Guardian: Radioactive spill: uranium processing halted and mine audit under way

Publish Date:
9th December 2013

Read on Guardian website

By Bridie Jabour

Gundjeihmi leader calls on government to seek international help in clean-up of spill at Ranger mine in Kakadu

A comprehensive audit is yet to be ordered of the uranium mining operation which was the source of a million-litre radioactive spill in the Northern Territory.

The spill, which contains acidic slurry as well as radioactive waste and mud, happened at the Ranger uranium mine in the Kakadu national park in the early hours of Saturday as staff were evacuated.

The spill was successfully contained, did not leak into the national park and all water tests in the area returned normal results, according to the mining operator, the Rio Tinto-owned Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), but Indigenous people in the area, frustrated by what they see as years of dodgy practice, are concerned.

The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation’s chief executive, Justin O’Brien, said the company, as well as the territory and federal governments, should seek international help in the clean-up and a comprehensive audit of the operation was needed, looking particularly at what he called “ageing plant facilities”.

A spokesman for the environment minister, Greg Hunt, said an immediate investigation into the spill had been ordered and while environmental audits were carried out annually, no audit of the entire operation was planned.

“People living just a few kilometres downstream from the mine don’t feel safe,” O’Brien said.

“How can we trust the assurances of a company which has repeatedly failed to safely manage this highly toxic material? What may happen next?”

Northern Territory Labor senator Nova Peris has joined the call for an independent audit of the site and O’Brien said the spill came after two other safety incidents in the past month leaving the Mirarr traditional owners concerned for the park’s safety as well as that of their community and visitors.

In 2010 water contamination levels in the area spiked to five times the safe level after millions of litres of radioactive water from the Ranger mine reportedly flowed into world heritage-listed wetlands in the park.

ERA representatives at the time said the contaminated water had come from upstream and was not the fault of the company.

“This is nothing but a hillbilly operation, run by a hillbilly miner with hillbilly regulators,” O’Brien said.

“Based on the woefully inadequate government response to the previous incident, we have no confidence that this will be taken seriously enough.”

In ERA’s latest statement since the spill was confirmed, the company said the slurry had been “fully captured”.

“ERA is confident that Kakadu national park will not be impacted as a result of this incident,” the statement said.

“Ranger mine has multiple levels of protection in place to contain and manage spills, including bunding, protective barriers and channelling. These containment systems have operated as designed during this incident.”

ERA said the full impact of the spill was yet to be realised.

The findings of the federal government’s investigation into the incident will be released to the public, although Hunt’s office was unable to give a time.

ERA has applied to open another uranium mine 22km from the Ranger site but has said it will not go ahead without the permission of the Mirarr people.