Fresh call for health tests on Groote Eylandt due to mine dust, following chief minister’s resignation

Fresh call for health tests on Groote Eylandt due to mine dust, following chief minister’s resignation

The reshuffled Northern Territory government has refused to investigate health concerns about the remote manganese mine at the centre of former chief minister Natasha Fyles’s resignation last month.

Key points:

  • The remote teacher who first raised dust concerns has written to the new NT government
  • The NT Health Department says no action is required at this time
  • The CLP has also refused to commit to manganese health testing on Groote Eylandt 

On remote Groote Eylandt off Arnhem Land, Indigenous communities have long lived alongside manganese dust from South32’s massive Gemco mine.

The fine black dust coats roads and cars, and settles upon and inside homes.

Three years ago remote music teacher Jeff Aschmann discovered the island’s Anindilyakwa Land Council had commissioned manganese exposure testing

The council revealed to the ABC the testing found “concerningly high” levels of manganese in Indigenous residents’ nails and hair.

“We have to take this seriously, and we’re not going to take it seriously unless we get out there and establish an assessment,” Mr Aschmann said.

“The mine has been in operation for more than 50 years and we’re still concerned about health guidelines and we still have complaints.”

Jeff Aschmann wants the NT government to do a health assessment on Groote Eylandt.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Fyles ‘made a mistake’ prior to resignation

In December, Ms Fyles was forced to resign after it was revealed she held undisclosed shares in South32.

The uncovering of the shareholding raised serious conflict of interest concerns for Ms Fyles due to her decision earlier in 2023, as both chief minister and health minister, not to look into the health impacts of the mine’s dust particles.

“I made a mistake … it is clear that I have failed to meet the standards set for us,” she said last month about her failure to disclose the shareholding.

The World Health Organization is one of numerous official sources which disseminates warnings that breathing in even low levels of manganese causes respiratory and brain function damage.

So called “manganese madness” effects also include a loss of movement, coordination, nervousness, irritability, aggression and destructiveness.

Piles of manganese ore wait to be transported from the nearby South32 Gemco mine.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

South32 has told the ABC it has dust mitigation measures in place including spraying down roads and that it has had only “limited” exceedance of mine dust guidelines.

The company said it was “in discussions with the Northern Territory government and the  Anindilyakwa Land Council regarding further studies into dust on the Eylandt”.

“The health of everyone on Groote Eylandt is extremely important to us,” South32 added.

“We have a robust dust management program including monitoring, mitigation measures and controls across our GEMCO site.

“Any exceedances are investigated and additional controls are put in place, if required.”

The Anindilyakwa Land Council told the ABC it stopped its testing because manganese in people could be naturally occurring from soil or water, and it was working with the miner to agree on more ways to suppress dust.

Renewed appeals for health tests on Groote Eylandt

Mr Aschmann has now made another appeal to the reshuffled NT government.

“I’ve written to the Minister of Health Selena Uibo asking her for an urgent assessment of the health and wellbeing of the Aboriginal people on Groote Eylandt,” he said. 

“It is her electorate of Arnhem, she must know people there.

“The community of Angurugu is right beside the mine and people are concerned about the impact of it.”

Manganese dust has collected on abandoned cars near the Gemco port loader.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

When asked by the ABC if she would order testing, Minister Uibo referred the query to the NT Health Department.

The department responded that the mine had a dust mitigation strategy “and at this time no further actions are required”.

The department added it was seeking input from researchers to determine whether any research was necessary “to determine any potential adverse health impacts from manganese exposure in dust”.

NT Chief Minister Eva Lawler said she would leave it up to the Health Minister to decide on any action.

“That mine has been there for a very long time on Groote Eylandt, has been there for 40, 50 years, but we do also want territorians to be safe and healthy,” Ms Lawler added.

Eva Lawler was sworn is as the NT’s 13th chief minister in December.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Opposition leader Lia Finocchiaro also would not commit to health testing if her government was elected in August.

She has only promised to probe Natasha Fyles’s decision.

“A CLP government into the future commits to reviewing that decision on its merits,” Ms Finocchiaro said.

“We’re very concerned about the health of territorians, but what we need to do to restore certainty to territorians is review that decision made by the former chief minister.”

Mr Aschmann said he was worried both parties may be more concerned about the politics of whether to carry out testing near the mine, than the health of Indigenous people.

“It’s not a case of pro-mining, or anti-mining, it’s a case of the impacts of this mine on the health of Aboriginal people on Groote Eylandt,” he said.

“This should transcend politics, we really need more information, and we need to mitigate better than we are doing now because the outcomes over the last 57 years have been unacceptable, and that’s not been in the best interests of any political party.”

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