MAC: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto under multiple fire in Australia

Published by MAC on 2004-09-10

Rio Tinto under multiple fire - from Australian workers, Aboriginal communities, politicians and government

Last week, Australia's biggest uranium mine was closed, after two reports found its operator, ERA (wholly-owned by Rio Tinto) responsible for unacceptable contamination earlier this year. The Ranger mine did stop operating - for a few days. But almost immediately on re-opening, yet another "spill" was recorded, adding to the more than one hundred serious "incidents" for which this mine alone has been responsible.

Photograph of Ranger MineThese recent events have raised a number of questions, not confined to the Ranger mine. Why did it take so long before any remediatory action was demanded by the federal government?

How many Australians are aware of an earlier review of another Australian mine, operated by foreign multinationals, which also pointed to a "culture of complacency" within the industry?

Now that nuclear power is being given a new "wash over" by some "greens" who claim they want to reduce the impacts of burning coal and oil, so it is even more important to examine the consequences of mining and processing uranium. Even in Australia, however - which has seen more uranium mining mishaps than most producing countries - the environmental lobby can't agree on whether Ranger should be permanently closed.

Meanwhile, as the possibility of closure loomed over Rio Tinto/ERA in early September, a spokesperson for the company once again raised the possibility of opening a uranium mine at Jabiluka. Last year, Rio Tinto promised Jabiluka's traditional landowners, the Mirrar People, that it wouldn't proceed with this project unless they gave it their full consent. Has this undertaking now been thrown aside?

Comments on the Cooke Review

by Techa Beaumont of Mineral Policy Institiute (Sydney)

September 10 2004

Increasing evidence points to the failure of the Australian government to regulate mining operations in the country, and adequately monitor or enforce the conditions it places on those operations. While Rio TInto/ERA's Ranger uranium mine has been under scrutiny for its many failures, the problems are not confined to this mine, or the uranium sector alone.

Earlier this year, a report, entitled ' the Cooke Review' was commissioned by the Western Australian state government to investigate consistent complaints raised by residents around the 'Kalgoorlie superpit', Australia's biggest goldmine, jointly owned by Barrick Gold and Newmont. Highly critical of the company's operations, the Review outlined systemic problems and a "culture of complacency" within the government departments charged with regulating the mining operations which only aggravated the problems; 'a change in culture is urgently required.' The Review found that tailings dams were causing unacceptable impacts on landowners and surrounding land, posing potential public health and safety risks. It recommended that a "stop work" order be placed upon the gold mine if an agreement to limit these impacts could not be dealt with within a reasonable time period.

The report also acknowledged what most communities living around mine sites in Australia, already know: self monitoring of the industry is not working. The government, it said, should investigate alternative methods, with bodies independent of the company playing the primary role of monitoring compliance.

New spill on eve of Ranger reopening

By Lindsay Murdoch in Darwin, Sydney Morning Herald

September 6, 2004

Operations at the controversial Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park have been disrupted again by a spill only days after the Federal Government threatened to close it.

A spokeswoman for Energy Resources Australia (ERA), the company that operates Ranger, said yesterday that 20 litres of chemicals containing a small amount of uranium spilled out of a walled-off area of the mine's ore processing plant into a stormwater pipe on Saturday.

She said the spill was contained and mopped up as the mine's processing plant was about to start up after a temporary shut down last week so improvements demanded by the Government could be made.

The spill caused no health, safety or environmental risk, the spokeswoman said.

But it comes amid calls for the mine to close after more than 120 mishaps, some of them serious, since it opened in 1981.

The Herald reported on Saturday that two children aged five and eight played for 44 days in mud from the mine that was contaminated with uranium, receiving exposure to unacceptable doses of radiation.

Their mechanic father, Devon Baker, 40, who was also exposed to "hot" mud while working on a mine excavator, said neither he nor the children had been given medical tests since they were exposed.

He fears the children will have long-term health problems despite an assurance by the Commonwealth-employed supervising scientist, Dr Arthur Johnston, that while unacceptable their exposure was unlikely to cause significant health problems.

ERA's chief executive, Harry Kenyon-Slaney, said last night his company "felt for" and apologised to Mr Baker, who lost his job and has been unwell since he and his children were exposed to the radiation.

Mr Kenyon-Slaney said ERA would talk to Mr Baker's former employee and Dr Johnston to "see if he wishes to participate in any programs we have".

Mr Kenyon-Slaney denied ERA had told Mr Baker not to talk publicly about the incident, a claim Mr Baker made in Saturday's report.

"I cannot vouch for every single person at the mine but what I am saying is that it's categorically not company policy to say anything like that," he said.

Sources at the mine said the latest mishap appeared be the result of human error.

