Letter from Lake Cowal 4 February 2002

Three giant drilling rigs sit like sail ships run aground and wrecked in a lake of yellow grass. At sunset when I arrived they were silent. Turned out it was only a meal break and they are working around the clock.

Silent too was Lake Cowal. Empty now. Ephemeral. Light breeze sighing in the ragged red gums. Timeless.

When the drilling contractors, all uniformed in white hard hats, protective glasses and fluoro-orange vests, returned, the diesels and their night lights came on. Alien invasion of the night.

Bearing witness in my camp only 50 metres away, I thought how it must have been watching the First Fleeters of 1788 setting up in Sydney Cove and how unimaginable the consequences of all their visible busyness.

Thanks to what I have been reading I know that the spot where I camp is destined to become a void. A pit 1000 metres by 800 metres and 375 metres deep. Then over the next hundred years a man made lake filled by underground saline seepage, remnant poisons and site drainage. A salt lake beside and partly within a freshwater lake, separated by a bund, a manmade earth wall.

All for gold. All for greed. The rich get richer and the land degrades.

On defiant impulse I unpacked the tall red and purple flying Earth flag and rigged it to the cattle fence between the private land where the miners relentlessly drill and me in the Lake’s only public reserve. Lift the scarlet (and purple) banner high!


Before leaving West Wyalong for Lake Cowal I got a briefing on the mine development proposal from the General Manager of Bland Shire Council, Frank Zaknich. Bland Shire, hard hit by economically rational cut backs in government services and the general collapse of rural economies, is super pro-development. Frank told me that a second Commission of Inquiry had approved the development of the mine and he kindly gave me a copy of the report.

Now the miner only needs settle the native title issues and a permit to mine will be granted. Expected by the end of next February, he said.

Drilling, it seems, is proceeding in haste as the new owners, Barrick Gold, confirm the deposits before they commence excavating.

In the West Wyalong library I scanned back issues of the West Wyalong Advocate for local news and found a whole file of clips about the events of 1996 when the first Commission of Inquiry report was released.

A few weeks previous the developer, North Gold (WA) Limited, had been embarrassed by bird kills in the tailings dam of its Parkes mine. First it admitted 6 parrots dead on its tailings dam, but later it was revealed to have been over 2,000.

NSW Premier Bob Carr personally and very publicly on a national TV rejected the first Commission of Inquiry recommendations. Carr won statewide greenie points but the pro-developers of West Wyalong went ballistic at such highhanded outsider interference and, primed by the mining company PR, staged a big rally in the small town. The Town is Mine, they declared. Green MLC Ian Cohen braved the mob and was shouted down.

The pro-developers were deaf and blind to environmental issues of the Lake, which was for them just so much degraded land 43 km outside of town. But the miners were more respectful of environmental issues and negotiated a compromise. Lower and safer-for-birds cyanide levels (“a new standard in cyanide control”), a 3.5 km distancing of the tailings dam from the Lake, and increased monitoring.

North Gold also signed a Memorandum of Agreement with a group of the opposing greenies (Total Environment Centre, Safe Australia, and the NSW Conservation Council). Thus the Lake Cowal Foundation was created with $600K for Lake Cowal land care work to be provided by the mine in lumps as the mine proceeds.

So a second inquiry was held and the mine development approved.

Carr’s rejection of the first Commission of Inquiry was welcomed at the time by such as the chairperson of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Peter Prineas, as an act of responsible government and “a turn away from predictable ‘consent with conditions’ formula that Commissions of Inquiry have been grinding out since the dawn of planning”. But the second Commission of Inquiry made no such turn.

On one side Commissioner William Train heard the certainty of the economic rationalists who claimed that 10 years of mining jobs would ameliorate, if not save, the town from economic decay. On the other he heard doubts about the safety of the creatures that the Lake supports (470,000 birds of approximately 172 species including a breeding population of 82 species) and the mining company chorusing “we can fix it.” With the Cowal Main, as the gold reserve is known, worth an estimated $1.2 billion, the miners were willing to promise throwing plenty of money at problems. Promises, promises.

The outcome: recommendations of rampant technological optimism.

