Sunday, July 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 17Salt mines and tourism: bread and circuses

Salt mines and tourism: bread and circuses

Sir – Your article tourism, salt and toxic waste sets images of chandeliers and grand staircases alongside Tellus managing director’s “cracking good yarn” about underground choirs, symphony orchestras, boxing, wrestling and mountain biking – in his mind, all potential tourist attractions of Tellus’s Chandler project.
Unfortunately, the article does not challenge Mr van der Merwe on key questions about hazardous waste Tellus intends to store at the site. I am reminded of the bread and circuses intended to distract Roman citizens from the inequities and dangers of their time.
Photographs of European salt mine tourism sites, however glittering and seductive, are a distraction from the intent and consequences of Tellus Holdings’ Chandler project.
Mr van der Merwe’s musings about restaurants, souvenir shops, tour guiding and hands-on participation in cutting and shaping the soft material … micro businesses and cottage industries, salt rooms for salt therapies, gourmet salts etc are insubstantial fantasies.
It is disingenuous at best to float vague ideas about high-end industrial tourism while being reticent on the most crucial aspects of the project. The company’s stated purpose in developing the Chandler mine is to pursue a dual revenue model of mining salt (and clay), and more importantly, to turn a profit from storing waste.
Questions that must be answered before we can properly assess the risks involved include: Exactly what waste does Tellus plan to secrete in the mine?
What will be the sources of that waste? Will it come from across the NT? Across the whole country? How can the company guarantee its safe storage and containment in perpetuity?
Who will be responsible for cleaning up if or when storage containers fail? (Seriously – clingwrap and Kevlar tape?)
When Tellus lodged a variation to the Chandler project with the NT Environmental Protection Authority, it triggered a requirement for the company to compare social and economic risks, impacts and benefits of the proposed variation to those of the existing environmental impact statement (EIS).
Though it presumably met basic requirements for community consultation, in my opinion this consultation did not adequately allow for community members to assess risk of the project overall.
The Alice Springs session was not well advertised, and took place over a four-hour period on one day. It was far from transparent. Company representatives could not tell members of the public what waste would be transported, where it would come from, and crucially, whether it would include fracking waste.
We were advised to put our questions to the company by email. I left the consultation session feeling heart-sick about the seeming inevitability of Tellus’s progression of this project.
I cannot believe that the company can gain a genuine social license or consent to dump toxic waste in country, out of sight and out of mind.
Yet the project would provide a key piece of enabling infrastructure  the final piece of the regulatory jigsaw which would support production fracking.
Beyond the questions around type, volume, source and security of the proposed waste, the project raises bigger questions about extractive industries and their consequences.
Mr van der Merwe’s comment that Australians are losing the connection with mining which generates immense wealth is thought-provoking. I wish it were true.
It’s not clear which Australians he is referring to, but for the vast majority of the population mining has not been a source of immense wealth, and in fact has been heavily subsidised by taxpayers. You and me.
I wish Australians were more rapidly losing the connection with mining – less mesmerised by promises of wealth in the ground, just waiting to be dug up and then to trickle down from the mining magnates to the rest of us.
Mining of fossil fuels has utterly lost its charm and ethical standing, and is beginning to lose its social license and financial backing, through the divestment movement.
We cannot afford to allow companies to make decisions based on powerful, short-time financial incentives, that result in hastening climate catastrophe and poisoning land and water.
We can’t afford to be distracted by quick corporate profits, ephemeral jobs that don’t contribute to the long-term well-being of the whole community, and other circus entertainments.
It is time to focus on reducing our production of waste so that central Australia is not once again asked to suffer the impacts of dumping waste, waste which local communities had no part in producing.
We urgently need to move on from out-dated carbon-based industries and focus on creating livelihoods that support and regenerate land and culture.
Jennifer Taylor
Alice Springs