ERA, government to blame for uranium mine: ALP

August 31, 2004

Sydney Morning Herald

The federal government has been called on to shoulder responsibility after a report found the company behind a uranium mine in Kakadu National Park had breached its operating licence.

The Northern Territory government is considering whether to prosecute ERA over an incident in March this year when the Ranger mine site's water supply became contaminated with uranium, making 28 workers ill.

An investigation by the Office of the Supervising Scientist Arthur Johnston found the mine's radiation clearance measures and water systems were inadequate, with leaky pipes and broken valves common around the mill.

ERA announced it would temporarily suspend mining and processing to address issues raised by the reports.

Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said he would ensure thorough independent audits that the company complied with new standards.

But opposition environment spokesman Kelvin Thomson said the government must share responsibility with ERA for what Mr Macfarlane described as a culture of complacency which had developed at the mine.

"Following more than 120 documented incidents, spills and leaks since the Ranger mine opened in 1981, Labor initiated a Senate inquiry into the Ranger mine in 2002 without any support or cooperation from the Howard government," Mr Thomson said.

"The inquiry found that monitoring at Jabiluka and Ranger mines lacks rigour and independence and was insufficient for assessing intermittent and cumulative impacts. It said the monitoring regime had to be improved."

Mr Thomson said the inquiry found the current legislative and regulatory framework to be complex, confusing and inadequate in many respects.

"It found a need for an increased role of traditional owners in land management and protection, and for research into the social impacts of the Ranger mine," he said.

"The Howard government has failed to act on these recommendations and the problems still continue."

Mr Thomson said the government's handling of uranium mining safety and environmental issues at Ranger had been casual and inadequate.

Greens senator Kerry Nettle called for the permanent closure of the mine.

"The minister needs to use his power to stop the operating licence (and) revoke the export licence that exists for Ranger uranium mine," she said.

"It is the most destructive, dangerous and toxic industry - it occurs wholly within the Kakadu World Heritage area - it is an utterly inappropriate place."

Senator Nettle said there had been no prosecutions at Ranger and that the prospect of a $10,000 fine for environmental breaches was a mere drop in the bucket for ERA's majority shareholder, Rio Tinto Ltd.

The Mirarr traditional Aboriginal owners said Rio Tinto and ERA were now on notice.

"It is time for a complete overhaul of Ranger's safety and environmental protection management," a Mirarr spokesman said.

"If the company fails to immediately lift its game the commonwealth government should revoke its uranium export licence."

The spokesman said the Mirarr people had long held and publicly expressed concerns at inadequate management practices at Ranger and these concerns had been vindicated by the findings of the supervising scientist.

Re. Suspension of operations at Ranger Uranium Mine at Kakadu

Gundjheimi Aboriginal Corporation Media Statement

31 August 2004

The Mirarr Traditional Aboriginal Owners of the area of the Ranger uranium mine welcome the shutdown of the mine in order for miner Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) to implement a range of environmental protection and worker safety measures. Rio Tinto and ERA are now on notice; it is time for a complete overhaul of Ranger’s safety and environmental protection management. If the company fails to immediately lift its game the Commonwealth Government should revoke its uranium export licence. The shutdown comes after the Environment Minister last night tabled two reports on Ranger by the Commonwealth Supervising Scientist. The first report was on inadequate radiation clearance procedures at the Ranger mine, which resulted in earthmoving equipment leaving the mine contaminated with uranium ore. The second report was on the March 2004 contamination of the mine’s drinking water system and the uncontrolled release of contaminated water to Jabiru East and the local environment. The March contamination incident saw workers exposed to water with uranium levels four hundred times the Australian Drinking Water Standard.

The Mirarr people have long held and publicly expressed concerns at inadequate management practices at Ranger. These concerns have been vindicated by the findings of the Supervising Scientist.

The Supervising Scientist’s report found the following (this list is by no means exhaustive) in relation to the management of Ranger by ERA, a Rio Tinto controlled company: - - deficient radiation protection procedures; - insufficient training in radiation protection and water management; - an inadequate radiation protection culture; - inadequate resources allocated to radiation protection; - the lack of a workplace safety system; - ongoing process plant problems and related OHS issues; - the need for counselling, neurotoxicological testing and independent review of such testing.

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation now calls on the Federal Government to work with the Northern Territory Government and ERA to immediately review the findings of the October 2003 Senate report into environmental regulation at Ranger.

The Corporation further calls on miner ERA and the Commonwealth and Northern Territory regulators to acknowledge the long-held concerns of the Mirarr Traditional Owners and respect their expertise in land management by working with the Gundjeihmi Corporation and the Northern Land Council to implement relevant recommendations of this inquiry.

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"

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:

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