Stygofauna headaches spread to infamous Rio Tinto mining hub that employs thousands of Australians

Adrian Rauso
The Nightly
3 Min Read
The stygofauna problem has spread to Rio Tinto's Brockman iron ore project.
The stygofauna problem has spread to Rio Tinto's Brockman iron ore project. Credit: The Nightly

Microscopic water bugs are threatening to infest another mining giant as a multi-billion dollar Rio Tinto Australian iron ore expansion comes in the firing line — and not for the first time.

Rio Tinto is pleading its case to the Environmental Protection Authority that a proposed expansion of its massive Brockman iron ore hub deep in the desert of WA’s Pilbara region will not decimate the stygofauna population.

Stygofauna — which are groundwater-dwelling creatures that are typically millimetres or micrometres in size — could pose a roadblock in Rio’s plan to raze 9977 hectares of native vegetation to sustain mining at its Nammuldi-Silvergrass, Brockman 2 and Brockman 4 operations.

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The size of the proposed vegetation clearing to grow its footprint at Brockman is about 49 times the land area of Monaco in Europe.

In 2020 Rio caused global outrage after destroying ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters as part of an extension for Brockman 4. The long-standing Brockman hub is a crucial part of Rio’s 17-mine iron ore network in the Pilbara and employs around 16,000 people.

The updated Brockman proposal has been with the EPA since late 2022 and finished eight weeks of public review in November.

An EPA spokeswoman confirmed stygofauna, which falls under subterranean fauna, was being assessed as part of Rio’s proposal along with “multiple” other “key environmental factors”.

“While subterranean fauna has been identified as one of these factors, they also include flora and vegetation, terrestrial fauna, inland waters, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and social surroundings,” she said.

The spokeswoman said Rio was finalising its responses to the public submissions.

“If specific concerns relating to stygofauna were raised during this consultation, they will be addressed in these responses,” she said.

“All other direct stakeholder engagement is outlined in the proponent’s environmental review document.”

A Rio Tinto spokeswoman remained tight-lipped on the potential issues the stygofauna situation is causing, simply telling The Nightly the company would continue to work with the EPA on Brockman’s approval process.

Conservation Council of WA president Dr Richard Yin said the threat of the expansion to Australia’s biodiversity was “unacceptable”.

Rio Tinto blasted Juukan Gorge and destroyed Aboriginal sacred sites.
Rio Tinto destroyed the Juukan Gorge caves (pictured after the blast) as part of its Brockman 4 expansion. Credit: Supplied

“Rio’s Brockman proposal is the latest iron ore mining proposal that will not only clear a massive area of native vegetation and extract vast volumes of ground water but also likely impact one of the world’s most diverse areas of subterranean fauna,” Dr Yin said.

“The Pilbara is home to hundreds of subterranean species or stygofauna which are not found anywhere else on Earth.”

Dr Yin made similar comments to The Nightly last month regarding BHP’s proposed Jimblebar expansion.

The EPA’s view on BHP’s Jimblebar iron ore proposal could have a ripple effect on the long-term future of Rio Tinto’s Pilbara ambitions.

Late last year, BHP submitted its updated Jimblebar environmental proposal, noting the presence of the rare bugs.

The EPA confirmed to The Nightly last month it was paying close attention to the plans based on the possible impact of stygofauna.

“One of the potential impacts cited by the EPA in its decision to assess was the potential for significant effects upon subterranean fauna from pit dewatering and habitat loss,” an EPA spokeswoman said.

“This includes a public review where the additional information will be the subject of a four-week public consultation.”

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