Fairfax: Kakadu haunted by toxic sludge

Publish Date:
14th December 2013

Download PDF article

Read on SMH website

by Tim Elliot

To the Jawoyn people of southern Kakadu, it is known as buladjang, or "sickness country" - pockets of land not fit for regular habitation.

It was here, they believed, that the creation ancestor Bula ended his travels and left his spirit underground. Only recently have scientists found a correlation between mineral deposits such as uranium and the location of major Bula sites.

The Ranger uranium mine, north of the Jawoyn, unleashed its own kind of sickness last Saturday when a leach tank burst, spilling 1 million litres of highly acidic uranium slurry that engulfed the mine and  breached containment lines.

The mine's operator, Energy Resources Australia, said no one was hurt and that the spill had no effect on the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, which surrounds the site.

But photos obtained by Fairfax Media for the first time show the extent of the damage.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Melanie Impey, environmental officer for the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the local Mirarr people. "The tank was just a mangled mass of metal."

Ms Impey inspected the site about midday on Saturday, 11 hours after the spill. She said the slurry, a mix of ground-up uranium ore and sulfuric acid, had covered a 100 metre by 200 metre area, coating the road and surrounding grass in a damp, reddish-brown crust up to 3 centimetres thick.

"It was too fluffy to collect, so they were putting 'cracking dust' on it, which made it easier to scrape up," she said.

The spill, which follows a move by the federal government to allow the states and territories to assess their own uranium mining applications, has infuriated locals and conservationists.

"This mine has a clear history of underperformance and non-compliance with regulations," said Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation.

It has since emerged that the traditional owners have been left off a taskforce set up by the government to investigate the spill, further inflaming tensions.

Ranger has experienced more than 200 spills, leaks and breaches since opening in 1979. In 2002, ERA detected high uranium levels from Ranger but failed to inform the traditional owners for five weeks.

In 2004, 28 Ranger workers were found to have drunk and showered in water containing 400 times the legal limit of uranium. Later, an excavator covered in radioactive mud was taken to the town of Jabiru for cleaning, contaminating a mechanic and his children. This year a vehicle was stolen from the controlled radiological area, and four 44-gallon drums of a type used to store yellowcake disappeared.

They later turned up in bushland south of Darwin, having been given to a Ranger employee. The company claims the drums had received a radiation release certificate.

"Ranger is a mess environmentally," said Geoff Kyle, who worked as an environmental chemist at Ranger from 1993 and 1998.

Mr Kyle claims that during his time with ERA, the mine routinely discharged water from a drain containing uranium levels at 9000 parts per billion, more than 1000 times the accepted limit. He also claims that he was told by his then supervisor to continue conducting environmental samples using scales he knew to be faulty. "I reported it but was told there was no budget to replace them."

In 1997 he witnessed a spill from a tailings pipe that he estimated to have been at least 300 cubic metres.

"Ranger later reported to the Northern Territory Department of Mines that the spill had been one cubic metre."

Ranger's chief regulator is the Northern Territory government, which takes advice from the Supervising Scientists Division, a Commonwealth agency that oversees environmental standards within Kakadu. ERA says its environmental record is good.

But according to critics, the monitoring regime is broken. "It's a classic example of regulatory capture," said Mr Sweeney.

"There is a revolving radioactive door between territory and federal regulators and the mining company, with roles being routinely swapped, all of which reduces rigour, compromises credibility and produces complacency."