ABC Radio Julia Christensen interviews Justin O'Brien about uranium drums found at Noonamah

Publish Date:
20th November 2013

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JULIA CHRISTENSEN:            Certainly some concerns in Jabiru when drums, that look like the ones used at the Ranger Uranium Mine were found recently in bush land near Noonamah. ERA says it's inspected the site and the drums and they're not radioactive. But questions have been raised about security at the mine, especially as it comes just a week after one of the mine's cars was stolen and found in Jabiru.                                              
Justin O'Brien is from the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, Justin, good morning.

JUSTIN O'BRIEN:                   Good morning, Julia, how are you?

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:            Good. A stolen car, and some drums that look like the ones used by ERA at the Ranger Uranium Mine, are they really big issues?

JUSTIN O'BRIEN:                   First of all, these are the drums, the type of which they're used to store yellowcake, they were returned to the Ranger Mine, and they're now safely stored there. So, I don't think there's any question that those drums originally came from the mine. Well, they are big issues, they're not - I should stress, they're not environmental issues per se, subject to what we - you know, the further information coming in. The central question here is - this would appear to be, you know, a repeated failure of the control measures, the radiological control measures at the mine site. That, you know, one week you can have something, you know, about as small as a jar of uranium, but nothing as - like a car, leave the site via a fence that's been cut down, the hole in the fence being there for God knows how long, and a catering (*) company detecting this car with stolen goods, apparently, 20 kilometres down the highway. And, within a week of that, revelations that four of the drums of the type used to store yellowcake are in bush land outside Darwin, with no explanation as to how they got there at all.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:            Have you been able to find out anything about how they might have got there?

JUSTIN O'BRIEN:                   No, all we know, and you know, the mining company are - thankfully communicated with us early, all we know is the Department of Health and the NT Department of Health contacted them earlier in the week to say, looks like we have some of your drums sitting at Noonamah, please retrieve them.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:            In 2004, a bobcat was stolen from Ranger, there was an incident where some workers drank contaminated water, Rio Tinto said such breaches would never happen again. Are you concerned that radioactive security measures have become a bit slack, or that these - are you convinced that these are isolated incidents?

JUSTIN O'BRIEN:                   Unfortunately it would appear to be something more than isolated incidents, where you have, you know, the potable water incident, where processed water was put into workers' drinking supply, and the town - and the area of Jabiru east was contaminated with process water in 2004. Several weeks after that, you have the bobcat being taken off the site, contaminated with mud which had uranium in it being cleaned at a public place where children play in Jabiru. And investigation, many hands on hearts, this will never happen again. But, primarily, on the part of the mining company, the actions were to be taken by them. Now, we find - who knows when these drums left the site, who knows what they ever had in them, right now it appears, based on preliminary tests, that there is no contamination in them, let's find out. Who knows how long the fence was out. It points to a failure, we say, in the regime, the radiological management plan at the site.  Now, ironically, we have an agency specialised - Federal Government agency, the supervising scientist position, tasked with administering the [indistinct] legislation, and making sure that the Kakadu environment is safe from mining. And, to date, their response as typified in estimates this week, has been largely dismissive. Now, it would appear, ironically, that radiological control measures are lessened by the presence of the OSS (*) than heightened. So, I would think that the new Minister for Industry, Minister Macfarlane, really needs to weigh into this and help us out here determine how these things can happen, how standards can drop so low. Because, it's an important part of our regional economy. Our relationship with the mining company has been improving in leaps and bounds in recent years, this year we concluded, you know, the renegotiation of the Ranger Agreement, we have their support on the Jabiru Native Title Claim, we're working with them on some of our socio-economic reform, we sit on a trust with them. So, these things only serve to send that relationship back to the more bitter days of dispute. And, of course, it comes at a time when we're - on our very table is the proposal for Ranger 3 Deeps, through the mining at Ranger. So, it doesn't auger well for those talks.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:            Justin O'Brien, thanks for your time this morning.

JUSTIN O'BRIEN:                   Thanks a lot.

JULIA CHRISTENSEN:            Justin O'Brien from the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation.

                                               ERA says the drums were collected on Monday, they are of a type used by Ranger and were weathered and fire damaged. They've been inspected by the Health Department and have been found to have no radioactive material. They say they have strict controls over the movement and tracking of drums containing export ready product material, that is radioactive material, but still no word on how on earth these drums could have ended up in the bush in Noonamah.