  1. I think you need to actually look at facts and evidence before crying wolf.
    It’s all very well to WISH for a reduction of waste in societies and industries, and all of us welcome a reduction in such substances in our communities.
    However the fact is we DO create waste streams that are difficult to manage, and we will continue to do so, and in many cases these are bi-products of processes vital to our lives, ie the medical industry.
    Further, we can have natural and man made disasters that hurt people’s lives today and need to be addressed safely.
    The facts are we have 1000s of tons of legal/illegal hazardous waste stockpiles within built up community areas that present significantly higher risks we unconsciously already condone without addressing, and Australia as a whole needs to employ worlds best practice solutions that can meet these challengers.
    Underground IMPERMEABLE geologies (salt/clay) are recognised by governments, regulators and even the likes of the UN as a world’s best practice solution in waste management.
    Similarly, in many countries land fill as a solution is banned given its risks to land and water table pollution (a permeable disaster which we still employ in Australia today).
    In contrast, many countries have employed impermeable geological technologies giving rise to 100s of such facilities in operation in the likes of the EU and US because they provide the safest and most economic storage and permanent disposal solutions that solve real world problems and protect communities.
    The Chandler geology is a vast, deep, and thick world class impermeable salt formation that has not moved for over 500 million years, that when combined with multi layer man made barriers one kilometer underground will guarantee the safe harbour of waste and other items until safely recoverable.
    This is a responsible circular economy story looking to create multi-generational jobs in outback Australia. It is not a story of dumping waste in someone’s backyard.
    Your implied connection between Tellus and a fossil fuel mines or generator is completely uncorrelated. In fact based on some waste streams Tellus might accept under the strict guidelines of their EPA license they are likely to benefit from positive carbon credits.
    Commercially, perhaps to your surprise the majority of companies are formed in the hope of making a profit so to single out Tellus or suggest this is a project with short sighted dollars in their eyes is simply inaccurate and far removed from the economic and sustainable ecological and indigenous commitment the company has demonstrated for almost a decade, along with the millions of dollars they have spent in sponsoring local employment to date, and are committed to do so in the future.
    Further, your suggestion that Tellus as a company has attempted to hide any of their plans and lack transparency could not be further from the truth given the evidence.
    “Tellus has held hundreds of stakeholder engagement meetings across government in Canberra, Darwin and local government, politicians, neighbours, indigenous and local communities in Alice Springs and Titjikala.”
    I am all for fair and open public debate and safeguards.
    However I am also for balance, and claims that have no related substance or are flatly inaccurate and absent from research and facts should be addressed and challenged.
    The NT just happens to host a unique, remote world class impermeable salt geological formation that can isolate substances safely from our biosphere, and in turn could offer education and employment to Territorians for hundreds of years.
    That’s an opportunity that should on balance be supported when all the facts are considered.

  2. @ Lyndsay: Fair enough to be in defence of facts and a balanced discussion on projects yet you provide no material to actually substantiate such a balance.
    You say the company has been transparent, could you please tell us exactly what waste the company intends to store? Could you tell us where it is coming from and how much will be coming?
    Could you please tell us how a company which intends to leave the project after 25 years, will be able to safeguard the community and environment for hundreds of years? Will the company be paying royalties to the local community or the NT Government? Is there a waste royalty?
    Your assumption that disposal is a fait accompli is also misguided.
    The vast majority of waste we produce could be managed more responsibly than dumping it in the ground to forget about.
    Yet this company is seeking to profit from final disposal only. Can you really see someone digging up the waste from the salt to ship it out of Alice? Let’s get real here.
    Waste is a dirty game and our system is fraught and broken. We can’t sort out our recycling issue let alone the safe and responsible management of hazardous waste.
    This project is an opportunistic reaction to a problem that deserves national attention and clear Federal government policy.

