MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Contaminated water shuts Rio uranium mine

Published by MAC on 2004-03-26


Contaminated water shuts Rio uranium mine

Planet Ark (Reuters), story by James Regan

March 26, 2004

Sydney - Australia's Ranger uranium mine and processing plant have been shut down after worker complaints of uranium-contaminated drinking water, majority owner Rio Tinto Ltd Plc (RIO.AX: Quote, Profile, Research) said yesterday.

Operators aimed to resume mining as early as later in the day, but now estimate it will take until at least the weekend to complete investigations with government regulators into the cause of the contamination.

Operations at the site, 250 km (150 miles) east of Darwin in Australia's far north, ground to a halt on Tuesday when the problem emerged and all non-essential staff sent home, a Rio Tinto spokeswoman said. Government officials were not immediately available to comment.

The number of staff complaining of mild symptoms after showers that may be related to the contaminated water had risen from two to three, Rio Tinto subsidiary Energy Australia Ltd (ERA.AX: Quote, Profile, Research) said in a statement.

The mine and plant employ about 200 workers and is owned by ERA, which is 68.4-percent-owned by Rio Tinto (RIO.L: Quote, Profile, Research) .

'Elevated levels of uranium'

"We are not sure exactly how this has occurred but uranium got into potable water," the spokeswoman said.

It appeared that an erroneous connection was made between the potable water line used for drinking and washing and the water line used in processing the uranium, she said.

The privately run Environment Centre Northern Territory called on government authorities to investigate the incident.

The centre's researchers said the water was found to contain levels of uranium up to 400 times safe drinking levels, but Rio Tinto said it had been assured by health officials that the contamination posed no health risk to workers and that the water supply in the nearby town of Jabiru was not affected.

"This is not a place to cut corners," Peter Robertson, the centre's co-ordinator, said in a statement. The plant treats low-grade uranium oxide which is then stored in barrels before being shipped to North America, Japan and Europe, where it is enriched and used in nuclear power generation.

Staff coming off the night shift complained of a gritty feel and salty taste to water used to shower before going home, the Rio Tinto spokeswoman said.

"The water was tested and found to contain elevated levels of uranium and higher acidity," she said.

ERA shares closed down four percent at A$3.55 and Rio Tinto shares down 1.5 percent at A$33.90 in a flat wider market.

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