BY JIM GREEN
A South Australian government report has revealed that trial mining at the Honeymoon uranium mine in the north-east of the state in 1999 led to the leakage of a radioactive acid leach solution through an "impervious" clay barrier.
Mining company Southern Cross Resources is using a controversial in-situ leaching process. Sulphuric acid and oxygen are pumped into the mining aquifer and the solution is piped to the surface. Once the uranium is extracted, the acidic liquid wastes, still containing radioactive and heavy-metal pollutants, are pumped back into the aquifer.
The SA government report released on December 5 said, "During the leach field trial, Southern Cross Resources reported an excursion, evidenced by data from a monitoring well completed in the Middle Sands [aquifer]."
The state government report says the incident "poses the question as to whether excursions may be more frequent than Southern Cross Resources expects" and warns that Southern Cross "must exercise caution during the mining operations".
The state government approved the mine nonetheless. The federal government approved it on November 21.
Southern Cross Resources said while there was no guarantee that similar leaks would not happen again, the environmental impact would be minimal. Environmental and anti-nuclear groups have called for a halt to operations as the company had previously claimed that the clay layer was impervious. Southern Cross Resources now describes the aquifers as "semi-confined".
Problems with trial mining at Honeymoon were briefly and cryptically alluded to in appendix 10 of the environmental impact statement written by Southern Cross Resources as part of the process of securing federal government permission for the mine.
The Australian Conservation Foundation has been trying to get the company's reports on the environmental impacts of trial mining for more than 12 months. ACF's initial freedom-of-information application was rejected on the specious grounds of commercial confidentiality and because the reports contain staff medical records. Appeals by ACF were rejected by two state government departments.
ACF then appealed to the SA Ombudsman's Office and expects a decision early next year. Should the Ombudsman rule for the release of the reports, Southern Cross Resources and/or the SA Liberal government may appeal the decision to minimise the political fallout in the lead-up to next year's state election, expected in March or April. The latest revelations about the Honeymoon mine were the lead story on page one of the December 6 Advertiser.
ACF anti-nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney said, "Honeymoon has only been licensed for one week and already we have a pattern of contamination and cover-up. The company seems far more concerned with media leaks than with leaks into the surrounding groundwater."
Despite the SA Liberal government's willingness to approve the mine without the release of the reports on trial mining, state minerals and energy minister Wayne Matthew said on December 6, "I won't have it said that the government has been anything else but open".
From Green Left Weekly, December 12, 2001.
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