MAC: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto goes naked into the shareholders’ chamber

Published by MAC on 2009-04-06

On April 15th, Rio Tinto plc holds its 2009 annual general meeting in London - the same day Anglo American addresses its own shareholders. Among the issues for which the world's third biggest mining company should face opprobrium are: confirmed leakages of contaminated water from its huge Ranger uranium mine in Australia; and continued illegal payments made to the Indonesian military to "safeguard" the Freeport-Rio Tinto Grasberg mine in West Papua

Contaminated waters leaking from uranium mine


13th March 2009

A Senate Committee has been told tens of thousands of litres of contaminated water is leaking into Kakadu National Park every day from a tailings dam at the Ranger Uranium Mine.

The Commonwealth Supervising Scientist appointed to monitor the environmental impacts of the mine, Alan Hughes, has told a Senate Committee about 100,000 litres of contaminated water is leaking out of the dam every day.

Mr Hughes also told the Committee he did not see any significant reason for concern.

The Ranger uranium mine is on a lease within the boundaries of the world- heritage listed Kakadu National Park.

The Greens are calling on the mining company ERA to explain how it intends to clean up the water.

The Greens Senator Scott Ludlam says he wants to know how the water will be cleaned up.

"It's a vast quantity of water, contaminated water, with processed chemicals, heavy metals, and radionuclides seeping out from underneath the tailings dam," he said.

"And we are just very concerned to know how the company plans on remediating the vast quantity of contaminated water that's seeping out from under their tailings facility.

"I think the supervising scientist and the government is being incredibly casual, telling us not to be too worried, although they couldn't say how the company would remediate it, when they would be doing that.

"They couldn't even tell us the total volume of contaminated water that had leaked away."

The mining company ERA says it has a detailed plan to clean up the water. A spokesman, David Paterson, says the contaminated water is no threat to the Park.

"We understand this issue very well," he said.

"It's well monitored, it's well understood by us and the regulators. And we have a comprehensive rehabilitation plan, to remedy any effects on the surrounding area."

AUSTRALIA: Concerns Rise Over Leak at Uranium Mine

By Stephen de Tarczynski, IPS

4 April 2009

MELBOURNE, Australia - The revelation that a substantial amount of contaminated water is leaking each day from a tailings dam at a uranium mine, located in a World Heritage Site, has sparked protests from environment activists.

About 100 cubic metres per day of contaminated water is coming from the tailings dam, according to official information given at a recent Senate committee hearing by Alan Hughes, the supervising scientist for the Alligator Rivers region in Australia’s Northern Territory, where the Ranger mine is located.

Tailings are the crushed rock that is left over from the mining process. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), these tailings contain some 80 percent of the radioactivity of the original uranium ore.

"We’ve been concerned about the toxic plume that’s been growing from the tailings dam for quite a while now but we were astonished to learn about the extent of that leak," said Justin Tutty, uranium spokesperson at the Environment Centre Northern Territory (ECNT), the peak non-government environmental organisation in Australia’s top end.

He was referring to estimates of the leak given by Hughes, who is responsible for ensuring environmental protection against the potentially adverse impact of uranium mining.

Hughes confirmed that the Ranger mine’s owner, Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), has undertaken several studies into the dam’s leakage rates, and that electrical surveys have been able to indicate where the polluted water has spread. Leading British miner Rio Tinto controls a 68 percent share of ERA.

However, Hughes added that it is hard to estimate the total amount of contaminated water that has escaped the dam so far. "The seepage into the groundwater goes into fractured rock aquifers, so it is quite difficult to know what the actual volume of material is in those fractured rock aquifers," Hughes told the Senate committee in February.

But while Hughes argues that he does "not see any significant reason for concerns" regarding the tailings dam leakages, environmentalists have expressed grave reservations.

"There is a serious environmental management problem at the aging and under-performing Ranger mine," says the ACF’s anti-nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney.

ERA has mined uranium at Ranger, located 260 kilometres east of Darwin, since the early 1980s. The drummed uranium oxide is sold to nuclear power operators in Asia, Europe and North America. The mining firm is said to provide 11 percent of the world’s uranium. Australia holds an estimated 40 percent of the global reserves.

Although located entirely within Kakadu National Park, which is a United Nations, Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site nearly half the size of Switzerland, it is not actually within the park’s jurisdiction. It was specifically excluded when Kakadu was formally established.

Also excluded is Jabiluka, another ERA-owned uranium mine surrounded by Kakadu. Jabiluka remains inactive as ERA requires the consent of the Mirrar Gundjehmi people, the traditional indigenous owners of the area in which both mines are situated, before further mining activity can take place.

The late 1990s saw large demonstrations and a blockade lasting months by activists opposed to the construction of the Jabiluka mine.

The Ranger operation has been similarly controversial. The Mirrar Gundjehmi, which are currently in negotiations with ERA to increase Ranger’s monitoring programme, say that they signed the agreement to allow mining there under considerable duress and have seen few of the proposed benefits.

