Indigenous activist speaks: Outback communities and the nuclear industry

Issue 

Jillian Marsh is a member of the Adnyamathanha community in the Flinders Ranges and active in the Australian Nuclear-Free Alliance. She recently traveled to Germany to receive the 2008 Nuclear-Free Future award, and is writing a thesis entitled A look at the approval of Beverley Mine and the ways that decisions are made when mining takes place in Adnyamathanha country.

Marsh spoke to Green Left Weekly's Peter Robson about the expansion of the nuclear industry in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

What are the main issues with the nuclear industry at the moment?

At a national level and a global level there is a lot of pressure from the nuclear industry to expand. This targets governments, local communities and local councils.

Nuclear expansion is made up of the mining component, the transport and processing component, where the product is distributed and what it's used for — weapons, power plants, reprocessing, enrichment and then what you do with the waste.

The main components we have to deal with in my area are the mining, processing, transport, waste and storage and management of the waste. It's quite possible that nuclear power will also be a key factor. There is a big push on governments to adopt nuclear power as a progressive step forward.

The details of that don't stack up, from what I've seen. In terms of replacing coal-fired power stations with nuclear power stations, the economics don't stack up, the environmental issues don't stack up and [uranium is] still a fossil fuel. There's the huge issue of waste, and what do you do with the waste. That hasn't been resolved.

Those are the key issues in Australia but also there's the legacy of what the nuclear industry has already done in Australia: there's the detonation of bombs, the contamination of land that has caused, the chronic health issues that people suffer from as a result of radiation sickness.

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There's never been any compensation for, or recognition of, the people [in remote communities] that through suffered that. With the detonations at places like Emu Junction and Maralinga the black clouds could be seen all over our country and further over to the east. The winds carried the contamination from the detonation thousands of kilometres to the east.

Again there's never been any compensation put forward by the government and never been any research or investigation done that could see how widespread or serious the contamination is.

What are the specific proposals being debated?

In South Australia, there's the expansion that's on the table for the Roxby Down Olympic Dam mine. The expansion of the Olympic Dam process has already excluded Aboriginal people from consultation and decision making.

WMC [Western Mining Company] sought an indenture agreement from the government to have exemption from the Aboriginal heritage legislation in South Australia. The state government allowed WMC this exemption.

That stands for the lifetime of the mine. Indigenous people have been discriminated against by the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. Legally that means they have no power to have any say over what happens as a result of the expansion.

Under Native Title legislation, people have the right to negotiate an agreement for compensation, but they still don't have any decision-making power legally.

Now you have the land rights legislation in the Northen Territory — which allows Indigenous people to veto development for five years — which is still only a temporary arrangement.

But then development or mining companies can come back with a new package with new people, with new strategies or rework the same ones they used previously, and they can pressure people again and they can do that every five years, for eternity.

They just wear people down, because communities don't have the same level of resources that mining companies have access to. This sets up a major inequity between the negotiating parties. At every stage of the game, Indigenous communities are always under-resourced and placed in an impossible situation.

Then you have the mining companies working very closely, very comfortably with governments. Again, governments have a lot more resources than Indigenous communities.

From a moral and ethical point of view, governments should be working much more closely with Indigenous communities rather than doing what they are doing, which is blatantly ignoring what communities want and working closely with mining interests instead.

Just recently, there has been some talk from within our own government here in South Australia, where the deputy premier at the time of the Beverly negotiations, Rob Kerrin, put out a statement saying how he was successfully able to negotiate an agreement for the mining component despite broad community opposition to the Beverly uranium mine.

He's very proud of that … of thwarting public concerns and dismissing Indigenous people's rights. He's openly proud of that. It's disgusting.

Has the new federal government improved the situation much?

The new government has actually intensified the problems by opening the doors for the nuclear industry to expand and by saying that they will continue to seek a place in Australia to store nuclear waste. It's going to be somewhere in remote or rural Australia, it won't be in Sydney or Adelaide or Canberra.

It will be somewhere in the vicinity of Alice Springs or Port Augusta. It's remote and rural communities getting a kick in the arse all the time and getting the raw end of the deal from the commonwealth government.

One of the other issues that the federal government has really let us down on is, when the ALP were campaigning in the lead-up to the federal election, they clearly said they would maintain the three mines policy in Australia, which states that the three uranium mines that exist would stay but there would be no expansion.

Within five days of winning office, they changed their policy. The ALP should be ashamed of themselves, they are absolute hypocrites.

People like Peter Garrett, who is now in a powerful position as minister for the environment, have a lot to answer for. The reputation that Garrett brought to his position was as a strong advocate for the environment and for Aboriginal and remote Australia. He has spat that back at us.

Right across the nation, you mention Peter Garrett's name now and you get a wry smile or … something much worse. There are very few people who would support Peter Garrett as an environmental advocate.

The Australian federal government has certainly not done what they claimed they would do, they have broken their promises.

If you talk to the Aboriginal people up in the NT about the intervention, and what the underlying issues behind it are, in terms of changing the land, they will tell you that they feel the push to move people off of settlements is a push to open up exploration and mining.

The government knows that there are a lot of deposits of uranium and other mineral ores in the NT. Uranium is one of the biggest issues in the NT. As far as the waste proposal is concerned, I think that the primary industries and resources [department] has a lot to answer for, with the level of transparency that it's displayed.

One example is how the department is trying to help Marathon Resources resolve its issues of waste management.

Marathon Resources had an exploration lease over the Mount Jenny area, near the Beverly area. It had its licence revoked for inappropriately dumping waste by burying radioactive core samples in a plastic bag a metre under the soil.

Marathon had its licence revoked until it could prove that it could resolve the issue of where it was going to store the waste. I'm quite sure that the primary industries and resources department would have been supporting Marathon and maybe giving advice.

Marathon approached Leigh Creek town council to ask if it could dump the waste there. The council said no we won't accept it.

Next, Marathon didn't even go to the actual town council in Hawker, it just went to the individual who had the tender for managing the residential waste dump in Hawker and asked if it could put this waste in the dump. It's absolutely outrageous, how could they do that and claim it's an ethical way of operating?

The tender holder told them to take it to the town council. They put in an application to the Flinders Ranges Council, but only to the CEO. The CEO said it was fine to put the waste in the Hawker dump, that it was 80km across the way — it was away from where he lived.

The Marathon Resources people have been absolutely unethical from the start to finish on the issue of waste. The issue of waste is only one component of what they are doing. They would have been negotiating that type of approach with the primary industries and resources department. They wouldn't have been acting alone in doing that.

For that company and our government to be taking that sort of attitude and that sort of approach to pressure local individual people and not even taking it to a council is just absolutely outrageous.

The mining company owes those townspeople an apology because, if I hadn't alerted the people of Hawker to what was happening, that would have gone ahead and it would be too late.

The town council would have accepted that waste and opened themselves up to having to accept future waste and maybe on a much larger scale, because there are only about 350 people in Hawker.

Again, rural and regional Australia is being targeted by the nuclear industry, by the mining companies and by our own government people. It's got to stop.

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