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Australia's Argonaut says to start drilling despite Aboriginal appeal

MELBOURNE, March 17 (Reuters) - Miner Argonaut Resources said on Wednesday it would go ahead with final preparations for drilling at its Murdie project in South Australia, despite a legal challenge by an Aboriginal group which says it would damage a sacred area.

The miner, whose subsidiary Kelaray received state government approval to drill on the shores of Lake Torrens in January, is set to start exploration this week.

“Argonaut notes that exploration works being undertaken at the Murdie project have been duly authorised. The Company is confident that the State’s authorisation process was robust,” it said in a statement to the stock exchange.

“Argonaut is continuing with final preparations for drilling at the Murdie site.”

Australian state and federal laws around Aboriginal heritage protection are under national review after Rio Tinto Ltd legally blew up ancient rock shelters for an iron ore mine, exposing a legal framework skewed to support development.

Australian Aboriginal culture is regarded as the oldest living civilisation and the rock shelters showed among the earliest evidence of human habitation.

The Barngarla Aboriginal Corporation (BDAC) said in a statement on Wednesday that it had lodged a legal challenge in South Australia’s Supreme Court against the decision.

“(Lake Torrens) is a very significant site to the Barngala people,” chairperson Jason Bilney told Reuters.

“Drilling into mother earth is like putting a knife into her... Now we have launched proceedings in the Federal court.”

Below Lake Torrens are fresh water aquifers that Aboriginal groups fear could be damaged by mining, jeopardising water supplies in the arid region, while the lake itself is part of their spiritual beliefs.

The South Australian government has said that it granted the drilling partly because of previous activity around the lake and that a separate permit would be needed for mining activity.

The court has scheduled a directions hearing for April 23, 2021. (Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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