MAC: Mines and Communities

Ranger uranium mine: after the contamination

Published by MAC on 2004-05-19

Ranger uranium mine: after the contamination

Following the widespread contamination of drinking and shower water at Rio Tinto/ERA's Ranger uranium mine in March, a Northern Territory government investigation has recommended prosecution of the company. However, the investigatory report hasn't been made publicly available, nor does the minister of mines seem to be taking the "incident" as seriously as he should.

Re. referral of Ranger contamination incident to Northern Territory Department of Justice

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation

Media Statement – 19 May 2004

The Mirarr Traditional Aboriginal Owners of the Ranger uranium mine welcome the decision by the Northern Territory Minister for Mines and Energy to refer the March 2004 Ranger process water contamination incident to the Department of Justice for likely prosecution. The NT Minister announced his referral of the matter during a media conference in Darwin today.

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation welcomes this decision by the NT Minister and looks to the Department of Justice to prosecute mine operator Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) for these clear breaches of the company’s authorisation.

The Corporation believes ERA has:

- breached the Commonwealth Environmental Requirements by not keeping levels of radiation and chemical pollutants as low as reasonably achievable;
- breached the Commonwealth Environmental Requirements by not totally containing process water in a closed system; and
- breached its Northern Territory authorisation specifically by not keeping levels of radiation and chemical pollutants as low as reasonably achievable and generally by breaching the Commonwealth requirements which underpin the NT authorisation.

The recommendation by the NT Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development (DBIRD) that ERA be prosecuted for breaches of law vindicates the long-held concerns of the Mirarr that Ranger is not being operated or regulated in a matter that befits a World Heritage listed National Park.

Mirarr have struggled for many years to have their concerns taken seriously by industry and by government. This decision by the NT Government is testimony to the fact that these concerns were true and that the mining company and government regulators need to lift their game at Ranger. The Corporation is disappointed, however, that the Minister will not publicly release the DBIRD report. There should be a full and frank public release of this important report as soon as possible.

Further information: Justin O’Brien 0407 06 00 99


The following is an interview between Australian Broadcasting (ABC Darwin) and the Northern Territory Mines Minister broadcast on May 19th 2004

RICHARD MARGETSON - PRESENTER:

And we'll speak with the Mines Minister who released details today of the report into the water spill at Ranger uranium mine. In fact, he didn't actually release it, he passed it on to somebody else and they're going to release it later on. So we'll find out why that is the case.

Interview with the Northern Territory Minister for Mines and Energy Kon Vatskalis.

RICHARD MARGETSON - PRESENTER:

In March, in fact nearly two months ago now, the twenty-third of March, it was a fateful day for the Ranger uranium mine. You would recall the events which led to a number of mine workers drinking contaminated water. The chief scientist closed the mine for a period, and there were worries that the creeks surrounding Jabiru may be contaminated by processed water from the mine which had been diverted incorrectly.

Today the Mines and Energy Minister, Kon Vatskalis, announced that a detailed report into those events had been received from the Department of Business Industry and Resource Development's Mineral and Energy Group. Try saying that quickly underwater. But no immediate action will be forthcoming.

The Minister joins us now. Kon Vatskalis, thanks for being with us.

MARGETSON: What is happening to that report now?

VATSKALIS: As I said earlier today, this is a complex report, that it's a complex case, and would like to make sure that we put everything in place before we proceed with any further action. The department has a done a detailed investigation. I noted recommendation of the department to forward it for consideration and I have forwarded it to the Department of Justice for further consideration if prosecution action is necessary.

MARGETSON: So it's gone now to the Department of Justice. Will that mean there's a stronger likelihood of prosecution for the ERA, the mine's operators? Is that what the whole issue is about?

VATSKALIS: Well, I can't comment what the outcome will be because I'm waiting for this kind of advice from the Department of Justice. Everybody is innocent until proven guilty. And I think it's fair enough, fair for the ERA and everybody else, to have the report be assessed by the Department of Justice. And the Department of Justice will then advise me of the appropriate action.

MARGETSON: But the fact that you're passing it to the Department of Justice and the fact that today you said that it was a matter that caused justifiable alarm among employees, traditional owners and local residents. It suggests that, if you read between the lines, that there is a pretty damning summation of events and there's something prosecutable in there?

VATSKALIS: Well, the report identified prima facie breaches of legislative requirements and that's serious. And I reiterate again; yes, it caused justifiable alarm among the traditional owners, the workers and population. It is a serious incident but the referral to the Department of Justice is one step of the procedure we're following because we want to make sure that whatever we do it's the right thing and we're not going to lose a case, if the case may be.

