The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article, "Legacy warning in mine collapse", published in The Weekend Australian on 23 November 2013. The article began: “The subsidence of an abandoned mine site in remote Western Australia has highlighted the ‘gigantic legacy headache’ posed by deserted mines in the state.” It said “a farmer stumbled across the collapsed mine at Norilsk’s Lake Johnston nickel operations, 540km east of Perth”.
The article said Norilsk had put its Australian operations on the market and had reported the mine as being in “care and maintenance mode”. It then reported a WA Conservation Council spokesman as saying the mine posed “an enormous safety issue”, “anyone can blunder into this hole and the fissures where the walls will continue to collapse”, closed mines were “a gigantic legacy headache for government” and that legal action should be taken against directors and mine managers who walk away from mines without rehabilitating them.
The article made other references to public costs and environmental damage arising from mines being abandoned by their owners without adequate rehabilitation. It concluded by reporting Norilsk saying the mine was a “sub-level caving operation designed to collapse” and referring to a WA Mines Department spokesperson saying it was not currently classified as a closed or abandoned mine. No reference was made to any mine other than Lake Johnston.
Norilsk complained to the Council that the headline and second paragraph described the mine as “collapsed” when it was actually a “controlled collapse”, caused by mining under ground with the intention of eventually collapsing the ground above. It said the article was inaccurate and unfair in describing the mine in the opening sentence as being “abandoned” and presenting it is an example of the problems caused by abandoned mines. In fact, it said maintenance activities were being conducted by an on-site team to help sell the mine and ensure it could be re-started readily if economic conditions improved.
Norilsk also said the site was in a remote location and a Mines Department inspection shortly after the article had confirmed it was surrounded by a fence with a number of warning signs. It said the Conservation Council spokesman had not been to the site and was not qualified to comment on this type of mine.
The publication responded that use of the word “collapse” was accurate in the ordinary sense of that term. Similarly, although it was aware the term “abandoned” has a specific meaning and the Department had not classified Lake Johnston in that way, it was accurate in the ordinary sense of the term to describe a mine that was no longer operating. In any event, it said, the article included the Norilsk quote about the “controlled collapse” as well as the Department’s statement that the mine was not classified by it as abandoned.
The publication said the Conservation Council spokesman was a former environmental inspector for the Pilbara region, experienced in the closing of mine sites and a member of the Department’s Reforming Environmental Regulation Advisory Panel. It added that its journalist had interviewed people who had entered the site without impediment other than some steel pickets and loose wire and had not seen any other people there.
The Press Council has concluded that the article inaccurately described the mine as “abandoned” and unfairly implied it was a prime example of the safety and rehabilitation problems caused by abandoned mines. The assertions of a person who had not visited the site were not sufficient to justify these aspects of the article in the face of Norilsk’s statements to the contrary. In discussions with the Council, it also emerged that concerns about public safety had been exaggerated by inaccurately stating that the mine had been “stumbled“ upon, rather than deliberately visited by crossing a fence with “no entry” signs. It was also unfair to prominently describe Lake Johnston as a “mine collapse” and a “collapsed mine”, implying it was unintended.
Accordingly, the complaint is upheld on grounds of inaccuracy and unfairness.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.”