MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto under Heavy Fire on Ranger and Jabiluka Uranium Operations

Published by MAC on 2002-04-18


April 18 2002

Since the British-Australian mining giant, Rio Tinto, took over ERA last year, it has assumed control of two of the world's most important uranium resources: the operating Ranger mine and the Jabiluka deposit, both in the Kakadu region of Australias' Northern Territory. At this year's annual general meetings - one held in London, the other in Melbourne - the company came under heavy fire on both accounts. At the Rio Tinto plc AGM in London on April 11th, Lyndon Ormond-Parker presented a statement on behalf of the Mirrar people that they already rejected mining on their territory and they called on the company to quit immediately. Then, on Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV, Norman Fry of the Northern (Aboriginal) Land Council threatened closure of the Ranger mine if recent official allegations of mismanagement were to be confirmed.


Rio Tinto under Heavy Fire on Ranger and Jabiluka Uranium Operations

By Barbara Adam
Melbourne, April 18 AAP

Mining giant Rio Tinto Ltd today said its controversial Jabiluka uranium mine would remain on hold until the traditional owners of the land endorsed the project. Rio Tinto chairman Sir Robert Wilson said the company's position was clear.

"We've said unequivocally already there will be no development at Jabiluka without the consent ... of the traditional owners," Sir Robert told Rio Tinto's annual general meeting in Melbourne today.

Sir Robert said the company was discussing environmental issues with the traditional owners of the Jabiluka site, the Mirrar people. "There is to the best of my knowledge a discussion going on
between the company and the local communities, the traditional owners, about how the Jabiluka site can be best be made safe, in ensuring it doesn't cause any environmental problems," he said.

Sir Robert's comments followed demands by shareholder Dave Sweeney, representing the Australian Conservation Foundation, that the company guarantee uranium mining would never be carried out at Jabiluka, in the Northern Territory's Kakadu National Park.

"It remains unpopular and the Aboriginal traditional owners remain opposed to any development at the site," Mr Sweeney told the meeting.

Sir Robert said that a guarantee the site would never be used for uranium mining could not be given by Rio Tinto. "That's a sovereign question," he said.

Earlier, environmental protesters wearing protective jumpsuits joined angry unionists protesting outside the Rio Tinto meeting. Distributing leaflets with messages from the Mirrar people, the
environmentalists called for the mining company to rule out ever developing or selling the proposed mine and to immediately embark on rehabilitation of the site.


Rio under presure on Kakadu

The Australian - 18 April 02

Rio Tinto executives will be challenged to make a commitment to ending uranium mining in Kakadu at the company's annual meeting in Melbourne.

Protesters will leaflet shareholders outside the meeting at the Melbourne Convention centre today, while inside sympathetic shareholders will challenge executives from the floor.

Australian Conservation Foundation spokeswoman Dave Sweeney said the intention was to push Rio Tinto into formally scrapping its stalled Jabiluka uranium mine at Kakadu, in the Northern Territory.

The group also wants Rio Tinto to begin redeveloping the Jabiluka site, reincorporating it into the Kakadu national park. "There is no intention, nor will there be any moves to obstruct
shareholders; quite the contrary," he said."Every formal and informal poll we have seen shows the majority of people are opposed (to the mine)."

Mr Sweeney argued the proposed mine had been on hold for two years and the company could have no reasonable expectation that it would get the go-ahead from the area's traditional owners, the Mirrar people.

He said the company was a foundation member of an international network of mining companies, the Global Mining Initiative, aimed at improving community perceptions of mining. "We want to clearly call from the floor for Rio Tinto to act in support of what it is saying about the Global Mining Initiative."

Yesterday, the Mirrar repeated their call for the company to rehabilitate the Jabiluka site and incorporate it into the park. They re-released a statement which was read to the company's
London annual meeting on April 11, saying the owners were not comforted by Rio's commitment not to develop the mine within the next decade.

"It is completely unacceptable that this significant threat to Mirrar culture and Kakadu's environment would continue for such an extended period," the statement said.


