MAC: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto sidesteps questions on Jabiluka uranium

Published by MAC on 2011-04-18
Source: The Age, Reuters, Independent, statement

One of the highlights of protests at last week's Rio Tinto Annual General Meeting was the presentation of an appeal to the UN from Australian Aboriginal elder, Yvonne Margarula - raised by a British colleague to the company chairman.

In her letter Yvonne Margarula, representing the Mirrar traditional owners, re-affirmed her people's implacable opposition to Rio Tinto's ERA subsidiary  expanding its uranium mining, by entering on its territory.

Ms Margarula  voiced her people's solidarity with the citizens people of Japan in the wake of the recent tsunami and the disaster at the Fukuruma  plant - one fuelled by uranium dug up from Australian Aboriginal ground. 

She pointed out that her community has suffered for years from the impacts of uranium mining, and would never endorse nuclear power.

In 2004, Rio Tinto signed an agreement with the Mirrar, undertaking not to commence uranium exploration without the people's consent.

Doubts have since been expressed as to whether the company (or the Australian government itself) will stick to the spirit of that agreement. See: A planned betrayal?

See also: Rio Tinto rejects Aboriginal poison water concerns

Meanwhile, Rio Tinto is struggling to put back together its existing Australian uranium operations in the wake of recent floods.

Inevitably this raises concerns that,  if and when these operations are back on stream, the company will again try to expand onto Mirrar land.

Du Plessis sidesteps questions on Jabiluka uranium

By Matt Chambers

The Australian

16 April 2011

RIO Tinto chairman Jan du Plessis has sidestepped questions over the future of the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory, with the traditional owners of the area wanting it merged into Kakadu National Park so it cannot be mined.

Mirarr elder Yvonne Margarula opposes uranium mining
Mirarr elder Yvonne Margarula opposes uranium mining. Photo: The Age

Jabiluka was mothballed midway through development in 1999 by Rio's 68.4 per cent-owned subsidiary Energy Resources of Australia after opposition from the local Mirarr people.

At Rio's London annual meeting, a Mirarr representative asked Rio to start good faith negotiations with the Mirarr people and the federal government to make the mine, which sits within the boundaries of Kakadu, part of the national park.

Despite Rio's control of ERA, Mr du Plessis said the issue was a separate matter for ERA.

"No doubt the board of that company will be looking at that issue and making its own decisions," he said.

Speaking after the ERA annual meeting on Wednesday, ERA chief executive Rob Atkinson told The Australian that ERA did not want Jabiluka -- one of the world's premier uranium resources -- to become part of Kakadu.

Under a 2005 agreement, the mine can be developed only with the agreement of the Mirarr.

If Rio approaches the Mirarr people about development and gets knocked back, it is unable to make another approach for four years.

After yesterday's AGM of Rio's other listed subsidiary, Coal & Allied, chief executive Bill Champion said the company's expansion plans were made uncertain by the Gillard government's plans to introduce a carbon tax.

While refusing to reveal the back-of-envelope studies Coal & Allied had done, Mr Champion said the major concern was over how coal gas released during mining was handled.

Mr Champion said the science around calculating these "fugitive emissions" was very uncertain, but that the eventual impact would depend on how emissions were handled.

Anglo American has called on the government to ringfence emissions from the planned carbon tax.

Jabiluka's sacred power 'must never be disturbed'

By Lindsay Murdoch

The Age

7 April 2011

IN THE Dreaming of the Mirarr people of Kakadu, a sacred, dangerous power called the Djang is unleashed when disturbed on their land.

Senior traditional leader Yvonne Margarula says her late father Toby Gangale warned the Australian government in the late 1970s the Djang ''might kill all over the world'' if disturbed at Ranger, a uranium mine that was built in Kakadu National Park despite opposition from traditional owners.

''No one listened,'' she said.

Now Ms Margarula says her people are ''deeply saddened'' that uranium from their land at Ranger has been exported over more than 30 years to Japanese nuclear power companies, including one operating the stricken Fukushima plant.

The Mirarr have declared they want the multibillion-dollar Jabiluka uranium deposit on their land to remain undeveloped and be incorporated into the world heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.

Ms Margarula and 30 other adults and about 40 children in her clan could be among Australia's richest people if they allowed Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) to develop Jabiluka, which was halted in 1998 after an eight-month blockade by 5000 protesters.

The 72-square-kilometre mineral lease site containing 141,640 tonnes of uranium is one of the world's largest known undeveloped uranium deposits.

ERA, which is 68 per cent owned by Rio Tinto, is eager to mine the high-grade deposit worth $18.5 billion at current spot prices.

In a rare interview in Jabiru, a town near the Ranger mine and Jabiluka deposit, Ms Margarula told The Age she never wants to see Jabiluka disturbed.