  3. Hi Alex: Firstly, you ask some good questions, and I would highly encourage any reader interested in this topic to do their own research before reaching any positive / negative views, and don’t just take my comments below as gospel.
    As a start I suggest you read ‘Hazardous Waste in Australia 2017’ authored by Ascend Waste and Environment to get a good handle on the state of the national industry and landscape (google it).
    In it you will observe the different categories of waste streams that are governed under regulation in Australia.
    I would then suggest you read through Tellus’s website and public submission documents to the NT Government and the EPA as all the answers to your questions can be found there: I.e. they have been very transparent.
    I have done this and from my research can pass on the following.
    Tellus have applied for an annual license of up to 400,000 tons of capacity.
    In terms of what that 400,000 tons is made up of, it is more relevant to ask what they WON’T store.
    The reason I say this is that Tellus could really store anything at their site and many similar sites globally do just that as it makes commercial sense.
    A case in point is the Cheshire salt mine found in Winsford in the UK.
    As part of their underground operations they house archival material under a program they term ‘DeepStore’ which currently stores more than one million assets and documents, and is being used for some of the UK’s National Archives.
    So what WON’T Tellus store?
    Under hazardous waste categories the company have clearly stated they will not accept any nuclear waste, or waste streams falling under low level (LLW), intermediate (ILW) or high level (HLW) radioactive waste designations, and they wont be licensed to do so.
    Further, they have drawn on best international practice and independently peer reviewed expertise in the pre development of their “Waste Acceptance Criteria” and used these well defined and and rigorous policies as a blueprint.
    This includes the European Union’s criteria and procedures for the acceptance of waste at landfills (pursuant to Article 16 of and Annex II to Directive 1999/31/EC).
    This document provides the legislative framework against which underground storage operations in Europe operate.
    This document also retains information on the Operational and Post Closure and Integrated Assessment / Environmental Performance Assessments undertaken under the Proposal.
    The EU employs the highest standards of waste management and Tellus has incorporated these policies, experience and safety standards into their public submissions governing operational policies, and policies governing decommissioning, demobilisation, rehabilitation, and on going monitoring of the Chandler facility post closure.
    From a technical and scientific perspective, these submissions include the long-term safety case of Chandler’s underground storage that is demonstrated by multiple independently reviewed safety assessments comprising descriptions of the initial status at the time of operations and/or closure, coupled with any scenarios outlining important changes that are expected over geological time.
    The scientific safety case and geological technical assessments supports the fact that Chandler’s rock salt formation fulfils the requirement of being “impermeable” (i.e. not allowing liquid or gas to pass through) and being able to encase waste materials because of the vast geological structure and its convergent behaviour (salt creep) confining it entirely at the end of the transformation process.
    Not unlike other mining companies operating in Australia, Tellus also cites a series of insurance and assurance policies and commercial commitments to local government that are typically negotiated as part of any project approvals process that provides adequate public and community comfort to support ongoing closure and oversight requirements.
    Given the science supports the impermeable case of the salt formation itself (i.e. nothing can escape) the principle focus of operational and post closure monitoring would be on groundwater monitoring and the performance of revegetation programs.
    Tellus cites in its submissions an extensive ground water monitoring program, and post closure would report results of that monitoring program to NT EPA annually.
    I am not familiar with any commercial discussions held between Tellus and the Indigenous community or land council, however I have noted on their website references to a “Facility Participation Agreement” and “Reconciliation Action Plan” as part of any Indigenous Land Use Agreement for the Chandler Project (i.e. they would have in place a mutually acceptable commercial arrangement in place).
    The company has also clearly demonstrated they will support local communities via the likes of their “Community Investment Program” and “Pre-employment Training Program” aimed directly at supporting and providing opportunities for the local indigenous communities.
    Re your statement that “the vast majority of waste we produce could be managed more responsible (sic)” – I totally agree with you!
    What we currently do in this country is nothing short of a disaster IMO i.e. corrupt permeable land fill operators that risk leakage into water tables and toxic fume exposures (I suggest you look up the Four Corners program entitled Trashed).
    I also note the recent scandals observed in the likes of Melbourne where toxic fires have revealed 1000s of tons of chemical waste being illegally dumped in warehouses and not reported to authorities.
    I couldn’t agree more that our domestic waste problem “deserves national attention and clear Federal government policy”.
    In this respect Tellus was recognised by the Australian Federal Government with the conferral of “Major Project Status” a few years ago (one of only a handful of companies in Australia to be granted such status), and also by the NT Government with similar recognition for the Chandler project itself.
    I believe one of the reasons they were awarded this status is because governments themselves (who have actually reviewed Tellus extensive submissions and independently verified the safety case analysis) recognise that Tellus’s employment of world’s best practice scientific and technical solutions is answering your very statement and ensuring our waste problems are “managed more responsible (sic)”, whilst ensuring they are not “dumping it in the ground to forget about” by providing extensive ongoing monitoring and assurance / insurance policies post any closure period.
    Re your comment on recycling pre buried materials, Tellus would be mad not to exhume and recycle waste materials if they be able to employ new technologies in the future that are commercially viable.
    If you read through the company’s materials you will note numerous references to the establishment of waste recycling programs and an R and D program that will focus on providing solutions for hazardous waste streams that are not easily recycled today, but might be able to be processed with future new technical processes allowing these materials to be turned into assets that can re-enter the circular economy. So “lets get real here”.
    The point is that not all waste outputs can be recycled today and in the interim pose health, safety, and liability risks to companies who produce them as a by-product and our communities.
    Tellus is aware of these problems and is employing programs within its development and operational plans to address your very concerns whilst providing “safe and responsible management of hazardous waste” via their facilities.
    I trust the above has been helpful and again would encourage you dig a little deeper yourself.
    You might then reach the same conclusion as I, that Tellus is a genuine environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) driven company with very high standards focused on cleaning up the economy by utilising proven global best practice technologies that can replace our current poor environmental practices and support remote communities with long term jobs.

  4. Wow, bring on the spin, build the road they yelled and we could even call it holiday road to go along with the show.
    Alice Springs is still trying to recycle plastic bottles and cans and that is still only a new
    concept and here we are are talking about the future removal and recycling of this waste dumped in our back yard.
    Where is your back yard? Could send it there along with all the grand advantages claimed to come with it.

  5. Wow sorry about your backyard … I didn’t realise you live 1km underground in a salt cave in the middle of a desert.

  6. Lindsay and Alex, you both raise some very good points.
    Whilst the company involved is clearly looking at the commercial aspects first, which makes perfect sense, in my opinion it is the government that needs to provide the missing transparency.
    People no longer trust the government and that is the crux of the issue.
    They (the government) are so intent on finding as many dollars as possible in order to pay for previous mistakes and coupled with their short sighted objectives, will ultimately result in the Federal government stepping in to the NT.


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