Environment Law in the Northern Territory

Water and mining

Overview

Exploration and mining operations can use large amounts of water.  Mining works may require groundwater to be pumped out of a mine (called dewatering) in order for the mine to operate.  The processing of mining ores can also require water to be used.   A consequence of water use and/or dewatering may be that water levels in areas surrounding a mining operation may be reduced.  For example, surrounding land users may notice reduction of water supply to their bores or wells.

In addition, the process of separating the ores or minerals that have been mined from the other rocks, may generate tailings (unwanted liquids and solids that are byproducts of the separation process).  Tailings, which are often deposited in tailings dams, can pose an environmental hazard due to the threat of any contaminants in tailings being released, which may cause water pollution.

Despite these risks, the mining industry in the Northern Territory is exempt from most of the requirements of the Water Act, particularly with regard to limits on water extraction and use.[1]  This means that mining companies exploring and mining[2] for minerals or extractive minerals, oil, or gas can: [3]

  • take surface water without a licence
  • drill and construct bores and extract groundwater without a licence
  • construct a dam or alter the flow of a waterway without a permit
  • interfere with or obstruct waterways in situations where this would ordinarily be an offence
  • cause waste to come into contact with water or cause water pollution in the course of activities on a mining site.

Mining companies do need to obtain underground waste disposal licences to dispose of waste underground, if the disposal is beyond a mining site boundary.

Water extraction

When a mineral title is granted, a mining company has the right use water in that title.  There are no restrictions on the amount of water that can be used by mining companies within their title area.[4]  The right to use water includes the right to take or divert water in the title area.  It includes the right to sink a well or bore.[5]

Mining and water pollution

The Water Act imposes criminal offences when environmental harm is caused as a result of unauthorised pollution.[6]  However, the pollution of water that occurs in the course of carrying out a mining (or petroleum) activity and that is confined within a mining (or petroleum) site is exempted from the offence provisions under the Water Act. Pollution from mining operations is instead regulated by laws that apply to the specific type of resource being mined.  For example:

  • the Mining Management Act imposes offences for the contact of waste with, and the pollution of, water resulting in environmental harm that occurs within a mining site; and
  • the Petroleum Act sets up offences for pollution of water resulting in environmental harm that occurs within a petroleum site.

Water pollution which emanates from a mining site onto land that is not a mining site is regulated under the Water Act.  For more information about water pollution, please read our Fact Sheet on Water Pollution.  For information about pollution from mining industries more generally, please read our Fact Sheet on Waste and pollution from mining.

Geothermal energy mining operations are regulated by the Water Act and require licences in the same way as any other industry.

Who can I report my complaints or concerns to?

There are two Northern Territory Government departments responsible for water regulation:

  • the Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy is responsible for water regulation and water pollution on mining sites; and
  • the Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management is responsible for water regulation and water pollution that is not on a mining site.

The Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy has Mining Officers responsible for receiving and investigating complaints about mining sites.[7] Complaints are confidential.  The Mining Officers are not allowed to disclose your name to anyone. [8]   Concerns or complaints about operational mines can be reported to:

Director of Mining Environmental Compliance
Department of Mines and Energy
GPO Box 3000
Darwin
NT 0801

Or by email to: mineral.info@nt.gov.au.

If you have a concern about water management or water pollution that is not on a mining site, you can contact the Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management.  The Controller of Water Resources is entitled to have access to information from mining companies, such as water samples, geological samples and reports.[9]


[1] s7 Water Act

[2] s7 Water Act is directed at “mining or petroleum activity”.  Mining activity means any of the following activities:(a) exploration for minerals; (b) mining of minerals; (c) processing of minerals, tailings, spoil heaps or waste dumps; (d) decommissioning or rehabilitation of a mining site; (e) operations and works in connection with the activities in paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d), including: (i) the removal, handling, transport and storage of minerals, substances, contaminants and waste; and (ii) the construction, operation, maintenance and removal of plant and buildings; (ea) operations and works in connection with exploration or mining generally; (eb) the construction, maintenance and use of infrastructure authorised by an access authority;

(f) operations for the care and maintenance of a mining site when an activity referred to in another paragraph of this definition, except paragraph (e), is suspended.

[3] see s7(1) and s7(2) Water Act

[4] Water use with in a title area is permitted as of right under s81 Mineral Titles Act.  Additionally the requirements of the Water Act with regard to extraction permits do not apply.

[5] s81(a) and (b) Mineral Titles Act

[6] s16 Water Act

[7] s61(f) Mining Management Act

[8]s62 Mining Management Act

[9] s39(2)(a) Water Act