''I am really happy about [the prospect of] it becoming part of the national park so my nephews and nieces can look after the country and I will never again see big clouds of smoke and dust on the other side of the hill while the rocks, the escarpments are destroyed,'' she said.

In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week, Ms Margarula said it was ''with great sadness'' the Mirarr learned of the suffering of the Japanese people following the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency.

''I am writing to you to convey our solidarity and support with all those people across the world who see in the events at Fukushima a dire warning of the risks posed by the nuclear industry,'' Ms Margarula wrote.

''This is an industry that we have never supported in the past and that we want no part of into the future,'' she wrote.

''We are all diminished by the awful events now unfolding at Fukushima ... I urge you to consider our viewpoint in your deliberations with governments in relation to the Fukushima emergency and the nuclear industry in general.''

Ms Margarula, a shy, softly spoken elder, told The Age her people had decided they wanted the federal government to support the incorporation of Jabiluka into Kakadu as it has for another uranium mining area at Koongarra, near the world famous Nourlangie Rock.

Jeffery Lee, the sole member of the Djok clan and traditional custodian of the land, offered Koongarra to the government, shunning the chance to become a billionaire, saying he is happy to work there as a park ranger.

Energy Resources Australia forced to buy uranium after mishap


13 April 2011

SYDNEY - Australian uranium miner Energy Resources Australia (ERA) is being forced to buy uranium on the global market to meet its sales commitments as problems persist at its Ranger mine in northern Australia, the company said.

Heavy rains have flooded the mine pit and led to the suspension of processing of uranium oxide, sending output tumbling 42 percent in the March quarter. Processing is likely to remain stalled until at least late July, the miner said on Tuesday.

ERA, controlled by Rio Tinto , said it would need to buy as much as 2,100 tonnes of uranium oxide from third parties to meet its sales commitments of 4,500 tonnes this year.

It also forecast a first-half loss of between $30 million and $50 million, and said it was reviewing mine operations.

"In light of this continued suspension, which has occurred immediately after a very challenging 2010, a comprehensive business review of ERA's current operations and future projects is well underway," the company said.

"The review will assess priorities, processes and future expenditure."

ERA expects to mine only around 2,400 tonnes in 2011, well below earlier guidance of near 3,800 tonnes. (Reporting by James Regan; Editing by Mark Bendeich)

Aborigines to block uranium mining after Japan disaster

By Kathy Marks


14 April 2011

Since Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant began leaking radiation after last month's earthquake and tsunami, those watching with consternation have included the Mirarr Aboriginal people of Australia's Northern Territory, who are determined to limit uranium mining on their land despite the promise of vast riches.

The Mirarr are the traditional owners of land where uranium has been mined for more than 30 years and exported all over the world. Tepco, which operates the Fukushima plant, is a long-standing customer of Ranger, the principal mine.

The senior traditional elder in the area, Yvonne Margarula, has written to the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, expressing her people's sorrow about Japan's suffering, and their concern about the nuclear emergency.

"Given the long history between Japanese nuclear companies and Australian uranium miners, it is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, being fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands," she said. "This makes us feel very sad."

Ms Margarula also told Mr Ban that events in Japan had strengthened the Mirarr's resolve to oppose work at a second mine, named Jabiluka - the world's largest known undeveloped uranium deposit. Instead, they want to see Jabiluka incorporated into Kakadu, the World Heritage-listed national park where Ranger is also located.

Uranium mining has a troubled history in the area. The Ranger deposit - now operated by Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), a subsidiary of the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto - was developed against the Mirarr's wishes. Jabiluka, also leased by ERA, has been in limbo since 1998, when thousands of people staged an eight-month blockade there at the Mirarr's urging.

Although the traditional owners have received royalties of more than A$200m (£129m) from Ranger, Ms Margarula told a parliamentary inquiry in 2005 that mining had "completely upturned our lives, bringing greater access to alcohol and many arguments between Aboriginal people, mainly about money".

She added: "Uranium mining has also taken our country away from us and destroyed it - billabongs and creeks gone for ever. There are hills of poisonous rock and great holes in the ground with poisonous mud."

Situated within the boundaries of Kakadu, the Ranger and Jabiluka leases were excluded when the national park was World Heritage-listed. Although the 70 landowners would reap billions in royalties if Jabiluka went into operation, placing them among the ranks of Australia's richest people, they want the site protected for ever. They have held a veto over its development since 2005.

Ms Margarula told The Age newspaper that the Mirarr's ancient "Dreaming" stories warned that a lethal power named Djang would be unleashed if their lands were disturbed. Her late father, Toby Gangale, had warned the Australian government in the late 1970s, when mining began at Ranger, that Djang "might kill all over the world", she said, adding: "No one listened to him."

