News - 25 March 2015

Rio Tinto gives up prime mining lands for national park

Rio Tinto and Alcoa have agreed to allow huge swaths of prime mining land in the remote ­Kimberley to become part of Australia’s biggest national park, in a move hailed as one of the most important conservation measures in decades.

In a highly unusual move, the mining giants will relinquish their tenements by cancelling a 44-year-old agreement with the West Australian government to build a major bauxite mine and an alumina refinery on the spectac­ular Mitchell Plateau.

Rio Tinto chief executive Sam Walsh said yesterday that he had visit­ed the Mitchell Plateau — home to the Mitchell Falls and the Bradshaw indigenous rock art — in 2011 and decided it should never be developed.

He then took steps to relinquish more than 175,000ha of land, which contains some of the nation’s biggest bauxite reserves, on condition that the land could never be used for mining.

Rio and Alcoa had long struggled to make the project viable given the low aluminium price — which is now close to its lowest level since the global financial ­crisis — and the high development costs in the isolated region.

Mr Walsh said even if a bauxite mine and refinery had been ­viable in today’s market, he would still have opposed the development. “When we develop a project we want to have community support, we want to have the community licence to operate,” he said.

“I don’t believe that would ever be achieved with this project.

“This is an iconic area of Australia that needs to be preserved for future generations.”

Mr Walsh said community attitudes had changed since Rio signed the deal with the West Australian government in 1971.

“When the original agreement was struck in the early 1970s, ­people had a different view of the environment, people had a different view of heritage,” he said.

“We need to move with the times — and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Premier Colin Barnett des­cribed Mr Walsh’s initiative in handing back the bauxite res­erves as one of the most sig­nificant conservation measures for decades.

“That was an extremely generous act by Rio Tinto — putting the interests of conservation ahead of their interests in their ownership of that mineral deposit,” he said.

Mr Barnett said mining would never take place on the Mitchell Plateau because the 175,000ha of land being relinquished would be included in the new Kimberley National Park.

The new park would become Australia’s biggest, encompassing the existing Prince Regent, Mitchell River and Lawley River ­nat­ional parks.

Pew Charitable Trusts, an environmental group, said Rio’s ­decision would set the Kimberley on a path to becoming a global conservation icon.

“The Mitchell Plateau is one of the last few places on Earth where native wildlife remains the same as it has for almost 50,000 years,” said Pew director Barry Traill.

“Some places are too important to mine, and thankfully Rio Tinto agrees.”

Legislation to terminate the Alumina Refinery (Mitchell Plat­eau) State Agreement Act will be introduced soon.

The government will work with traditional owners in the area to create and jointly manage the new national park, which will offer work opportunities for ­Aboriginal communities.

Indigenous groups are believed to support the move to ­terminate the Mitchell Plateau mining agreement, but they could not be reached yesterday.