by Mia Pepper, Nuclear Free Campaigner with the Conservation Council of WA
"This week the Barnett Government announced that the Australian Centre for Geomechanics has won a tender to form an ‘independent panel on uranium mining regulations’. Sitting on the panel are pro-nuclear lobbyists and behind the scenes are corporate sponsors including some that are anything but independent. BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are two of the sponsors − companies with operating uranium mines in Australia and uranium interests in WA.
There are now over 140 companies with uranium interests operating in WA, three proposed mines in the environmental approvals process, and many more companies exploring, negotiating and sometimes even fighting over uranium deposits. But the industry’s record in Australia should give us pause for thought.
BHP Billiton is proposing the Yeelirrie uranium mine in WA. BHP Billiton also operates the Olympic Dam uranium mine in South Australia and enjoys a raft of indefensible exemptions from the SA Environment Protection Act, the Natural Resources Act, the Aboriginal Heritage Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
Photos taken by an Olympic Dam mine worker in December 2008 show radioactive tailings liquid leaking from the ‘retention’ system. The company’s response to the whistleblower’s evidence was to threaten “disciplinary action” against any mine worker caught taking photos of the mine site. Last year, a whistleblower released documents which suggest that the company uses manipulated averages of workers’ radiation exposures and distorts sampling to ensure its ‘official’ figures slip under the maximum radiation exposure levels set by government. There is still no National Radiation Dose Register for uranium mine workers in Australia despite promises from federal Labor that the Register would be in place by the end of 2009.
Rio Tinto owns the Ranger uranium mine bordering the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. There have been well over 100 leaks and spills at the mine. The independence and track record of the mine’s regulator − the Office of the Supervising Scientist − has been hotly contested for many years. One incident which attracted widespread attention occurred in 2004, with 150 workers exposed to drinking water containing uranium levels 400 times greater than the Australian safety standard. ERA (a Rio subsidiary) was fined $150,000 − a rare example of a uranium mining company being prosecuted for breaching operating conditions.
The pattern of secrecy, poor performance and inadequate regulation is all too evident in the 2003 report by federal parliament’s Senate References and Legislation Committee. The Committee found “a pattern of under-performance and non-compliance” in the uranium mining industry, it identified many gaps in knowledge and found an absence of reliable data on which to measure the extent of industry’s environmental impacts.
Already problems are evident in WA. There have been many complaints made by pastoralists and Traditional Owners who have not been informed about uranium projects on their country. Traditional Owners who are connected to specific areas have been left out of heritage surveys; pastoralists have been ignored by companies and not informed about projects that affect their property and water supplies.
Environmentalists, unions, Indigenous and public health groups have been calling on the Barnett Government to hold an open and transparent public inquiry into uranium mining. To date the government has refused that request and the prevailing culture of secrecy is further evident with the refusal by the Department of Mines and Petroleum to publicly release the full terms of reference for the newly-formed ‘independent’ panel.
We still do not know whether or how key issues − such as workers’ health and safety, tailings rehabilitation, transport, and groundwater impacts − will be addressed by the panel. We fear that crucial issues – such as impacts on workers health and communities and nuclear weapons proliferation − will not be addressed at all. The panel excludes experts in relevant areas such as occupational health and safety, transport, Aboriginal heritage and native title, non-proliferation and safeguards."
Mia Pepper is the Nuclear Free Campaigner with the Conservation Council of WA.