A contentious minerals exploration project in outback South Australia, approved by the Premier, is prompting calls for a change to heritage laws.

Key points:

  • A minerals exploration company has been given approval to drill at Lake Torrens, a sacred site
  • SA Greens want protection of Aboriginal heritage improved
  • The SA Government says the drilling will not permanently affect the lake’s cultural heritage

Premier Steven Marshall, who is also the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, approved an application by exploration company Kelaray to explore for ore bodies on the surface of Lake Torrens.

The salt lake, part of a national park, is considered sacred by at least four Aboriginal nations but does not have any native title protections.

Kelaray, a subsidiary of Argonaut Resources, made the application under Section 23 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, which allows the minister to approve the damage or disturbance of sacred sites.

An email obtained by the ABC revealed almost every Aboriginal person consulted on the project opposed it, but Mr Marshall chose to prioritise the project’s potential economic benefits.

The State Government says the drilling will not cause permanent damage.(Supplied: Rebecca Tayler)

The approval has prompted calls from the SA Greens to change the act to give Aboriginal people a greater voice.

“If we’re really going to get serious about reconciliation in this state, I think that act needs to be revisited and done properly this time,” Greens MP Tammy Franks said.

“Not rammed through Parliament in a couple of days, but properly considered and Aboriginal voices heard.

“The review should really listen to Aboriginal people this time.

Government defends decision

Mr Marshall was not available for an interview, but a Government spokesperson defended the Premier’s decision.

“This follows extensive consultation with Aboriginal organisations and people claiming an interest in Lake Torrens,” the spokesperson said.

“The authorisation requires Argonaut to undertake its exploration in accordance with conditions to minimise impacts of the program and to keep interested Aboriginal parties informed on a regular basis of the progress of the company’s work.”

The spokesperson said Mr Marshall also took into account:

  • a history of mineral exploration activity on Lake Torrens and close to its shoreline, with government records indicating the first exploration hole was drilled in 1960
  • the granting of 282 exploration licences over areas of Lake Torrens since the early 1970s
  • Section 23 authorisations approved in 2010 and 2018 by the former government to permit exploration on and in the vicinity of Lake Torrens
  • a separate Section 23 authorisation would have to be sought by Kelaray if exploration led to any proposal to mine at Lake Torrens

The SA Greens want changes to the state Aboriginal Heritage Act.(Supplied: Tony Magor/Department of Environment and Water)

Project on scale ‘never seen before’

SA Labor’s Aboriginal affairs spokesperson, Kyam Maher, defended the 2010 and 2018 approvals that were made when his party was in government.

Mr Maher said those projects were on a smaller scale.

“Very widescale drilling over a very large area and people are concerned that firstly, it is happening, and also what sort of conditions are on there to make sure it’s done sensibly?”

He said heritage concerns and minerals projects needed to be given equal weight.

“Once Aboriginal heritage is destroyed or damaged on such a large scale, you can’t reverse that,” Mr Maher said.

“I think people are more alive to some of the concerns that Aboriginal people and traditional owners have.”