A 2002 study submitted by conservation groups to a Senate inquiry into uranium mining listed around 150 leaks, spills and other incidents of concern at Ranger. In 2004, the mine was temporarily shut down after it was discovered that workers drank water containing about 400 times the safe level of uranium.

Sweeney argues that the leaking of polluted water from the tailings dam means that "ERA is breaching its operating requirements".

He wants the government to act swiftly. "The federal government should set up an independent review of the impact of ERA’s mining operation, full disclosure of the status of the tailings leak and options for its redress," said Sweeney.

For its part, ERA insists that the tailings dam leakage has not led to any contamination of Kakadu. "Sub-surface movement of water from the tailings dam has been monitored routinely and reported openly for many years. It is well understood," the company said in a briefing sent to IPS following the outcry, which accompanied the initial reports of the recent leak.

But despite ERA’s assurances that Ranger continues to have no detrimental impact on the environment of Kakadu, activists remain unconvinced.

Tutty told IPS that the waste management system at Ranger is "bursting at the seams" and that the mine is very different from what it was initially approved for. "The miner has successively applied for one variation after another so that the configuration out there and the volumes of contamination that the miner is trying to juggle on-site are just way beyond anything that anyone imagined," he argued.

There have been several major extensions to operations at Ranger since uranium was first mined at the site. In mid-March, ERA formally lodged an application for the construction of a heap leach facility at Ranger to extract uranium ore from millions of tonnes of low-grade material at the site.

But while approval of the project could increase the mine’s output by up to 40 percent from 2012 onwards, Tutty said that the "focus should be on cleaning up the old mess rather than making a new one".

Although ERA says that it "will rehabilitate the site to best practice when operations cease," Tutty describes this latest plan for expansion as "absolutely outrageous".

"I think that it shows that they’re right out of touch with what the community expects in terms of protecting the environment and the people of Kakadu," the ECNT campaigner told IPS.

US mining giant still paying Indonesia military


13th March 2009

JAKARTA - US-based mining giant Freeport McMoRan is paying Indonesian troops to protect a large gold and copper mine in Papua, despite regulations requiring the military to hand over to police.

The Arizona-based company said its local subsidiary paid "less than" 1.6 million dollars through wire transfers and cheques in 2008 to provide a "monthly allowance" to police and soldiers at and around the Grasberg mine. The disclosure, made in response to questions from AFP, means the company continues to pay soldiers in contravention of a series of legal measures aimed at stopping military units working as paid protection, rights activists said. Grasberg sits on the world's largest gold and copper reserves, in a resource- rich but desperately poor region on the far eastern extreme of the Indonesian archipelago.

Pro-independence Papuan militants have waged a long-running insurgency against Indonesian rule in the province, and human rights monitors say Freeport's payments help fund military abuses against the local population. The latest attempt to cut the military out of protection payments -- part of broader democratic reforms -- came in a 2007 ministerial decree setting a six- month deadline for police to take over security of "vital national objects." The less-than-1.6-million in direct payments are part of eight million dollars Freeport paid in broader "support costs" for 1,850 police and soldiers protecting Grasberg last year, according to a company report filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission last month.

While most of the direct payments go to the police-led Amole task force at the mine, soldiers and police in surrounding areas are also receiving payments, Freeport spokesman Bill Collier said.

"Although the bulk of our support is directed to supporting the Amole task force, we do provide some financial assistance to the police and military who are assigned to the general area surrounding our operations," Collier said. A 2005 report by rights group Global Witness alleged Freeport had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to senior police and military officers between 2001 and 2003.

The accusations are just one of many public relations headaches for Freeport, the largest single taxpayer to the Indonesian government. Claims of rights abuses and environmental damage at the mine are difficult to verify as Indonesia restricts travel by foreign journalists to Papua and Freeport seldom allows media into its area of operations.

Freeport's Collier did not say if the 2008 transfers included large-scale payments -- in cash or in kind -- to senior officers. But he said the company's actions were within the law.

However, Rafendi Djamin, coordinator of rights organisation the Human Rights Working Group, said the military payments were clearly illegal although payments to police, while ethically questionable, were permitted. "The safest thing to say for sure is they (payments to the military) are against the law. They are against government regulations, ministerial as well as presidential decrees," Djamin said.

Indonesian Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro declined a request to be interviewed on the legality of the payments. Global Witness campaigner Diarmid O'Sullivan said Freeport's disclosure of payments left unanswered questions over whether the company is paying large sums to senior officers.

"Even now, the company still doesn't publish enough detail about its security payments to clearly confirm that this practice has stopped," O'Sullivan said.

Also unanswered is just how many soldiers are being paid.

Nyoman Suastra, the commander of the Amole task force officially assigned to guard the mine, told AFP there are 447 personnel in the task force, which includes some soldiers.

Subtracting that number from the 1,850 police and military personnel Freeport acknowledges it paid last year, it means the company is paying 1,400 security personnel outside the mine, an unspecified number of them soldiers. "It is disturbing that Freeport still seems reluctant to answer the most important questions, which are: who in the security forces ends up with these allowances, how much money do they get and what is the legal basis for these payments?" O'Sullivan said.

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