‘Any fair minded Australian who has thought through the issue of having 20 million tonnes of radioactive tailings in a World Heritage-listed area, in the middle of the most significant national park that we have, on land that belongs to somebody else, will say that this mine is wrong.’
-Peter Garrett. ACF President and lead singer of Midnight Oil.
“If they have to mine it they should send the tailings to Canberra, the Parliament House site would be piled one kilometre high!”
–Grusha; in his article ‘Why is Mining Jabiluka Poison to Kakadu?’
Jabiluka uranium mine is located in Kakadu National Park 230 kilometres east of Darwin.
Kakadu National Park:
Kakadu National Park was established in 1979 and first received World Heritage Listing in 1981. It is one of seventeen places worldwide listed for both its cultural and natural properties. Kakadu provides a habitat for more than a third of Australia’s bird species. Kakadu’s river systems have produced extensive freshwater floodplains, swamps, estuaries, mangroves and mud flats.
Aboriginal people have inhabited the same area for over 40 000 years and continue to live and care for their country today. Some of the oldest and best preserved archaeological sites in Australia – including extensive rock art galleries- can be found within Kakadu National Park. This art provides the longest historical record of any group of people on earth.
History of the Jabiluka uranium mine proposal:
The first company involved in the Uranium deposit was PanContinental Mining. PanCon spent most of the 1970s investigating the extent of the ore reserves and preparing to develop and mine and mill.
In 1982 PanCon concluded an agreement with the Northern Land Council under the provisions of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 that allowed for mining to occur.
The traditional owners of Jabiluka, the Mirrar people asserted that this deal was made under duress and by misinformation. The do not endorse of respect this agreement.
By 1983 everything was set for PanCon to start mining operations in Jabiluka. However, the election of the federal Labor government (and their ‘three mines policy’) restricted the number of mining operations in Australia, and the project never got off the ground. So in 1992 PanCon sold the Jabiluka deposit to Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) for $125 million.
ERA were the operators of the already existing Ranger uranium mine (which has been operating since 1980), located twenty kilometres south of Jabiluka. The Ranger uranium mine is still plagued by questions surrounding ERA’s management of contaminated waste water and long-term storage of radioactive tailings. Since 1980, there have been over 96 breaches of environmental safeguards and practices.
- March 1987- About 500 cubic metres of water inadvertently released via pipeline into Magela Creek when the flow rate was below the minimum approved level.
- 26th Feb 1992- During heavy rains water from the high grade ore stockpile containing significant concentrations of uranium escapes from its containment sump and flows into Magela Creek.
- 13th April 1994- 60 cubic metres of run-off water and seepage from a high grade ore stockpile is discharged following a pipe joint failure.
The list goes on.
ERA lobbied the government to overturn or ‘reinterpret’ their policy. To temporarily rename Jabiluka to North Ranger in an attempt to maintain that Jabiluka was just part of the existing Ranger mine.
The election of the coalition government in 1996 has seen the introduction of an industry-driven, non-restrictive uranium mining policy. And the mining had been sanctioned to go ahead, by the Federal Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, despite his own department claiming that there are serious deficiencies with the company’s proposal and strong opposition from the Mirrar people.
ERA made it perfectly clear that it does not care about opposition from the Mirrar people. In May, 1997, the company stated that ‘ERA will push ahead with plans for Jabiluka whether or not it is ultimately opposed by the senior Aboriginal Traditional Owner of the land.’
The company has also shown that it is prepared to bypass outstanding environmental and community concerns, and has demonstrated that it will take whatever action it believes necessary to achieve its aim as quickly as possible.
A news poll in 1998 found that 67% of all Australians were opposed to Jabiluka with 53% strongly opposed.
During the protests in the late 1990’s, ERA had to resort to using helicopters to transport workers and equipment because of the sometimes violent protests being held. People had come from all over Australia and set up camp for months to be there.
More than 5,000 maintained blockades in Kakadu National Park and more than 500 were arrested.
Many of them were charged with property offences which meant mandatory jail sentences for some.
In 1999 there was a trip to Australia from a United Nations Committee to determine whether Kakadu National Park was in danger from the Jabiluka uranium mine. The party reported back to the United Nations Heritage meeting that in its opinion the park was in danger. They recommended that the park be put on hold for six months while the Australian government gets together its reply on the report finding.
The World Heritage Committee decided not to list Kakadu as ‘In Danger’, and ERA commits to phasing out work in Ranger so that the two mines will not be in full production simultaneously.
August 2000, Rio Tinto – the giant Anglo-Australian mining company- took over the previous owner, Norths Ltd.
The companies involved:
Banks and insurance giants are major investors in North limited LTD (Australia’s leading Woodchip Company- who owns nearly 70% of ERA). This includes NRMA, ANZ, National Australia Bank and Westpac. Westpac is a banker for both ERA and North. Westpac holding shares in ERA and North is a clear contradiction of their environmental policy, which states:
“To support the precautionary approach to environmental management, which strives to anticipate and prevent potential environmental degradation.”
ERA planned to commence mining by the year 2000 with the operating life of 27-30 years.
The threat of uranium mining in Jabiluka:
- Estimated 20 million tones of radioactive waste tailings would be buried on site.
- Genetic change, disease and deformity are known consequences of increasing the radioactivity of the environment.
- The main threat is the production and management of tailings. Tailings are the ore body residues unused by the miners.
- The total estimated tailings output of Ranger and Jabiluka mines would be about 60 million tonnes.
- Tailings wastes emit radioactivity. The waste will be radioactive for over 200 000 years.
- There are no means yet devised or implemented that can isolate tailings waste from the environment for this length of time.
Since 1910 the first radium mining began in South Australia. Since then commercial uranium mining of Australia has taken place at sites in South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.
In Australia, an estimated 30 to 42 per cent of global uranium reserves are found.
Uranium is used principally to fuel nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. It is the raw material for the nuclear industry, the most lethal industrial process known to humanity.
The Mirrar People:
For most Australians Kakadu National Park is considered a holiday destination. For the Mirrar people, its home.
The senior traditional leader is Yvonne Margarula, who has responsibility for the maintenance of the Mirrar country and cultural practice, including the welfare of the Mirrar people.
On the 19th May 1998, at a protest- Yvonne Margarula was arrested, with other Mirrar people, arrested for trespass and later fined $500.
They have been treated as second class citizens on their own land.
So, whats going on now?:
ERA started mining in 1999. But the uranium ore has never been processed and has sat in a stockpile at the mine site.
June 30 2003, ERA has decided to bury the ore back down the mine shaft, rehabilitate the whole site and it's pledged not to reopen the mine till it's consulted fully with the Aboriginal traditional owners.
Simon Prebble, the Operations Manager of ERA says:
“We won't push ahead with the development of the Jabiluka project without the support of the traditional owners. It makes sense for us right now to change the set-up of this site into a long-term care and maintenance regime, which makes social sense, makes economic sense, makes environmental sense.”
ERA has initiated discussions with the Northern Territory and Commonwealth Governments for better arrangements for the longer term environmental care of Jabiluka. Discussions are still continuing.
And information from the ‘Jabiluka Action Pack’ distributed by RAJUM. (Riverina Against Jabiluka Uranium Mining)
Some interesting sites: