A Grandmother at the Gates of Hell

A grandmother reports from the front-line at the Olympic Dam protest, 'The Lizards Revenge'.

As I write, the ABC has just reported that some protesters have breached an outside fence at the entrance to BHP-Billiton’s copper and uranium mine at Olympic Dam just north of Roxby Downs, South Australia.

It takes three or more days to drive from the eastern states to the mine. I arrived at the police roadblock near the town on the morning of 14 July 2012. The police were pleasant enough, asking me to pull over behind another vehicle. They didn’t ask me for my name and address, but then a quick scan of my number plate would have given them this information. Other protesters were not treated so lightly. Convoys were stopped en route, names and addresses demanded. One vehicle was declared unroadworthy.

I waited while the driver of the vehicle in front of me gave a media interview, then we were escorted, two police on motor bikes in front and behind, into the Lizard’s Revenge campsite. Now I know how the Queen must feel when she has a motorcycle escort! Named for Kalta, a sleepy lizard who has become angry at the destruction and danger the mine poses on ancient Aboriginal lands, the camp has been set up on Crown Land about 2 kms from the mine entrance, dubbed the “Gates of Hell” by anti-nuclear protesters.

When we arrived protesters numbered about 200 with a rumoured 450 police in close proximity––on foot, in vehicles, on horseback and in the air: “Overkill”, according to anyone at the camp. To me the police security was “over the top”, figuratively and literally. I wondered how much has been spent on this security and was it all necessary. It was more intense than any I’d experienced, except perhaps in the United States where the National Guard aboard a helicopter once held rifles above the heads of demonstrators marching in support of an American Indian activist.

As the day wore on at the Lizard’s Revenge campsite more protesters arrived––about 300 of us of all ages from all over Australia and many other countries, marched the 2kms to the mine gates, leaving the camp about 1.00 pm. Beside the track leading out of the campsite, there were a number of dead feral cats––victims of 1080? I wondered about the safety of the many dogs campers had brought with them. Police lined the route, following us in vehicles. A child was not allowed to take his bike––no vehicles, except police vans, allowed in the “protected area” in which the mine is located. Kids were carried or walked, some getting sore feet or crying from the stress of the distance on small legs.

As we entered the road leading towards the mine, a policeman with a loud hailer, that could not be heard (was it turned on?), read out police powers in the “protected area”: police have the right to ask for names and addresses and to demand body searches. Hardly anyone could hear the message, but once we got closer to the mine entrance another police officer was re-reading the powers, this time loudly enough for the marchers to hear.

There was little tension in the air, despite the heavy police presence. Creativity contrasted with the grimness of the gates and fences. Arabunna Elder, Uncle Kevin Buzzacott walked along to the end of the road with a supporting stick. Many demonstrators sat down on the road in front of the gates, listening to Uncle Kevin and Friends of the Earth’s Jim Green explain why the mine should be shut down. From my point of view, the Olympic Dam mine is destroying Aboriginal land, it is splitting communities, it is endangering the lives of mineworkers and their families. Uranium should not be sold to any country, let alone to those that have not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The ongoing dangers of nuclear power stations have been starkly brought home at Fukushima, Japan. There remain the dangers of plutonium and nuclear weapons. Weapons containing depleted uranium still kill men, women and children in a number of countries. Plutonium with a very long half-life is still a component in nuclear weapons. While the British Government has “cleaned up” Maralinga, you wonder if the Aboriginal lands where atomic tests were conducted could ever be safe. Meanwhile a nuclear waste dump is proposed for Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, again splitting the local Aboriginal people into those for and those against the dump. And you wonder if the dump will be expanded to take international nuclear waste. We don’t need nuclear power. We can power the world on solar and other alternative energy sources like wind, geo-thermal and wave power.

The festival atmosphere of the first day, reflecting the effects of uranium and the nuclear industry on the planet, ended with dancing in front of the gates and no known confrontations. The police obliged Uncle Kevin, who is not well and could not make the journey back on foot, with a lift back to camp in a police car. But the peaceful atmosphere was not to last. As we’ve noticed many times before, there is a pattern to police behaviour at anti-mining and other demonstrations––their attitudes can change in a very short time. The friendly young copper who chats with demonstrators of about the same age, can turn into a dangerous, violent brute in the blink of an eye.

At night a police surveillance helicopter flies over the camp at regular intervals, adding to the noise of the camp. While some in the know brought earplugs with them, many campers were exhausted by morning from the booming bands, the fireworks, the continual heavy traffic to the mine––it is still operating––and the sounds of loud voices and more arriving demonstrators. Not to mention people walking past tents. And perhaps police on horseback? (Suspicious hoofmarks in the sand in the morning.) It’s very cold in the desert at night too. Tents were covered in frost. And despite pleas in event brochures not to shit or piss in the bush and to use the pit toilets—there were only four on the first day for up to 400 people. Public health should be a major priority. There can never be too many loos…Demonstrators need to be healthy and up to the tasks ahead and be allowed to look after the aging, the frail and the sick, who have the right to demonstrate too, when necessary.

Yesterday the police would not allow protesters to push Uncle Kevin, who was exhausted from the walk the day before, to the mine gates in the creative “lizard car”, representing Kalta––no vehicles, except those belonging to the police, allowed in the “protective area.” Would someone in a wheelchair be allowed on the road to the Gates of Hell?

Today, some protesters had had enough. They took to the road in another attempt to reach the gates. They did. Some knocked down an outside fence but did not breach the second gate to the mine. This tactic may not win too many supporters, but it made international headlines.

I went to the Gates of Hell on 14 July to honour my deceased mother and aunt recalling their anguish at the British atomic tests in the 1950s. Mum died in 2009, still anti-nuclear, still worried about strontium 90 in our milk. My aunty died in Adelaide in 1977, a victim of cancer like all of her neighbours, some of whom had been pastoralists in areas to the north. I’ve always wondered if fallout from the atomic tests was to blame, but how could you prove it? I also went to Olympic Dam in support of the nuclear veterans who stood before atomic blasts as human guinea pigs. Many have died from radiation-related diseases. For years they were not recognised as veterans because they had not served in “theatres of war”. Everyone should read the Report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing in Australia––extremely interesting reading. I also went to the Gates of Hell because I fear for the future of my children and grandchildren in a resurgent nuclear world.

16 July 2012

Protesting against the proposed open-pit expansion of BHP Billiton's 'Olympic Dam' mine in South Australia.  Day 3 - The Lizards Revenge. Protesters pushed and pulled back and forth on the gate of the outer fence at Olympic Dam mine site until the lock broke. Some protesters then pushed their way through a cyclone wire which then gave them access to the inner security fence. Police and BHP Billiton employed security guards lined up behind the inner fence.
News report and Footage: ABC TV