Olympic Dam, South Australia

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Olympic Dam
Main shafts, 2009
Olympic Dam is located in Australia
Olympic Dam
Olympic Dam
Location in Australia
Location Olympic Dam
State  South Australia
Country Australia
Coordinates 30°26′40″S 136°52′00″E / 30.44444°S 136.86667°E / -30.44444; 136.86667Coordinates: 30°26′40″S 136°52′00″E / 30.44444°S 136.86667°E / -30.44444; 136.86667
Products copper
Opened 1988
Company BHP Billiton
Year of acquisition 2005

Olympic Dam is a mining centre in South Australia, Australia, located some 550 km NNW of Adelaide. It is the site of an extremely large iron oxide copper gold deposit producing copper, uranium, gold and silver. The site hosts an underground mine as well as an integrated metallurgical processing plant. It is the fourth largest copper deposit and the largest known single deposit of uranium in the world, although copper is the largest contributor to total revenue. Approximately 70% of revenue comes from copper, 25% from uranium, and the remainder from silver and gold. [1]There were plans to expand the mine, but this has now been postponed indefinitely pending investigation of a "new and cheaper design".[2]


Monument at the discovery hole of Olympic Dam, RD1
Chalcopyrite-rich ore specimen from Olympic Dam

Underground mine[edit]

The deposit was discovered by Western Mining Corporation in 1975 near Roxby Downs Sheep Station and started production in 1988. It now belongs to BHP Billiton, which acquired WMC Resources in 2005. The mine currently operates by an underground mining method called sublevel open stoping, using modern and highly productive mining equipment. The March 2005 mine production rate is an annualised 9.1 million tonnes making it one of Australia's larger mines. 2005 metal production is thought to be in excess of 220,000 tonnes of copper, 4500 tonnes of uranium oxide, plus gold and silver. The copper and uranium oxide are exported through Port Adelaide. Most of the mine workers live in the nearby towns of Roxby Downs and Andamooka. Regular flights to Olympic Dam Airport serve Olympic Dam.

Water supply[edit]

The Olympic Dam mine uses 35 million litres of Great Artesian Basin water each day, making it the largest industrial user of underground water in the southern hemisphere.[3] Water is pumped along an underground pipeline from two bore fields which are located 110 km and 200 km to the north of the mine.[4] The salty bore water requires desalination before it is used. Contaminated water from mining operations is passed through a series of sealed ponds where it evaporates.[4]

The high use of artesian water as a result of mine operations threatens areas of high ecological significance. In particular, the pumping of water from the bore fields has been linked to observations of reductions in flow or drying out in nearby mound springs.[5] As mound springs are the only permanent source of water in the arid interior of South Australia a delicate yet intricate ecological balance has been established [6] with prolonged isolation causing the existence of many rare and endemic species.[7]

Air pollution[edit]

Airborne pollution emissions from the Olympic Dam processing facility are reported annually to the National Pollution Inventory. Emissions exceeding 500 tonnes per annum as of 2013 are (from largest to smallest): particulate matter (10 um), oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.[8]

Proposed Expansion[edit]

In 2008, BHP Billiton completed a pre-feasibility study into the expansion of the mine's operations, with the first step of expansion scheduled for completion by late 2013. In December 2008, South Australia's Premier Mike Rann revealed advice from BHP Billiton that the project would proceed as an open-cut operation.[9]

While being welcomed at the time by State and Federal governments as a major boost to the economy, the proposed expansion of mining operations did attract considerable criticism. In 2007, BHP Billiton attracted public attention for delaying the release of its environmental impact statement for the Olympic Dam expansion, and for the company's response to inconsistencies in the scope and configuration of the proposed expansion.[10]

In May 2009, the company released an extensive Environmental Impact Statement for public comment. It revealed the detailed plans for the proposed construction and its future operation. Among the project's new infrastructure requirements were: a desalination plant at Point Lowly (Port Bonython), a rail link to Pimba, a worker accommodation village between Olympic Dam and Andamooka and a barge landing facility near Port Augusta.[11]

On 10 October 2011, State and Federal Government approvals for the mine expansion were finally granted.[12]

Seawater Desalination at Point Lowly[edit]

The Point Lowly cuttlefish aggregation may be impacted by Olympic Dam desalination plant brine.