North Gold (WA) Limited had given something like 15 years to massaging this development approval, essentially an investment in technical report writing and PR. Having got it they sold to Homestake, which has since been merged with Barrick Gold, a Canadian based gold production giant with mines in Canada, Nevada, Peru, Tanzania, Chile and Argentina. In 2000 Barrick’s gold production was 3.7 million ounces at a cost of $US145 per ounce. Its gold reserves are estimated at 84.3 million ounces.

North Gold had acted as a pimp for the global gold fat and greedy.


Lake Cowal is an oval shape about 16 km by 8 km at high water (50% of the time), about 6 km by 4 km 90% of the time. Its major tributary, Bland Creek flows in from the south and the Lake empties into the Lachlan River about 60 km to the north and is only filled when the Lachlan floods and reverses the flow. Thus the waters of the Lake can be considered part of the vast Murray-Darling basin, which amongst other things supplies the city of Adelaide in South Australia, over a1000 km away, with its water.

 The proposed Cowal Mine would occupy an area of 2,650 ha an area almost equivalent to that of the 90%-of-the-time Lake. Apart from the huge pit, which will project into the high water zone, two massive tailings dams are envisaged, each about 1.5 km square. These have been set back from the Lake 3.5 km and the miner is promising to keep cyanide levels below a maximum 30 milligrams per litre, and below 20 mg/L 90% of the time.

It is also promised that the pit and the tailings storage will be isolated from the Lake by progressively built bunds (walls made from the excavated overburden and processed ore), and that these “new landforms” will be stable over the long term even under severe earthquake conditions.

The tailing storages would be designed to have sufficient freeboard capacity to hold water from a 1 in 1,000 year Average Recurrence Interval rainfall.

The gold processing will involve a floatation process to isolate the ore then a cyanide leach, and so use less cyanide than a heap leach process.

So much confidence in these statements. The conditions of consent go over thirty pages. No doubt someone somewhere is boasting, as they did with the approval of the Timbarra Gold Mine, that this represents a new era of environmentally responsible mine planning, is setting new standards and is the safest mine ever planned.

Sing it again, Sam.

The Timbarra Mine leaked, the developer, Ross Mining, lied and the government agencies responsible for monitoring were callow and complicit.

What is missing from William Train’s very rational and reasonable report is the unthinkable and the unprintable.

Politicians are corrupt and miners tell lies.

Mining companies of the scale of Barrick can and do buy and sell governments. The corporate money institutions and the corporate media support and cover for them. Whistle blowers get punished and bureaucrats have got families and mortgages to support and are frightened for their jobs. Monitoring is bullshit.

And they are already in bunker mode. I tried to get a briefing in the mine from the regional manager of National Parks and Wildlife Service and got referred to the departmental legal officer in Sydney.

You just gotta hope that those migratory birds have got finely tuned guidance systems and, having come all the way from China and Japan, don’t mistake the cyanide tailings dams for the Lake itself.


While reading the Train report I noticed a miner in a 4WD ute pull up at the flag and examine it. An hour later a man on a motor trike and wearing a red Australia Post cap appeared, inspected the fence and came over to my camp.

I introduced myself saying I presumed he had not come delivering mail. “Not polite to use other people’s fences for flags’, he said. He also asked if Molly, my sheepish companion, had a travel permit from the Pasture Protection Board. Never heard of such a thing until then.

He was Andrew Buttenshaw. He and his brother Bill own most of the land on the west side of the Lake including the land where the drilling was taking place. He also holds the agistment lease for the Game Reserve upon which I was camped. I recognised the name from my readings and the newspaper clips. Andrew is a major proponent of the mine.

Quietly but grimly spoken, Andrew told me that his family had been on the land by the Lake for over 100 years and that one of the worst things about the mining development was that it had drawn out all these environmental experts who had never heard of or cared about Lake Cowal until now.

He was bitter about local landholders being excluded from representation on the Lake Cowal Foundation. He was cynical about the native title claimants and their so-called “Lake Dreaming”. Three different groups. Some of them needed directions to find the Lake, he said.

I asked what was in the mining development for him, for his was the closest residence and he would have to live with the noise and dust. He said the mining company would be acquiring his land but at fair market rates. I wondered what ‘fair’ meant when 2.7 million ounces of gold was under the soil.

