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Uranium Mine in Australian National Park Closed for Contamination

Published by MAC on 2004-08-31

Uranium Mine in Australian National Park Closed for Contamination

Environmental News Service (ENS)

August 31, 2004

CANBERRA, Australia, - The Ranger uranium mine in Australia's largest national park was shut down today because of water contamination. In March, workers at Ranger drank and showered in water contaminated with uranium levels 400 times greater than the maximum Australian safety standard. Twenty-eight workers became ill as a result.

The contamination was detailed in two reports by the Office of the Supervising Scientist tabled in the Senate on Monday.

Energy Resources of Australia Ltd. (ERA) today temporarily suspended operations on a valuntary basis to make improvements in mine safety. ERA Chief Executive Harry Kenyon-Slaney said the company has been implementing improvements over the last four months to address issues raised by the water incident.

Kenyon-Slaney said, "The closure I have ordered will give management and employees the time to implement the necessary changes."

Workers at the Ranger Uranium Mine stand beside an excavator. (Photo courtesy ERA)

Ranger in Kakadu National Park is operated by ERA and majority owned by mining giant Rio Tinto. The mine has a troubled history with 120 leaks, spills and operating breaches since it opened in 1981.

Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane expressed concern about recent environment and safety incidents at the six square kilometer mine in the Northern Territory.

"I met with representatives from Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) today and told them that I believed a culture of complacency had developed in several areas of the mine’s operations," said Macfarlane.

The first report by the Supervising Scientist covers radiation clearance procedures for vehicles, which has allowed earthmoving equipment to leave the mine while contaminated with uranium ore.

The other report concerns the March 2004 water contamination at the mine during which "contaminated potable water from a holding tank adjacent to Jabiru Airport had discharged to the environment."

This Supervising Scientist's investigation concluded that the primary cause of the contamination of the drinking water system at the Ranger mine was that on March 23 an operator opened a valve connecting the water manifold at the Fine Ore Bin Scrubber to a one inch hose.

"At the time of this connection, the manifold was also connected to the process water system, wrote the Supervising Scientist. "Unknown to this operator, the other end of the one inch hose was connected to the potable water system and the valve at that end of the hose was open. The higher pressure in the process water system caused water to flow from the process water system into the potable water supply system."

A control room at Ranger. The mine produces more than 5,000 tons of uranium oxide annually. (Photo courtesy ERA)

Investigators have not been able to determine when, or by whom, the valve at the potable water end of the hose was opened or has it been possible to determine precisely when the hose was connected to the potable water system but it occurred some time between March 20 and March 23. Workers suffered headaches, nausea, vomiting and skin irritations as a result of the incident.

“To the credit of the company it has responded immediately to my concerns and has already put in place its own processes to address the concerns raised by the Supervising Scientist,” said Macfarlane, but the minister warned that if improved safety procedures are not implemented, the mine could remain on suspension.

“I will be ensuring, through independent audits, that in relation to both radiation clearance procedures and the water contamination incident the appropriate actions have been taken, and are being monitored. “Any failure to meet these standards will cause me to suspend any further operation of the mine,” said Macfarlane.

The Green Party and the country's largest environmental group, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), welcomed the mine closure.

Greens Senator Kerry Nettle of New South Wales today called on Industry Minister MacFarlane to revoke the operating and export licence for the Ranger mine.

"This is just the latest in a list of over 120 publicly documented leaks, contaminations and operating breaches at Ranger," she said. "The Greens believe the Minister should close this mine for good. The environmental threats and the health threats its continuing operations pose are too great to ignore."

The Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park (Photo courtesy Northern Territory Greens)

"The report tells us that the workers who were affected by the contamination need ongoing health checks as a result of their exposure, this fact alone should move the Minister to take the strongest possible action against ERA," said Nettle.

The Greens policy calls for an end to "inherently damaging" uranium mining and closure of Australia's only nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney.

The ACF called the closure "overdue" and called for prosecution of the mining company, Energy Resources Australia, for "persistent breaches of its operating license."

"It is welcome news that some attention is finally being paid to Ranger, but a short term shutdown is not the full answer to a long term failing," said ACF nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney.

"Ranger has serious systemic problems and these are getting worse as the mine gets older. As the pipes get rustier, the risks get greater. ERA has growing problems with water and waste management and this mine poses a real threat to the health of workers, local communities and Kakadu National Park."

"Australia's largest national park is no place for one of the world's most toxic industrial practices," he said, calling on all parties to "rule out a nuclear dump in the Northern Territory and for a halt to construction of the proposed new reactor in Sydney."

The uranium sold by ERA is used only for the generation of nuclear electricity, not for the production of nuclear weapons, the company says.

ERA wants to expand its operations to the proposed Jabiluka site near the Ranger mine. The company says uranium mining "does not pose a serious environmental threat to the surrounding Kakadu National Park nor to its natural values."

The company's future rests on the Jabiluka development going ahead, ERA says, as its only other operation is the Ranger mine, and "its life is finite and due for completion around the end of this decade."

The Supervising Scientist’s Reports are available online at:

http://www.deh.gov.au/ssd/publications/ssr/184.html

http://www.deh.gov.au/ssd/publications/ssr/185.html

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