MAC: Mines and Communities

Finished business - Jabiluka goes to ground

Published by MAC on 2004-04-29

Finished business - Jabiluka goes to ground

Sydney Morning Herald

29th April 2004

Kakadu's traditional owners say nobody will ever again disturb this land writes Lindsay Murdoch.

Yvonne Margarula stood at the now filled-in entrance of a giant tunnel that miners had gouged 1.2 kilometres below Kakadu National Park in 1998 prompting one of the biggest fights by environmentalists in Australia.

"It's finished business. Nobody will ever again disturb this country", she said.

Ms Margarula Kakadu's senior traditional owner made the declaration during a visit on Thursday to the site of the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine as the Federal Government considers approving an agreement giving her Mirarr people the right for the first time to veto mining in the world heritage-listed park.

"We stopped the mining here", she said referring to an eight-month blockade of the mine by 5,000 people in 1998 during which 530 people including her were arrested.

"Now they have put the ore back in the ground . . . It will never again come out. The country is at peace and I am very happy."

The agreement was reached last month after 18 months of negotiations between the Mirarr the indigenous people's Northern Land Council and the Jabiluka lease-holder Energy Resources of Australia.

The deal stipulates that ERA puts back into the ground more than 100,000 tonnes of ore and waste rock it had stockpiled at Jabiluka and waives royalties that were to be paid by ERA for its Jabiluka lease.

The office of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Amanda Vanstone has told Mirarr representatives the Government will approve the agreement.

A spokesman for the Australian Conservation Foundation Dave Sweeney said yesterday the agreement and the Mirarr declaration this week should make it clear to ERA owned by mining giant Rio Tinto that it will never be able to operate the Jabiluka mine.

"It is time for ERA to take stock. Ranger its other mine in Kakadu is clapped out dangerous and underperforming performing", Mr Sweeney said.

"It is time for ERA to pack up and leave the extraordinarily sensitive Kakadu park after returning the country to what it was".

ERA is facing its first prosecution by the Northern Territory Government which regulates mining in Kakadu and legal action by workers over a leak of uranium-contaminated water into drinking water pipes at Ranger in March.

The mine has had more than 120 leaks spills and breaches of regulations since opening in 1981.

Doctors have been unable to tell workers who drank the contaminated water what the long-term effects on their health will be because no one else in the world has consumed anything like that amount of uranium.

After seeing for the first time how ERA had filled in the Jabiluka runnel Ms Margarula asked company representatives if they would return the area to "bush the way it was".

They told her a rehabilitation program would begin at the end of the dry season late in the year.

Under the landmark Jabiluka Long-Term Care and Maintenance Agreement ERA can ask the Mirarr people every four years to rethink their opposition to mining at Jabiluka.

The Mirarr are expected to come under new pressure to approve mining at Jabiluka when royalties from Ranger dry up as the mine winds down in six to eight years' time.

But Ms Margarula insisted her people would follow their traditional laws and not allow their land to be disturbed by others. She said her father Toby Gangale was under duress when he approved the operation of the Ranger mine in the late 1970s and was strongly opposed to it when he died a broken man in 1988.

"My father was disappointed the mine went ahead and disturbed our sacred sites," she said. "I have the power to represent our people now and it will not happen again."

Ms Margarula said the Ranger mine had not been good for her people. "They told a lot of lies to my father. For instance they said my people would get houses," she said "Where are the houses?"

She was annoyed that when incidents happened at Ranger the world's second-biggest uranium mine ERA was reluctant to tell her people what happened.

She felt guilty about workers drinking contaminated water at the mine in March because it happened on her land.

"They should tell us the details of what is going on there," she said. "We don't know whether or not to trust the company because we don't receive their reports.

Ms Margarula said she was angry that the Northern Territory Government had so far refused to give her a copy of an investigators' report into the March leak.

"Why can't we see that report?" she asked. "It's a big concern. We live here It's our land. We don't know what happened."

Two other reports into the March leak also remained secret. The Commonwealth's Supervising Scientist wrote one for the Federal Government, which has the final say in mining in Kakadu. ERA has also done a report.

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