ABC Radio Kate O'Toole intervews Lauren Mellor about uranium drums at Noonamah

Publish Date:
20th November 2013

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KATE O’TOOLE:                     But first though to the story of the uranium barrels found in Darwin's rural area yesterday. Lauren Mellor is the nuclear-free campaigner with the Northern Territory Environment Centre. When did you hear, Lauren, that these barrels were discovered?

LAUREN MELLOR:                 Oh okay, thanks for having us on the program. Yeah, we only heard through the Environment Centre yesterday that the Department of Health had made a report that these four missing barrels had been returned to ERA and back to the site at Ranger. So we found out as everyone else did through the media which is a pretty alarming situation that these barrels have just turned up in rural Darwin and no-one's been aware and the Department of Health has had to identify that on behalf of the company and make a report.

KATE O’TOOLE:                     So do you know what the state of the barrels was? Was there much uranium in them or traces or what exactly was found?

LAUREN MELLOR:                 We understand that they haven't been found to be contaminated barrels but they were clearly marked as property of ERA and they were barrels that are used for the transport of uranium as we understand it but there's not much other information coming out from the company about how one of those barrels did end up in the rural area in Darwin; whether they were being used as part of transport for export. I've contacted ERA yesterday to try and get some further information on that and so far they haven't been forthcoming about what the purpose of these barrels was travelling through Noonamah at the time.

KATE O’TOOLE:                     But if there's no contamination, then there's no problem, is there?

LAUREN MELLOR:                 Yes, I think this goes to the heart of the security issues around the transport of a highly toxic substance that we're moving through the Northern Territory. I think most Territorians would be highly concerned to know that barrels that could be used for the transport of uranium and are designated as such for that purpose are being found, just turning up. Possibly not contaminated but that doesn't really explain how they managed to get off-site in a highly controlled area. This should be one of the most controlled substances in the Northern Territory in the world for its security risks and environmental and public health risks. But [indistinct].

KATE O’TOOLE:                     [Talks over] But there's not necessarily been a problem with the control of the substance at all. It's just an issue with the control of the devices that could be used to carry the substance. If you know that they're clean barrels, then surely there's no real problem.

LAUREN MELLOR:                 Well, the company hasn't actually explained how barrels used for the transport of uranium have ended up off the transport route, off the site and out of the controlled area. Now this goes back to an event which they're curr... the company's currently under investigation for at the moment which was the removal of a vehicle from the mine site in a highly controlled area. That was from the most contaminated area in the mine site that was able to be removed and halfway down the highway, leaving the mine site before it - the company was actually alerted by a civilian.

                                               So, I mean this is - it really does go to the security breaches around this mine where we're talking about radioactive materials that we're mining here in the Northern Territory that are being used for exports but can fuel things like the catastrophic disaster that we're seeing in Fukushima at the moment, and these kind of materials can just end up in rural areas, in residential areas when they should be highly controlled and I think most people would like to know the answer as to why those barrels contaminated or not, used for the transport of uranium ended up there.

KATE O’TOOLE:                     What do you think should happen from now, Lauren?

LAUREN MELLOR:                 I think, I mean peak environmental organisations have been calling for ERA to respond to a 2003 Senate inquiry which called for a greater review into the operations and impacts of Ranger uranium mine. They said the risks associated with that mine, the environmental risks of things is so great and ahs the potential to cause serious and irreversible damage to the environment in Kakadu. There should be a greater review into the operations and that 2003 Senate inquiry came oft the back off reports that ERA had been involved in contaminated drinking water, being - exposing their workers to contaminated drinking water, another mine vehicle was removed off site back in 2005 and there's never been a further inquiry or response from the company on those issues.

KATE O’TOOLE:                     What's the concern with the mine vehicle being moved off site?

LAUREN MELLOR:                 Well, this comes to the heart of controlling these substances, and controlling the contamination. There should be no ability to contaminate the greater environment, in Kakadu, they're operating within the boundaries of a world listed national park, so there are real issues about containing that, the possibility of contamination. And so removing these vehicles that are supposed to be only allowed to operate in the most contaminated areas within that mine, they should never be allowed to leave that site. That's part of their operational requirements, and the fact that it's happened twice without serious investigation is something that should concern people.

KATE O’TOOLE:                     So is this something that the Federal Government or the Northern Territory Government ought to be considering, in your view?

LAUREN MELLOR:                 We definitely think that the Federal Resources Minister, Ian Macfarlane, should step in at this point and say enough is enough, we need a serious review into the operations of Ranger, and how these incidents keep occurring. And that's something the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Association has also called for. The intervention of the Federal Minister on any issue - persistent issues of breaching their operational requirements, step in and say enough, let's have a review into how these incidents keep occurring, security breaches, environmental contamination, and really look at whether this mine is safe to operate as it currently does.

                                               And, I mean, as ERA is going through this environmental assessment process at the moment, and asking for an extension on the life of the mine, asking for another five years to mine their Ranger 3 Deeps proposal, I think we really need to be asking, do they have the credibility, the social licence, to operate, given these consistent, persistent breaches of their operation on track.

KATE O’TOOLE:                     Thanks so much for speaking with us this morning.

LAUREN MELLOR:                 Thanks very much, Kate.

KATE O’TOOLE:         Lauren Mellor is the nuclear-free campaigner with the Northern Territory Environment Centre