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Traditional owners, environment group lodge legal challenge over McArthur River Mine Supreme Court decision

Garawa man Jack Green says Traditional Owners will continue protecting their country.  (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

A coalition of traditional owners and environment groups are challenging a recent Supreme Court ruling that found it was not unlawful when the Northern Territory Mining Minister slashed the rehabilitation bond at one of the world's largest lead and zinc mines.

In April, lawyers from the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) lost a long-running legal battle over the McArthur River Mine, which sits about 1,000km south-east of Darwin near the community of Borroloola, and has been at the centre of a string of environmental scandals.

They had argued Mining Minister Nicole Manison's decision to reduce the mine's $520 million security bond by $120 million in late 2020 was unlawful.

They also challenged the decision to approve the expansion of the mine's waste rock dump and open-cut pit without an amended end-of-life plan.

The mine's security bond has since been increased to $476 million. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Justice Judith Kelly quashed the legal challenge, saying the plaintiffs had failed to establish that Ms Manison's decisions were "unreasonable", or that they didn't comply with the mandatory requirements in the Mining Management Act.

On Monday, lawyers on behalf of Garawa man Jack Green, Gudanji woman and native title holder Josephine Davey, and the Environment Centre NT, lodged an appeal to have Justice Kelly's ruling overturned.

"We want them to listen about how to protect our land and our home," Ms Davey said.

She said she is concerned the mine site – owned by Glencore — won't be returned to its original state when operations eventually end. 

Rehabilitation bonds are a financial security mines pay to governments to cover any clean-up costs to prevent the toll falling on the taxpayer if operators walk away.

"The court's decision last month poses unacceptable risks to local communities impacted by mining, and to taxpayers who are frequently left to foot the bill for mine site rehabilitation," Environment Centre NT director Kirsty Howey said.

"It's crucial that governments ensure the cost of rehabilitating mines is properly placed on the companies who inflict the damage.

"On the mine's own assessment, it will require some form of monitoring for 1,000 years. The mine's security bond should reflect that."

Kirsty Howey has said the Supreme Court decision could set a precedent for future mines. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

EDO managing lawyer Elanor Fenge said the judge's decision runs the risk of exposing the region to more abandoned so-called legacy mines.

Legacy mines are disused mines where taxpayers have been forced to foot multi-million-dollar bills to curtail their toxic aftermath.

"The court's decision does not require a security bond that reflects the actual costs of rehabilitating the mine at the end of the mine's life in 2037," Ms Fenge said.

"That's a concern for the community in Borroloola."

The McArthur River Mine sits on one of the world’s largest zinc, lead and silver deposits. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Mr Green, a senior elder from Borroloola said while the court's decision was a blow to the community, the fight wasn't over.

"[The] decision makes it hard for [the community] and pulls them down," he said. 

"It makes us more sad because there are a lot of sacred sites around the mine we are worried about that are part of our law and culture."

A spokesperson for Mining Minister Nicole Manison said she wouldn't be commenting as the matter is before the court.

Glencore has also been contacted for comment. 

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