Jabiluka World Heritage decision soon

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Jabiluka World Heritage decision soon

By Jim Green

On July 12, the World Heritage Committee will decide whether the Kakadu National Park, which surrounds the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory, will be listed as “World Heritage in danger” because of the expected impact of the mine.

 

While an “in danger” listing will be ignored by the federal government and mining company Energy Resources of Australia, it will embarrass them enormously and provide an important opportunity for anti-mine campaigners to win popular support for the demand to stop the mine.

In May, a federal government report justifying the mine was rejected by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). IUCN and ICOMOS have acted as consultants to the World Heritage Committee.

Federal environment minister Robert Hill said the reports by the IUCN and ICOMOS were “shallow and lightweight” and “an embarrassment to their authors”.

In response, the Australian representative for ICOMOS, Joan Domachell, said, “I am puzzled by the rather hysterical and neurotic tone in the government's response to this process since it began. ICOMOS is a body that is made of people who get together because of their interest in the expert technical field in which they work. On the whole I would say they are a particularly non-political group.”

The World Heritage Committee's decision will be informed by the report of a Senate inquiry, which will be released on June 30. The inquiry is investigating the approval process, World Heritage obligations and impact, whether a public inquiry should be held into the mine proposal (as opposed to lower-level environmental assessments which have already been rubber-stamped), radiological contamination issues and the rights of traditional owners.

Construction of the mine tunnel is taking place, and ERA expects that the ore body will be reached in July. Once the ore body is reached, no ore will be extracted for the first six to 12 months, but further exploration will take place, with underground drilling and detailed mapping of the ore body. During this time, ERA will work on a road linking the Jabiluka and Ranger mines, and it will attempt to secure approval to use the Ranger mill to process uranium mined at Jabiluka.

ERA hopes to begin extracting and processing ore in early 2001.

ERA has announced the resignation of chief executive officer Phillip Shirvington, effective on July 15, and the creation of a new management team. Additional people will be employed to “focus on ERA's prime goal of bringing its preferred milling option for Jabiluka into production by 2001”. The preferred milling option is to truck the ore to the Ranger mill. The Mirrar traditional owners have vetoed this option, which means ERA will be forced to construct a new mill at Jabiluka at a cost of at least $200 million.

Jacqui Katona, executive officer of Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the traditional owners, said on May 27, “North Ltd [ERA's parent company] has outlined its intentions to create further tension and frustration for the Mirrar people to attempt to get permission to mill at Ranger. That permission is not going to be forthcoming. This is a no-win strategy for ERA.”

While ERA claims that the mine will still be profitable even if it necessary to construct a mill at Jabiluka, the company's determination to secure approval for milling at Ranger suggests otherwise.

Another complication is court action over the Jabiluka mill option. Last year the Jabiluka mill was subjected to a public environmental report, a form of assessment even weaker than the more common environmental impact assessment. In a judgment handed down on June 1, the Federal Court's Justice Sundberg found that the Mirrar could challenge the decision of Warwick Parer, then the minister for resources and energy, to grant approval for the Jabiluka mill.

ERA has also created the position of “Jabiluka director” with a brief to “maintain the support for Jabiluka among external stakeholders”. The creation of this position suggests that all is not well in the corporate stable.

ERA's sales revenue from Ranger uranium for the nine months to March 31 was $75.1 million, well down on the $106 million for the corresponding period in the previous financial year. Profit was halved, from $12.7 million to $6.2 million. Part of the Ranger mill has been closed in response to decreased demand and production.

North Ltd is also facing problems. On May 27, the company announced the shedding of 180 jobs in response to “extreme market conditions”. A report in the Australian on May 27 said the job cuts were designed “to help North survive a weakened resources environment, as low commodity prices continue to take a big slice off the company's earnings”.

Backed by the Wilderness Society and the Mineral Policy Institute, about 120 North Ltd shareholders with a combined holding of more than $1 million have formed the North Ethical Shareholders group. The group is demanding an extraordinary general meeting to discuss North's involvement in the Jabiluka project.

In a statement issued on June 3, North's managing director Malcolm Broomhead played down the shareholders' demands, belittling them as “a small minority”, and said the request for an extraordinary general meeting was a “waste of shareholders' funds”.

North Ltd has begun proceedings in the Supreme Court of Victoria seeking to have the request for an extraordinary general meeting declared invalid. A decision is expected on July 12. If required to hold an extraordinary general meeting, North will have to circulate the requisition documents to all of its 67,000 shareholders and hold the meeting within two months, at a cost of more than $100,000.

The North Ethical Shareholders group aims to question ERA directors about the implications of Jabiluka for the value of shares in North, and the impact if Kakadu is listed as World Heritage in danger.

Wilderness Society spokesperson Chris Doran said high-profile institutional investors such as the NRMA, Australian Olympic Foundation, Sydney University, James Cook University, Australian National University, Catholic Life Insurance and the South Australian Art Gallery have already withdrawn a total investment of $7.5 million in North Ltd and ERA over the past year because of the Jabiluka mine.