Prospectors win

AFTER nearly 20 years of having their traditional hunting grounds reduced, WA prospectors have won a land rights battle – opening up an estimated 26 million hectares to exploration.

They have won their argument that since the 1978 changes to the Mining Act came into effect in 1982, the amount of land they could roam has been eroded.

That Act allowed mining companies to lock up 150 square kilometre land parcels with exploration licences.

Some mining companies can have eight or 10 land parcels under exploration licences at any one time, but only be working on one or two of them.

New changes to the Mining Act will allow prospectors with mining rights access to Crown Land that is covered by exploration licences.

This is expected to open 26 million hectares under a one year trial.

Under the new trial, prospectors will need to get a permit to access the land and they can only work it with hand tools. They will only be allowed to excavate two metres below the surface.

Prospectors have a strong place in WA’s history. Until the past few years, they were making most of the major gold finds, and some of the major base metals.

Amalgamated Prospectors and Leaseholders Association president Scott Wilson said the Act change was a big win for prospectors.

“There is still some red tape involved with it that we’re not happy about but it’s better than what we’ve had for the past few years,” Mr Wilson said.

“We prospectors have become more used to laws going against us and our rights being taken away.”

One of WA’s earliest Mining Acts was very prospector-friendly. Mining companies were only allowed to peg a site after the prospectors had finished with it.

The 1978 Act that created exploration licences hurt the industry and then the 1991 introduction of the gold tax sent it reeling.

Prospectors were hit hard again by the Federal Government’s 1996 decision to remove the income tax exemptions from the sale of mining leases. Traditionally prospectors have made discoveries and sold shares in a venture to fund further exploration of the deposit. The tax laws meant they would be taxed on the share sales even if they had not received any income from the venture.

Mr Wilson said prospectors operated differently to mining companies and could be very effective in finding valuable deposits.

“We’re the footsoldiers of the mining industry,” he said.

Mr Wilson said prospectors were only looking for alluvial deposits. Significant alluvial finds could hint at deposits that were not turned up through geochemical exploration means.

Mining industry groups have opposed the Act changes, saying they open up safety, environmental and Aboriginal heritage liability questions.

Association of Mining and Exploration Companies chief executive George Savell said the whole question of exploration licences had been “badly thought through”.

“There are too many unanswered questions,” he said.

“If we get down to it, there are questions regarding environmental, Native Title and Aboriginal heritage liabilities. Who has liability?

“The underlying title holder is likely to get left with the problems.

“The idea of prospecting is not to look for surface nuggets. It’s digging holes. What happens if a pastoralist rides into one on his motorbike while he’s checking on his sheep.”

Mr Savell said the prospectors’ discovery rate would be very low.

“It’s all a bit of a con,” he said.

Chamber of Minerals and Energy chief executive Ian Satchwell said his organisation had misgivings about changes to the Act but would try to make them work.

“I hope the prospectors will adhere to the letter and spirit of the law,” Mr Satchwell said.

“It’s an annoyance to the industry. We argued vigorously against these changes but our arguments were unsuccessful.”

Department of Minerals and Energy director of mineral titles Roy Burton said the liability concerns thrown up by the mining industry were covered in the new legislation.

“Because prospectors are limited to using hand-held tools, they can only cause limited damage,” Mr Burton said.

“From an Aboriginal point of view we consider this to have low impact. From a heritage point of view we have to make sure this doesn’t interfere with Aboriginal sites.”

Mr Burton said under the Mining Act all miners were required to fill in any holes they dug.

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