Cattle access to mine sites concerns NT pastoralists

James Nason, 24/08/2015

The Northern Territory is at the centre of the latest issue to test relations between the mining and agriculture sectors.

The NT Government revealed on Friday that it was notified “in the last 12 months” that as many as 400 NT cattle had access to three mine sites in the Roper Gulf and Barkly River region where the risk of exposure to heavy metal contaminants was possible.

It must be stressed that the Department maintains that its response has ensured that none of the animals that were potentially exposed to contaminants could have entered the domestic or export food supply chains.

In a statement to media on Friday, the NT DPI said it could not name the properties or mining leases for legal reasons, but it also stressed that prompt action had been taken since the initial notification to isolate and test the cattle to ensure there was no risk to public health.

“All three notifications have been investigated and all the meat was normal except one animal from the Roper Gulf region which showed a low grade lead detection in its offal,” NT Chief Veterinary Officer, Malcolm Anderson, said.

“This detection of slightly elevated levels of lead in the offal of one animal does not pose an immediate public health issue. The lead contamination only affects humans after prolonged exposure to eating high levels of lead over a long time.”

Beef Central understands the cattle involved were all owned by a single mining company which owns the mine sites and the pastoral land surrounding them.

There is no suggestion at this point that cattle outside the mining company’s herd or lands have been affected.

Dr Anderson said the NT Government worked quickly after the initial notification to ensure the NT’s reputation as a producer of clean, safe food was protected.

“To ensure public health and to protect the livestock export industry we took extensive measures and all those cattle within a 100 square kilometre radius were quarantined for a period of 12 months, with no access to local or export markets. Those that could not be mustered out were destroyed on site.”

He said the department was continuing to work with the owner regarding the ongoing monitoring of the sites.

“The cattle tested on the other two sites that tested negative are in the process of being permanently excluded as a precautionary measure.

“We took these notifications very seriously and our timely response ensured that no animals that could have been exposed to contaminants entered the domestic food supply chain or the export supply chain.”

Dr Anderson said the Department released the information on Friday to spread the message that pastoralists and miners must take all necessary precautions to ensure livestock do not enter mining areas.

“With so much mining activity in the NT, the possibility exists of future detections of cattle grazing on mine sites, as some sites may be contaminated.

“Because we take food safety so seriously, we’re taking a pro-active approach and we are forming a working group with the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association and the Department of Mines and Energy to help ensure cattle producers and mine title holders work together to ensure cattle cannot access mine sites and can help protect food safety standards.

“This working group will provide an invaluable forum between all parties to ensure we’re got the best management practices in place now and into the future.”

Dr Anderson said cattle producers who are best placed to know their land can play a vital role in protecting our domestic and export cattle industry from environmental contamination.

The NT Environmental Defenders Office is believed to have made a Freedom of Information request several months ago seeking to force the release of information surrounding the reported incident. It is understood that after months of delays, those documents will be publicly released today.

Northern Territory Cattleman’s Association chief executive officer Tracey Hayes told Beef Central the case has only strengthened the association’s resolve to see mandatory access agreements between pastoralists and mining companies introduced.

She said that while the NT cattle industry absolutely accepted the mining industry’s importance to the NT economy, it did not accept that another industry could put pastoral businesses, their livestock and their livelihoods at risk.

“Our reputation for safe and clean food is potentially being put at risk by the actions of another, that is not acceptable on any level, and the consequences of that would be enormous,” Ms Hayes said.

She said mandatory access agreements would ensure pastoralists would have a greater say and much-needed transparency over what happens on their own properties.

“Our resolve (to secure mandatory access agreements) is as strong as ever,” she said.

The NTCA is also calling on the Government to ensure full transparency by requiring that all existing and legacy mine sites in the NT be identified and fenced off, and to ensure that all risks are being appropriately managed.



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