The real factor for him, he said, was creating wealth for the district, holding population and maintaining services. Like schools and hospitals. He said he had four children, the first three of which had been born in a labour ward in West Wyalong. The fourth, because of closure of the local hospital, had been born in Wagga Wagga, 160 km away.

I invited him to stay, have a cuppa and chat some more. But he was a busy man, off to round up his scraggy herd of mixed breed cattle.

 I sat awhile taking in the vastness of the sky and grandeur of the cloud formations that were bringing in rain. This abiding sky had witnessed many passing human fads, I mused.

 For example it had witnessed economic rationalists cut back government services and remove trade tariffs that had once given prosperity to our country towns. It was now witnessing economic rationalists decreeing, that to ameliorate the consequent poverty, it was a good thing to allow a Canadian owned mining giant to tear up the lakeshore for gold. Ten years of jobs. As transient as a cloud formation.


Truth is the Lake is much degraded.

Living trees at its margin are sparse and stressed and the lakeside marked by dead red gums, screams frozen in their reach for the sky. Because of the grazing, few young ones are coming on. Where recently was water now is green with weeds. Carp is the major problem of the Lake, Andrew told me.

To add to the bad news  an irrigation area to the north east is raising the water table and salt levels in the Lake. The salination of the The Bland Creek is presently the subject of a major interdepartmental inquiry.

Although the biggest fresh water lake in NSW its integrity was never respected as such by the land surveyors and it is divided between seventeen properties whose boundaries, visible as rusted and rotten fence lines, join along its northwest/southeast axis. When dry, the Lake is cropped and grazed.

But someone one time had thought to set aside a public reserve so that fisherpersons and duck shooters could have access to the Lake. Cultural artefacts such as the odd thong, a rusted frame of folding chair, a rusted, bullet riddled wreck of a car, an old fridge which presumably used to hold the campers ice and beer, and piles of spent stubbies, mark its heritage as a Game reserve.

As fate would have it the gold of the Cowal Main is partly under this Game Reserve. The mine developers in collusion with supporting government agencies are proposing to move the Game reserve elsewhere where it will become the object of naturalist cultivation for the Lake Cowal Foundation.

The sticking point is the mire of native title. For although the Howard government moved to protect pastoralists by extinguishing native title on freehold and perpetual leasehold land, it may still prevail on the Game reserve as Crown land.

The Train report noted that aboriginal artefacts, thought to be tool making and camping sites, had been recorded on and around the project site and that Lake Cowal is considered important to Aborigines.

The submission from NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs to the Inquiry appears to have been vague however, raising questions about native title and stressing the importance of consultation but taking no stand either way on the mine. Only one Aboriginal organization, the Orana Bellan Aboriginal corporation made a submission but only to say there had been no notice given in terms of the Native Title Act 1988.

Since the Train Inquiry the Mooka Traditional Owner’s Council, a group based in Cowra a 120 km to the east, have come out strongly against the mine saying it is right in the Wiradjuri heartland and an essential part of their children’s future. The Aboriginal custodians based at Condobolin 80 km to the north are making a separate native title claim.

It is around this late and tenuous claim and the uncertainty of native title on the Game Reserve that a new coalition of conservation groups, the Coalition to Protect Lake Cowal,  have united to continue the fight against the mine development.

Last month Al Oshlack, bush lawyer hero whose persistence on behalf of native title holders in the NSW Land and Environment Court brought the Timbarra gold mine undone, attempted on behalf of Mooka to injunct the drilling operations at Lake Cowal.

With the support of National Parks and Wildlife Service, Homestake lawyers had the application turned down though Al did manage to stop drilling for two days at a cost of $18K per day. It is evident the miners are proceeding with caution in regard to the Game Reserve. But not for long for as I key in these words in a survey team is working around me and marking out drill sites.

I am eager to meet the Wiradjuri custodians. Eager to hear their stories of Lake Cowal. Eager to know if their love of this Lake is stronger than the dollars than the miners will most certainly be brandishing at them.

Graeme Dunstan


Lake Cowal 4 February 2002