MAC: Mines and Communities

What happened to the Bakers at the Ranger mine

Published by MAC on 2004-09-04

What happened to the Bakers at the Ranger mine

Sydney Morning Herald

September 4 2004

One family's accidental radiation contamination is just he latest in a series of serious incidents at Australia's biggest uranium mine, writes Lindsay Murdoch

DEVON Baker never knew much about exposure to radiation even though he was living with his wife and three young children a few kilometres metres from Ranger the controversial uranium mine in Kakadu National Park.

The bobcat excavator whose machine was to expose Baker and his children to unacceptable levels of radiation and to ruin Baker's life broke down in slurry in a pit at the mine on a day last November, the start of the Top End's wet season. The story of how Baker's two youngest children then came to be building sandcastles in the radioactive mud clogged in the machine is the latest of more than 120 incidents at Ranger since it opened in 1981.

Baker never saw who dropped off the mud-covered bobcat at his mechanical repair yard in Jabiru, the mining and tourist town that services Kakadu. He says he crawled under the bobcat and removed a plate protecting the underside of the vehicle He was not wearing a face mask or any protective clothing. A scientific investigation later found that 20 litres of dry mud fell out. According to Baker most of it went over him. "It was everywhere - in my hair my eyes everywhere I never gave it a second thought".

Over the next week about 100 litres of mud was removed or washed from the bobcat as Baker pulled out its engine and sent it to Darwin for repair. The "hot mud sat under a carport in the yard for six weeks including the Christmas break exposing anybody near it to radiation but tne people most exposed were Baker and his daughter Jamie-Lee 8 and son Brendan 5.

"I laid on the mud. I blew dust out of filters. I worked in it on and off during that time" Baker says. "I'm not that worried about myself. It's the kids What about when they have kids. Who can assure me they won't be affected?"

After receiving a report this week that detailed the Baker family's exposure and other incidents at Australia's largest uranium mine the Howard Government told Energy Resources sources Australia (ERA Ranger's operator) to immediately fix a "culture of complacency at the mine or be shut down".

Conservationists, the Democrats and Greens, have renewed demands for the mine to be closed and cleaned up. They say the mine, 230 kilometres east of Darwin, has gouged out the landscape and built massive piles of "hot tailings" in Kakadu, one of Australia's leading tourist destinations.

The report released in the Senate this week detailed an investigation by Dr Arthur Johnston a federal government-employed scientist responsible for monitoring Ranger It says "Whilst playing under the carport the children discovered the pile of grey mud from the bobcat and played with it, for example building sandcastles putting it in tins carrying it around". Johnston said the radiation dose received by Baker and his children was about one millisievert, about equal to the maximum permitted dose of radiation ation over an entire year. Johnston said that a dose of this level "does not present a significant health risk." Johnston did not mention that Baker and his children had never been medically, tested referring only to tests on mud samples". Johnston told the Herald this week that Baker had been advised to see his doctor. Asked why Baker and his children had not been tested Johnston said "A judgement was made that further medical testing was not justified in the circumstances".

Baker, whose identity is not rerevealed in Johnston's report, lost his business at the end of June after custom with ERA dried up. The company said it had no money to pay him. He has since suffered serious health problems including chronic depression. His children have shown no symptoms of exposure. He says mine officials told him "to shut my mouth especially about the kids playing in the mud. "They told me to [not] worry about it I was worried about losing my job. I kept my mouth shut" he says.

Until this week Baker and his family, now living in Darwin, knew nothing of Johnston's investigation. Unlike several other Ranger workers who drank or showered in water containing 400 times the legal limit of uranium in another incident in March, Baker has not instituted legal action against ERA. According to Johnston's assessments the Baker family's exposure to radiation was about double that of the 28 workers who suffered health problems including vomiting headaches and skin irritation.

"I don't know about lawyers and couldn't afford one anyway" Baker says "I went to a doctor in Jabiru and my job, everything, has turned to shit. All five of us were living in my car beside the road for a while. I can't sleep I'm so cranky Brenda [his wife] and I split up for a while. I thought I had a secure job and I reckon they got rid of me because of the embarrassment ment over all this".

Johnston said in his report that a health physicist spoke to Baker and his wife "reassuring them that no adverse health effects were likely". But Baker says he never received any proper counselling."Various people came to the yard and told me not to worry. People came and went all the time. I don't know who they were, I was just trying to do my job" he says.

Baker says that Tina Holland from the government-run Community Development velopment Education Program "tried to arrange for me and the kids to go interstate to be tested but it never happened".The program promotes employment in the Northern Territory's remote communities and receives work from ERA in Jabiru.

After the Herald talked to Johnston about the Baker family Johnston rang Baker and later met him for about an hour.

Baker also told the Herald this week how he had twice previously asked for dirty machinery to be taken back to Ranger to be cleaned.

According to the Senate report there had been clear evidence for years that ERA has flouted strict regulations and procedures. For almost two years from June 2002 Democrats senator Lyn Allison chaired a Senate committee that sat in Darwin, Jabiru, Adelaide and Canberra hearing a wide range of submissions about Ranger including from the Mirrar people, the traditional owners of the region who have fought against uranium mining in Kakadu.

The inquiry found a "persistent pattern tern of under-performance and noncompliance at the mine and described regulation of the site as "flawed confusing and inadequate".

Rio Tinto's "culture of secrecy and fear"

ERA is owned by the British mining giant Rio Tinto and according to union officials has developed a culture of fear and secrecy among its almost 200 mine workers

Three Perth-based contract workers who were sacked after complaining to their boss about drinking contaminated water have taken legal action against ERA.

Didge McDonald a health and safety officer with Unions NT says ERA is a "notorious employer that insists on its workforce being non-union.

"The safety conditions out there are a joke" he says "There is an annual turnover of 40 per cent of the work force. The company has for years flouted all the regulations under which it is supposed to operate. They have fostered a climate where workers are encouraged to "dob in other workers on health issues, intensifying a climate of fear".

ERA says that mining is expected to continue at Ranger until 2008, milling of ore until at least 2011, and the company has a licence to operate until 2021.

Nuclear expert Dave Sweeney of the Australian Conservation Foundation has been campaigning against Ranger for 20 years. He says the mine is "leaking and the leaks are getting worse. The mine needs to be phased out and cleaned up" he says. "ERA has growing problems with water and waste management and this mine poses a direct and daily threat to the health of workers local communities and Kakadu National Park.

"Under existing Australian law ERA has an obligation to protect Kakadu from the impacts of its mining for 10 years, but it has already failed dramatically after less than 25 years"

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