MAC: Mines and Communities

Australia: Decision not to prosecute ERA 'a kick in the face'

Published by MAC on 2016-02-13
Source: AAP, ABC

Uranium decision 'a kick in the face'

The NT's decision not to prosecute a uranium miner responsible for a major spill sends a worrying message, a lawyer says.


12 February 2016

The Northern Territory government's decision not to prosecute a uranium miner for a major contamination spill near Kakadu National Park is a kick in the face for the public, an environmental lawyer says.

The Department of Mines and Energy on Friday said it was not in the public interest to press charges against Rio Tinto subsidiary Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) for breaching the Mining Management Act when up to one million litres of contaminated acidic slurry spilled from a collapsed leach tank in December 2013.

Department CEO Ron Kelly said there was doubt about whether ERA directly caused the tank to collapse by failing to monitor it or ensure it was strong enough to contain the slurry.

The Supervising Scientist's investigation found that the spill was contained on the mine site and did not impact the surrounding national park, or the health of workers or local residents.

ERA has welcomed the decision.

But David Morris, principal lawyer with the NT's Environmental Defenders Office, said regardless of why the spill occurred, ERA was responsible.

"If this is a government trying to build trust with the public and build its credibility as an environmental regulator, this is another kick in the face to a public that I think is really crying out for some responsible regulation of the mining industry," he said.

ERA submitted quarterly audits over the past year and was making significant progress in implementing a safety program to reduce the risk of a similar incident happening again, Mr Kelly said.

The company suspended its operations for six months following the leak, which resulted in a net loss of $70 million compared with the same period the previous year.

Justin O'Brien, CEO of the Gundjeihmi Corporation which represents the Mirarr traditional owners of the site, expressed concern about the site's prospects for rehabilitation.

ERA radioactive slurry spill: NT Government won't lay charges against miner


12 February 2016

Key Points:

A uranium miner has avoided charges over a 2013 spill of 1,400 cubic metres of radioactive slurry at its Ranger mine in the Northern Territory.

The spill at the Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) Ranger uranium mine, which is surrounded by Kakadu National Park, saw a holding tank collapse on December 7, 2013.

Workers discovered a hole in the side of the tank and were evacuated before the tank burst and the slurry escaped.

ERA said no-one was injured and no uranium leaked off the site into Kakadu.

The NT Government on Friday released the findings of its Completed Investigation Into Failure of Leach Tank 1 Ranger Uranium Mine.

Department of Mines and Energy chief executive, Ron Kelly, explained in the report that he accepted the "admission of fault by ERA to the unauthorised spill as a result of the failure of Leach Tank 1".

"However I have decided that it is not in the public interest to lay a charge against ERA under Section 33 of the NT Mining Management Act [MMA]," he said.

In explaining the reasons for his decision not to lay charges, Mr Kelly said that legal advice provided to him found "there is uncertainty as to the successful outcome of a prosecution".

"There remains doubt as to whether ERA's failure to adequately monitor the leach tank, or ensure the tank design was sufficiently robust, was conduct which released the contents of the tank," he added.

Mr Kelly said the office in charge of monitoring the site, the Supervising Scientist, concluded the spill "did not result in any impact to the surrounding environment".

"The Supervising Scientist undertook an independent program of environmental sampling and monitoring of soil, surface water, groundwater and radiation measures both on and off the mine site," the report said.

The report concluded that the sampling program, in combination with the Supervising Scientist's routine sampling, did not detect any impact from the incident on the surrounding environment, including in Kakadu National Park.

The spill, the report found, "did not result in any adverse impact to the offsite environment or any impact to the health of local residents or mine workers".

Mr Kelly said legal advice from the NT Solicitor-General was received regarding ERA's criminal liability under the Mining Management Act (MMA).

"It was concluded that the release of the contaminant, while avoidable, did not involve positive and voluntary conduct by ERA and that fact may be fatal to the prospect of a successful prosecution for an offence against Section 33 of the MMA.

"In addition, ERA has cooperated fully with the Department and other agencies at all stages after the incident and implemented a range of additional governance and maintenance measures encapsulated in the Process Safety Improvement Action Plan."

Mr Kelly said ERA had demonstrated it was implementing the safety plan, and was "achieving its stated objectives".

He said the forced suspension of ERA's operations at the mine for six months meant the company had "already incurred a very significant financial penalty".

In a statement the mining giant later welcomed the report's findings.

"At all stages of the incident and investigation ERA responded to requests for information and cooperated in a fully transparent way with the Department of Mines and Energy and other agencies," ERA said.

"Ranger Mine's containment management systems fully captured the slurry material from the failed tank and no material left the site."
EDO blames 'lack of political will' for failure to prosecute

Principal lawyer with the non-profit Environmental Defenders Office in the NT, David Morris, said the Government did not need to show that ERA intended for the spill to occur to successfully prosecute the miner.

"The reason they are not bringing this prosecution? I think, lack of political will," Mr Morris said.

"What this decision does is send a message to the Northern Territory community that we are not going to hold companies to account for a really poor standard of quality control on their mine sites," Mr Morris said.

He said being forced to shut down the site was not a penalty.

"That is the cost of doing business when you do business poorly."


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