By Pip Hinman
Energy Resources of Australia, the operator of the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu in the Northern Territory, announced on March 9 that it intends to release radioactive water into nearby Magela Creek. ERA has been given permission to pollute this World Heritage wetlands area by the federal government, the Office of the Supervising Scientist and the NT acting mines and energy minister, Fred Finch.
A request for an injunction to stop the release, sought by five traditional owners, will be heard by the Supreme Court on March 16.
ERA argues that the release of contaminated water from Retention Pond 2, for the first time in Ranger's 15-year history, is unavoidable because of the near-record wet season. "For this very reason, release standards were set and approved in 1985, defining the safe maximum amounts of contaminants permitted to enter the Magela Creek system", said Finch.
Finch argues that the wastes will be diluted to a virtually undetectable level. "With creek flows of this nature, the water is not only safe but is guaranteed to reach the ocean." The minister caused further controversy when he said he would be "very happy" to drink the diluted water.
NT Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) spokesperson Philip Nitschke described Finch's comments as "foolish" and "irresponsible". "There is no 'safe' level for the ingestion of radioactive materials, and it is an accepted medical principle that humans should be exposed as little radiation as possible."
MAPW has called on the federal government to publicly release information about the nature of the contamination, and in particular their half-lives, the quantities of each of the isotopes to be released, and the expected distribution of contaminants across the flood plain. "When this information is made public, the broader community will be in a better position to assess whether it supports such an environmentally irresponsible act."
According to the NT Environment Centre's (NTEC) Richard Ledgar, Ranger was originally designed as a no release mine, but due to design faults ERA has consistently sought to release. "The natural environment should not have to pay for poor design. This is an ongoing, long-term problem which will not be solved by this release."
The NTEC is concerned that a release approval would set a dangerous precedent and represent a major weakening in the environmental safeguards protecting the World Heritage wetlands of Kakadu. "These pollutants do not just dissolve in water and disappear. They lodge in the food chain and accumulate."
The NT government has been attempting to play some of the traditional owners off against each other, saying it had received "mixed reactions" to ERA's release application. However, Northern Land Council chairperson Galarrwuy Yunupingu said on March 9, "Aboriginal people oppose the release because they are worried about their water and food supply. What would happen if Retention Pond 2 water was released into Darwin's water supply. Wouldn't the people of Darwin be outraged and rightly concerned about the effects? That is exactly how the people downstream of the pond are taking the news — they feel they are being forced out."
According to the Land Council and the NTEC, ERA has alternatives which will keep the contaminants within the restricted release zone. For instance, ERA could release excess water into the empty pit of the ore body, which was mined out last December. "Water management has always been a problem at Ranger and approval for this release will allow ERA to sidestep its obligations and to go for the cheap option. The only long-term solution is to immediately cease production, close and rehabilitate the Ranger mine site", concluded the NTEC.