Claims of environmental breaches threaten Ranger mine

ABCTV 7:30 Report Transcript - 18th April 2002

MAXINE McKEW: The mining of uranium adjacent to Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory has vexed governments and environmentalists for decades. The Ranger Uranium Mine in particular has had a troubled history since it opened in 1979.

The mine is now majority-owned by Rio Tinto, which had its annual general meeting in Melbourne today. One of the boasts at the AGM was of the company's sound environment record. But tonight we reveal allegations of serious breaches of environmental management at Ranger.

They've come from a scientist who used to work at the mine and have sparked investigations by the mining company and by the Office of Supervising Scientist - the Commonwealth agency which oversees environmental standards at Kakadu.

Already, the Northern Land Council, which represents traditional Aboriginal owners, has warned that the mine is under threat if the allegations are verified.

Heather Stewart reports.

YVONNE MARGARULA, KAKADU TRADITIONAL OWNER: TRANSLATION: We hunt and gather most times along the river run and gather fresh water muscles, snakes and turtles and our kids swim a lot around the creek.

HEATHER STEWART: Magela Creek, which runs through Kakadu National Park, has been a vital resource to the Mirrar people for generations. Three kilometres upstream lies the Ranger Uranium Mine. For more than 20 years it's been the community's main source of income, through mining royalties paid to the traditional owners. But after more than 100 so-called environmental incidents at Ranger over the past 13 years, some involving radioactive leaks, traditional owners are having second thoughts.

YVONNE MARGARULA: (TRANSLATION): I don't trust the scientists and the company, the mining companies, because they don't give the straight facts or stories. I'm worried about my people that drink the water and swim in the creeks.

BOB CLEARY, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, ENERGY RESOURCES OF AUSTRALIA: Never once in the 21 years of our operations have we not met our discharge standard for protecting Kakadu National Park. We've done that every year.

HEATHER STEWART: In January, mining giant ERA, which operates both Ranger and the nearby Jabiluka uranium mines, detected high uranium levels downstream from the mines. But ERA delayed passing the information on to authorities and traditional owners for five weeks. It also admitted low-grade ore had been dumped incorrectly on an area at Ranger mine dedicated to rainwater run-off and that this wasn't detected for over a month. That led to an unprecedented company apology.

BOB CLEARY: I apologise to the traditional owners for being tardy in giving information and that tardiness leading to some concern of theirs.

HEATHER STEWART: Documents taken by the 7:30 Report detailed more concerns about operations at Ranger. For five years until 1998, Geoffrey Kyle was part of a team of scientists employed at Ranger to monitor water samples for uranium leaching. A fortnight ago, he reported his concerns to the Office of the Supervising Scientist (OSS), the Commonwealth agency responsible for overseeing environmental management at the mine.

GEOFFREY KYLE, SCIENTIST, RANGER MINE: Throughout the tenure of my employment with Ranger, I tried to alert its management to various matters and to take remedial or preventative action. My efforts were not met with success.

HEATHER STEWART: In his submission to the OSS, Geoffrey Kyle claims tailing spills were under-reported and water quality test results were misreported. He claims the mine failed to clean up a spill in December 1997 and as a result more than 300 kilograms of uranium leeched into a pond from which water is released into imagine Magela Creek. He also claims the mine routinely discharged water from a drain caning uranium at levels 9,000 parts per billion. The limit downstream from the mine is six parts per billion. Also, Geoffrey Kyle claims he detected uranium levels almost 70 times higher than the level expected in a pristine waterway. He further claims he was not allowed to continue monitoring to validate these higher uranium levels.

PROFESSOR IAN WHITE, WATER RESOURCES, ANU: Reading through this report, it's clear that the person was professionally competent and a concerned citizen. I think he's to be commended.

HEATHER STEWART: The 7:30 Report sought an independent analysis of Geoffrey Kyle's submission. Professor Ian White is a member of the UNESCO ethics and water science bodies.
The chance of a hazardous overflow from the Ranger Mine is highest during the top end [Northern Territory] 's water season, yet ERA's testing schedule has been carried out on a time schedule, which doesn't take account of damage from big storms.