In order to meet the project's increasing demand for water, the expansion proposed to construct a large-scale reverse osmosis seawater desalination plant at Point Lowly in Upper Spencer Gulf. The water would then be pumped north to the Olympic Dam mine site and Roxby Downs township. The proposed plant's location remains controversial due to the proximity of the proposed brine discharge to critical breeding habitat for the Giant Australian Cuttlefish, which are sensitive to increases in ocean salinity.[13]

Public opposition[edit]

In February 2012, Arabana elder Kevin Buzzacott legally challenged the Commonwealth Environment Minister Tony Burke's environmental approval of the Olympic Dam mine expansion. 'Uncle Kevin' was represented by the Environmental Defenders' Office and appeared in the Federal Court in Adelaide on 3 and 4 April 2012.[14] His case was dismissed on April 20 2012.[15] An appeal of the judge's decision in 2013 was also unsuccessful.[16]

In July 2012, more than 400 people joined the Lizard's Revenge protest at the Olympic Dam site. The anti-nuclear activists, including Elder Kevin Buzzacott, protested against the mine expansion and the uranium industry. They say the company and the government have put short-term economic gain ahead of environmental and health concerns. Organiser Nectaria Calan said police harassed protesters, demanding identification and controlling access to and from their campsite.[17]

BHP Billiton's deferral[edit]

In August 2012, BHP Billiton announced that the expansion was being postponed indefinitely pending investigation of a "new and cheaper design".[2] The South Australian Mineral Resources and Energy Minister, Tom Koutsantonis in response to this announcement stated "they will be developed (and) it will bring a great deal of prosperity." However the Premier, Jay Weatherill, warned BHP "given that this is the second time they have disappointed South Australians, there can be no doubt that this community permission will come at a (greater) cost" next time.[18]

In December 2013, the Federal Government expressed its support for the revival of the Olympic Dam expansion project. The announcements were made in the wake of news that General Motors Holden would be ceasing its car production operations in South Australia in 2017.[19] Members of South Australia's business community believe that the state's future prosperity should not be dependent on the Olympic Dam expansion proceeding and have expressed the need for Government to support a diversified economy.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=jsct/8august2006/subs2/sub34_1.pdf
  2. ^ a b http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-08-22/bhp-billiton-profit-falls-a-third/4215638
  3. ^ Indigenous nuclear campaigner wins national environment award
  4. ^ a b Pigram, John J. (2007). Australia's Water Resources: From use to management. Collingwood, Victoria: CSIRO Publishing. p. 112. ISBN 9780643094420. 
  5. ^ Mudd, G. (2000). "Mound springs of the Great Artesian Basin in South Australia: a case study from Olympic Dam". Environmental Geology 39 (5): 463. doi:10.1007/s002540050452. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  6. ^ Keane, D, 1997, The Sustainability of Use of Groundwater from the Great Artesian Basin, with Particular Reference to the South-Western Edge of the Basin and Impact on the Mound Springs, Environmental Engineering, RMIT, 76 p.
  7. ^ Kinhill, 1997, Olympic Dam Expansion Project Environmental Impact Statement, Prepared for WMC (Olympic Dam Corporation) Pty Ltd by Kinhill Engineers Pty Ltd, May 1997, 500 p.
  8. ^ "2012/2013 report for BHP BILLITON OLYMPIC DAM CORPORATION PTY LTD, BHP Billiton Olympic Dam - Roxby Downs, SA". National Pollution Inventory. Australian Government. Retrieved 2015-02-24. 
  9. ^ $7bn BHP Billiton mine giant to go ahead: Mike Rann
  10. ^ Uranium mining and the question of corporate social responsibility
  11. ^ ABC - PM "BHP Billiton Environmental Impact Statement released for Olympic Dam expansion" (2009-05-01)
  12. ^ "Huge Olympic Dam mine expansion wins federal nod". ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). 10 October 2011. Retrieved 10 October 2011. 
  13. ^ Schliebs, Mark "Fears remain that safeguards won't save giant cuttlefish" The Australian 2011-10-11.
  14. ^ "Elder Kevin Buzzacott challenges decision to expand Olympic Dam" The Advertiser (2012-04-03)
  15. ^ Friends of the Earth Adelaide "Legal challenge of federal approval of the Olympic Dam expansion continues" Retrieved 2013-11-27.
  16. ^ The Australian "Aboriginal elder loses bid to block $30bn Olympic Dam mine expansion" (2013-10-08)
  17. ^ Sarah Martin (16 July 2012). "Police accused over Olympic Dam protest". The Australian. 
  18. ^ = "BHP Billiton's decision won't be covered by tax hike says SA Premier Jay Weatherill" News.com.au 2012-08-23. =
  19. ^ Maher, Sid & Shanahan, Dennis "Tony Abbott's push for Olympic Dam revival" The Australian, 2013-12-24. Accessed 2013-12-26.
  20. ^ Mather, Joanna "Olympic Dam no SA panacea: business leaders" Australian Financial Review, 2013-12-24.

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