locked out of rehabilitation plant input
When Temco’s smelter was first commissioned there was no state environmental legislation. The Environment Protection Act was enacted in 1973, but Temco operated under an indefinite exemption until its first environment licence was issued in January 1996. That 12-page licence was sparse on details.
In early 2019, just months before South32 announced it was considering closing the smelter, the EPA issued a new licence. As a preamble, the EPA detailed almost three pages of omissions from the original licence and variations required to update the company’s obligations.
The 32 changes added to the new licence included a requirement that a plan for the management of the three tailings dams, including detailing how they would be decommissioned “appropriately to prevent environmental harm”, be developed by October 2020.
Temco was also required to prepare a rehabilitation plan for the company’s entire smelter site either by February 2021 or within 30 days of the EPA director being notified the smelter would cease operations.
Both the plans for the tailings dam and the overall decommissioning and rehabilitation require the approval of the director of the EPA, Wes Ford.
As part of the rehabilitation plan, Temco must provide an estimate of the cost of the rehabilitation and how the liability will be met by the owner or operator.
However, the EPA confirmed that Temco has not been required to post a bond, as commonly occurs with resources companies to avoid the risk of taxpayers being required to cover clean-up costs.
According to the EPA’s guidelines for the rehabilitation plan, the company is not required to undertake public consultation. Instead, it is required only to note “any stakeholder consultation” with community or other organisations in the development of the plan.
The rehabilitation plan does not necessarily have to be made public after it has been approved by the EPA director.
A spokesperson for the EPA said it did not disclose rehabilitation plans “due to reasons of commercial in confidence”. However, it may become public once “activated” after closure.