PROFESSOR IAN WHITE: They sample at specific time intervals, which doesn't give you all the information you need. It's cheaper, but doesn't give you the information to answer how much
material has been released.

HEATHER STEWART: ERA says that will be addressed when a new best-practice monitoring system is implemented.

BOB CLEARY: It's a new standard that's being recognised as the benchmark for environmental management excellence. We'll be compliant with that and will meet the requirements of that.
I think that will give our stakeholders a lot more comfort.

HEATHER STEWART: Meanwhile the company is investigating Geoffrey Kyle's allegations.

BOB CLEARY: We're taking it seriously, even though my initial investigations are that the issues that he raised at the time were dealt with - obviously not to his satisfaction.

HEATHER STEWART: And the Office of Supervising Scientist is also investigating.

DR ARTHUR JOHNSTON, SUPERVISING SCIENTIST: At the moment, all I can say is, we began an investigation and we'll see what comes out of that.

HEATHER STEWART: Andy Ralph represents the traditional owners of Kakadu National Park, who are now demanding a Senate inquiry into Geoffrey Kyle's allegations.

ANDY RALPH, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, GUNDJEHMI ABORIGINAL CORPORATION: If an environmental chemist is making allegations of severe contamination of a pristine creek which flows through Kakadu and the mining company don't advise the Government regulators what's going on, then that's clearly outrageous.

HEATHER STEWART: Yvonne Margarula is the senior custodian of Kakadu. She doesn't trust the authorities and is concerned about the impact of the mine on her lands.

YVONNE MARGARULA: TRANSLATION: They're not giving us information and telling us properly and they're not doing their job, what we want them to do.

BOB CLEARY: I'm disappointed. I want to do whatever we can to regain that confidence and part of that is to show that we have a total commitment to environmental performance. It's something that we believe gives us the right to be where we are.

HEATHER STEWART: Until now, the Northern Land Council which brokered the original mining lease within Kakadu, has supported the mine's operation. The land council too is concerned about Geoffrey Kyle's complaints. It says the future of the mine might be in question if an inquiry shows they're valid.

NORMAN FRY, NORTHERN LAND COUNCIL: What came out of that, I would suggest to you, would probably lead to the whole question about mining in Kakadu itself.

HEATHER STEWART: So the mine could close?

NORMAN FRY: It could very well close under those conditions and if those things were found to be true, yes.

HEATHER STEWART: The truth of the whistleblowers claims won't be known until after the Office of the Supervising Scientist finishes its support to the Federal Environment Minister, David Kemp. But the possible closure of the uranium mine is not an option being contemplated by ERA.

BOB CLEARY: We will keep the mine running. We have another estimated 10 years, maybe a bit more, left in Ranger's life. That's a significant size mining project in any terms. So, yes, it's quite important that we do keep the mine running.


 

Statement by Ms. Yvonne Margarula, Senior Traditional Owner of the Mirrar People of Kakadu (Gundjemi Aboriginal Corporation)

11 April 2002

The Mirrar People still say no to Jabiluka mine! All the Mirrar are together; we are united against any more uranium mining on Mirrar country. No amount of money, no amount of political pressure, no backroom deals, no bribery or blackmail will make us change our mind. We cannot change the law and the law is that we protect our sacred sites.

Since 1996, the Mirrar have fought against Jabiluka across Australia and overseas. We have won many friends and our supporters are strong and stand with us. We have travelled a long road. We have been to many meetings in many different places. We will continue to resist more mining on Mirrar country. We have no choice - this is our land and our life, we can never leave, we must protect it.

Rio Tinto talks about "responsibly building long-term" but right now its uranium operations in Kakadu directly threaten the future of Mirrar culture. Rio should immediately rehabilitate the Jabiluka mine site and incorporate the lease into Kakadu National Park. Future generations of the Mirrar and the preservation of the World Heritage values of Kakadu depend on action being taken now.

Yvonne Margarula
Mirrar Senior Traditional Owner
Chairperson, Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation

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