Australia has the world's largest reserves of uranium, with great quantities identified at a mine called Olympic Dam, in South Australia.

The Mirarr's willingness to forgo untold riches may seem hard to believe, but it has a precedent. Last year, Jeffrey Lee, the traditional owner of a uranium deposit at Koongarra in Kakadu, gave the land to the national park.

Letter of Yvonne Margarula to Ban ki-Moon

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation

Ban ki-Moon
Secretary-General United Nations
760 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY USA 10017

6 April 2011

Dear Secretary-General,

It was with great sadness that we Mirarr People of the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia learned of the suffering of the Japanese people due the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan at this most difficult of times. We hope that individuals, families, communities and the nation may rebuild their lives. We also hope for a speedy resolution to the ongoing Fukushima nuclear emergency.

It is known that Aboriginal people have occupied Australia for some 60,000 years because of an archaeological site on my country in Kakadu, where people, including myself as a child, regularly visited and camped.

I am the clan leader, or senior traditional owner, in the world's oldest continuing cultural tradition.

We Mirarr are the traditional owners of the land now subject to the Ranger Uranium Mine and the site of the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine. The Ranger mine now produces some 10% of the world's mined uranium. We Aboriginal people opposed Ranger's development and even though our opposition was overruled it has never gone away.

A month ago a delegation of this Corporation, comprising three young Indigenous women from Kakadu, visited Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki as part of the 72nd Global Peace Voyage of the Peace Boat.

Here they met with Hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and people and organisations concerned with nuclear and peace issues. This recent visit heightens the sense of solidarity we feel for the people of Japan in their suffering and reinforces the Mirarr People's position against further uranium mining in Kakadu.

In the early 1970s the Australian Government, as part of its negotiations with Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, committed to the export of uranium from our land at Ranger to Japan. This commitment came many years before the enactment of Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory. We were not consulted about this. We opposed Ranger's development.

When the Australian Government introduced land rights legislation in 1976 our ability to stop the Ranger mine was blocked by special provisions of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act.

Given the long history between Japanese nuclear companies and Australian uranium miners, it is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands. This makes us feel very sad.

Ranger has operated since 1980 and has brought much hardship to local Aboriginal people and environmental damage to our country. For over 30 years we have experienced and lived with the 'front end' reality of uranium mining and we are opposed to any further mining at the Jabiluka site.

From 1998, I led an international coalition of environment, peace, faith and human rights groups against Jabiluka's development. We received a lot of support from international networks and institutions such as UNESCO, the European Parliament and the US Congress.

Over an eight-month period in 1998 more than 5000 protesters, including myself and other Mirarr traditional owners, peacefully blockaded the Jabiluka site. All our efforts were recognised that year when I was awarded both the Friends of the Earth International Environment Award and the Nuclear-Free Future Award.

In 1999 I jointly received, with Jacqui Katona, the Goldman Environment Prize for my efforts to protect my country from uranium mining. We Mirarr remain opposed to Jabiluka's development; the Fukushima incident only strengthens our resolve.

Today some 12 million litres of radioactive contaminated water lies on site at the Ranger Uranium Mine, upstream of Indigenous communities and internationally recognised Ramsar listed wetlands.

The mining company, owned by Rio Tinto, has suspended all milling of uranium due to the persistent water management problems and threats posed to the environment.

All this is of great concern and is taking place within Australia's largest national park and our homeland, Kakadu. I am writing to you to convey our solidarity and support with all those people across the world who see in the events at Fukushima a dire warning of the risks posed by the nuclear industry.

This is an industry that we have never supported in the past and that we want no part of into the future. We are all diminished by the awful events now unfolding at Fukushima. I urge you to consider our viewpoint in your deliberations with governments in relation the Fukushima emergency and the nuclear industry in general.

In 2009 the European Commission found that approximately 70% of uranium used in nuclear reactors is sourced from the homelands of Indigenous minorities worldwide. We Mirarr believe that this constitutes an unfair impact on Indigenous People now and into the future.

We suffer the dangers and long term impacts of the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle so that others overseas may continue to enjoy lives without the awareness of the impacts this has on the lives of others.

For many thousands of years we Aboriginal people of Kakadu have respected sacred sites where special and dangerous power resides. We call these places and this power Ojang.

There is Ojang associated with both the Ranger mine area and the site of the proposed Jabiluka mine. We believe and have always believed that when this Ojang is disturbed a great and dangerous power is unleased upon the entire world. My father warned the Australian Government about this in the 1970s, but no one in positions of power listened to him.

We hope that people such as yourself will listen, and act, today.

Yours truly,

Yvonne Margarula

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