MARGETSON: Have you spoken today with ERA?

VATSKALIS: We advised ERA this morning that there will be a press conference and that we'll advise the media and the public that we had referred the report to the Department of Justice.

MARGETSON: So have they seen the report? Are they ... have they had any indication about what's in that report themselves?

VATSKALIS: Well, I haven't released the report for the simple reason I have referred it to the Department of Justice and I'm waiting from, again, the Department of Justice's advice if I can release the report. After all, the report can be available to the public later because it will be either freedom of information available or will be through a prosecution or through the court system.

MARGETSON: Are you able to tell us anything at all about what was reported by that Department of Business Industry and Resource Development's Mineral and Energy Group?

VATSKALIS: Well, I believe everybody knows about the incident; that it was a hose connected ... connecting the water supply, the potable water supply with the processed water supply. Something went wrong, and as a result processed supply entered the system of the potable water supply and that contaminated the drinking water system at ERA and also drinking water system in the Jabiru East and the airport.

MARGETSON: I guess it's the why and the results of that that the report focuses on?

VATSKALIS: Yes, the report identified the reasons why. EPA searched to find out when it happened, how it happened, and why it happened. Of course there are names ...

MARGETSON: So you know that now, having read the report?

VATSKALIS: Yes. And there are names in the report. But we're restricted by releasing this information until I receive advice from the Department of Justice if we can release this information.

MARGETSON: If you know today what's in the report, why shouldn't the public know?

VATSKALIS: Well, again, I'm privy to this information and I'm not going to release them. I don't want to prejudice any action by the Department of Justice or the department.

MARGETSON: So if you say you're not going to jeopardise a prosecution, I'm just wondering ... that, to me, says that there's something there that is ... there's some indication that there's something prosecutable there?

VATSKALIS: Well, the department has identified a number of breaches of legislation. And, of course, the department recommend a certain action. We went to the Department of Justice and we say, we would like you to tell us how to proceed with this recommendation, and that's what we're waiting for.

MARGETSON: It's now gone to the justice department, which have a few things on their plate currently, like ... things like the Falconio committal. It doesn't really suggest a quick resolution to the issue as a whole, does it? Or is there enough people working on the ground in the justice department to cover all of those issues?

VATSKALIS: I believe the Department of Justice has the capacity to deal with it urgently. I asked them to deal with it as a matter of urgency and I expect this to be dealt as soon as possible.

MARGETSON: If the advice came back from the justice department, and you were ... what position are you in? As a minister in the Northern Territory, are you able to suspend ERA's licence at Jabiru? Have you got that sort of power?

VATSKALIS: No, the licence actually is granted by the federal government and only the federal government has the power to suspend or withdraw the licence. The mine has to operate under the Northern Territory legislation and we will ensure that the mine, this mine and any other mine in the Territory, will operate effectively and properly under the Northern Territory legislation.

MARGETSON: Which makes me wonder why it's gone now to our own Northern Territory justice department rather to a federal justice department if it's sort of in their jurisdiction?

VATSKALIS: Well, it is a very strange situation. The federal department only controls the licence. They can allow to open or to close; actually, can allow the export licence rather than the operation of the mine, while the Northern Territory legislation allows the operation of the mine.

MARGETSON: What penalties would be able to be imposed then?

VATSKALIS: Well, first of all somebody has to be prosecuted and to be found guilty before penalty applies. The penalty, as prescribed in the act ... I haven't got the act in front of me, I am not a legal expert, a mine expert, to actually tell you what the fine would be. But, after all, it's a decision for the judge to impose the penalties.

MARGETSON: So do you have any timeframe? Do you have any idea about when you will know what the final recommendations are from the justice department, whether or not there is anything prosecutable, whether or not ERA will have to defend anything at all?

VATSKALIS: As I said before, we have referred the report to the justice department, I am waiting for their advice. I asked the department to deal with it as a matter of urgency, and I believe we're going to see an answer from the Department of Justice in the near future.

MARGETSON: The near future being ... ?

VATSKALIS: Well, when I say the near future I don't expect the next year. I expect it earlier than that.

MARGETSON: Earlier than next year?

VATSKALIS: Much earlier.

MARGETSON: For the moment, Kon Vatskalis, thanks very much for joining us.

Cheers. Kon Vatskalis is the Mines and Energy Minister. Of course that report that's come out today has been referred now to the Department of Justice. In March workers at the mine were showered and consumed water that was later found to be contaminated by the mine's processed water. And, as the Minister said, the justice department lawyers are assessing that report before endorsing what, if any, legal action could be pursued.

 

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