ABC AM: Mine in Kakadu closed after toxic spill

Publish Date:
10th December 2013

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TONY EASTLEY: The Ranger uranium mine, which occupies a lease inside the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park, is facing an uncertain future after being shut down indefinitely after a massive spill of toxic material.

Traditional Aboriginal owners of the mine site say they've lost confidence in the ability of the operators, Energy Resources of Australia, to run the mine safely, and all negotiations over a plan to convert the open pit into an underground mine are off the table, unless the Government agrees to hold an independent inquiry.

Michael Coggan reports from Darwin.

MICHAEL COGGAN: Production at the Ranger uranium mine came to a halt on Saturday morning when a 1,400 cubic metre leach tank split and collapsed, spilling uranium, acid and water onto the mine site.

Late yesterday the Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane intervened and shut down the mine indefinitely.

IAN MACFARLANE: It's important that before the processing begins again that we can be confident that not only the workplace health and safety issues are resolved but in terms of any potential for a future occurrence of a similar event is also secure.

MICHAEL COGGAN: The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation represents the Mirrar traditional owners of the mine site.

David Vadiveloo is the acting CEO.

DAVID VADIVELOO: This shut-down called by the minister is entirely welcome from our perspective and quite frankly necessary. But what we would like to see and what we're calling for is an independent inquiry, not only into the incident but into the infrastructure and the systems at the mine site.

MICHAEL COGGAN: The mine operator, Energy Resources of Australia, says the leach tank was installed in 1997.

Chief executive Andrea Sutton.

ANDREA SUTTON: We run an asset management program and that includes the condition monitoring and regular inspection, and the leach tank is part of that process. Look, the last inspection on that tank was earlier this year.

MICHAEL COGGAN: ERA is investigating, but the traditional owners say they have no confidence in the company and the independent monitor - the Office of the Supervising Scientist.

DAVID VADIVELOO: The current acting supervising scientist is a former senior employee of ERA. I think that speaks volumes for a need for an independent inquiry and an independent audit of what's happening there at that mine site.

MICHAEL COGGAN: But the Industry Minister says the supervising scientist has his total confidence.

IAN MACFARLANE: They have proven over time that they are an impartial body that can assess not only the current situation but also the overall situation in terms of its potential.

MICHAEL COGGAN: That's not good enough for the traditional owners - negotiations with ERA to move the open pit mine underground are now off the table.

DAVID VADIVELOO: Absolutely. Until we can see that there is independence in the investigations of this incident and independence in the infrastructure and systems audit of that mine, it is very unlikely that we are able to continue conversations.

MICHAEL COGGAN: ERA emphasises that there has been no environmental damage to Kakadu Park.

The company won't talk about negotiations over expansion plans, but says it is cooperating with federal and territory regulators.

TONY EASTLEY: Michael Coggan reporting there.