MAC/20: Mines and Communities

'Keystone Cops' uranium regulation shows need for immediate reform

Published by MAC on 2004-04-12


'Keystone Cops' uranium regulation shows need for immediate reform

Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation Media Release

12 April 2004

The Traditional Aboriginal Owners of the Ranger mine site in Kakadu, the Mirrar People, have reiterated their call for immediate improved regulation of uranium mining following revelations on ABC-TV's 7.30 Report tonight that Aboriginal people (including Mirrar) consumed water prior to it being adequately tested by authorities and that machinery contaminated with uranium left the mine site and polluted a local CDEP yard.

The revelations follow reports last month that workers at Ranger were exposed to mine process water contaminated with 8,000 parts per billion uranium (400 times the drinking water standard) in their drinking water supply and that some 150,000 litres of water contaminated with uranium levels estimated at five times the drinking water standard spilled from the Jabiru East drinking water supply off the mine site and into the local environment.

Executive officer of Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, Andy Ralph, said Mirrar and other Aboriginal people had performed day labour with the Environmental Institute of the Supervising Scientist (ERISS) on 5 April and had ingested Jabiru East water that was yet to be cleared by authorities. He said that while tests of the water conducted on 6 April indicate that it was not contaminated, a test carried out four days earlier showed a level of 19 parts per billion (ppb) uranium, just under the drinking water standard of maximum 20 ppb.

"It remains uncertain exactly what levels of uranium were in the water that Traditional Owners and ERISS staff drank. Regardless of any readings the main inlet water valve remains padlocked and tagged 'do not drink this water'. What is evident is that this water was not cleared by authorities and was not meant for human consumption. The fact that such a blunder could happen in the very offices of the Supervising Scientist, the Commonwealth regulator of Ranger's activities, is embarrassing proof that the regulatory system is patently inadequate."

The senior traditional owner of the Mirrar People, Yvonne Margarula, told ABC-TV that she is increasingly worried for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people living and working in Kakadu and called on the mining company Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and government to better protect people.

"I felt bad about the staff and our members working there who drank the water and I'm worried myself. I'm worried about me and my organisation getting blamed. All we need is for the staff at ERISS and the mine itself to look after our members working there because otherwise we'll have problems with our own people and people from other clans," Ms Margarula said.

Mr Ralph said that Mirrar are especially concerned that the focus of ERA's attention in the days following the contamination was on the drinking water system at the mine itself, instead of areas off the mine site such as Jabiru East.

"In its haste to recommence operations at Ranger, ERA focussed on decontaminating the mine site itself. Jabiru East and the health of the public at large were obviously deemed less of a priority. Traditional Owners, other Aboriginal people and the broader community who put their trust in ERA, the Supervising Scientist and the Northern Territory regulator deserve better.

"With what's happened over the past few weeks you wouldn't put ERA and the government regulators in charge of a sandpit in your local playground," Mr Ralph said.

ABC-TV has also revealed that in a separate series of incidents, ERA allowed machinery contaminated with uranium to leave the Ranger site and pollute the workplace of the local Community Development Employment Project (CDEP). It was shown that machinery hired from the CDEP operation by ERA was returned to CDEP contaminated, despite being given decontamination clearance certificates. In other cases, no clearance certificates were issued at all.

"To allow contaminated material to leave the Ranger mine site is one thing, but to allow contaminated machinery to be returned back to the CDEP yard is an unbelieva ble act of negligence," Mr Ralph said.

"This machinery is used on Kakadu outstations, the caravan park and the school, by not adhering to strict procedures the company has potentially put a large section of the community at risk."

Mr Ralph said that ERA now appears to have breached at least two of the environmental requirements it is obliged to meet under its Commonwealth authority to mine at Ranger. Environmental requirement 1.2(c) states "the company must ensure that operations at Ranger do not result in . an adverse effect on the health of Aboriginals and other members of the regional community by ensuring that exposure to radiation and chemical pollutants is as low as reasonably achievable." Environmental requirement 3.4 states that "process water must be totally contained within a closed system."

He said there is now ample evidence to support an overhaul of the regulation of uranium mining in Kakadu. He reiterated the earlier call of Gundjehmi for a taskforce to be established, comprising Traditional Owners and their representatives, ERA and government regulators, to implement recommendations of the 2003 Senate inquiry into uranium mining.

For further information: Justin O'Brien 0407 06 00 99


Locals drank from tap that stayed on after nearby uranium contamination

Sydney Morning Hearld, Lindsay Murdoch in Darwin

13th April 2004

Aborigines in Kakadu National Park drank water from a tap that should have been turned off after last month’s leak of 150 litres of uranium-contaminated water at the Ranger mine.

And in another incident revealed last night the mine in the Northern Territory left machinery contaminated with uranium in a local community yard where children often play.

The traditional owners of Kakadu the Mirrar last night renewed calls for an urgent overhaul of laws governing uranium mining saying they deserved better from the mine operator Energy Resources of Australia and government regulators.

Andy Ralph the executive officer of the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation which represents the Kakadu community said "With what’s happened over the past few weeks you wouldn’t put ERA and the government regulators in charge of a sandpit in your local playground.

The incidents revealed on the ABC’s 7 Report come only days after government regulators allowed ERA to resume full operations at the mine which is 230 kilometres east of Darwin.

The mistaken switch of processing water into fresh water supplies forced the mines closure last month and intensified pressure on the Federal Government to tighten regulations governing uranium mining.

ERA has since confirmed that 24 workers at the site have reported symptoms of ill-health after the incident including three contractors who have suffered aching, lethargy, headaches and diarrhoea.

No doctor can tell them what the long-term effects of drinking several litres of water containing 400 times the legal limit of uranium because no one else in the world has consumed anywhere near that much uranium.

Arthur Johnston the Commonwealth’s supervising scientist said some of his staff and two members of the Aboriginal community drank water from a tap that should have been shut down during a field trip on Monday last week. But Dr Johnston said the quality of the water was good. Last week he approved the mine returning to full operation.

But Mr Ralph said it remained uncertain what levels of uranium were in the water. "What is evident is that this water was not cleared by authorities and was not meant for human consumption." Mr Ralph said.

He said the traditional owners were especially concerned that the focus of ERA’s attention in the days after the leak was on drinking ing water contamination at the mine instead of areas off the mine site.

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