By Tom Flanagan
DARWIN — Aboriginal traditional owners are blocking a key aspect of the plan to mine uranium at Jabiluka. They are using the limited legal rights they now have to refuse to consent to the milling of Jabiluka uranium ore at the Ranger mine site about 20 kilometres away.
The two mines are located within the boundaries of Kakadu National Park, which has World Heritage listing for its natural and cultural features.
The Mirrar people, the traditional owners of Jabiluka, are opposed outright to uranium mining, but are being held to a 1982 agreement with the company previously involved, Pancontinental. Under this proposal, Jabiluka ore was to be milled on site.
The mine was acquired by Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) in 1991. The terms of the transfer agreement require the consent of traditional owners if the ore is to be milled at Ranger.
Milling of the ore at Ranger is ERA's preferred option; it also owns the Ranger mine. The environmental impact statement recently approved by the federal government focuses mainly on the preferred plan to mill at Ranger.
Significantly, the first recommendation of the EIS stated: "If an alternative proposal to the preferred proposal in the final EIS is to be implemented, then further environmental assessment should be required".
Furthermore, according to the November-December newsletter of the Environment Centre NT, the supervising scientist, Per Bridgewater, writing to the Alligator Rivers Region Advisory Committee in August, stated: "If ERA were to proceed with their Jabiluka Mill alternative, I would recommend, in the strongest possible terms to the Minister for the Environment, that ERA be required to prepare a new Environmental Impact Statement ..."
Bridgewater also noted, "Statements by ERA have indicated that it believes that a new EIS would be required to proceed with the Jabiluka alterative".
The requirement of a new EIS for the Jabiluka mill alternative is not likely to stop the project. Jane Weepers, campaign coordinator for the NT Environment Centre, said to Green Left Weekly, "EISs never stop anything. Ninety-nine per cent of projects that go through the EIS proceed. There's no way an EIS will stop this one."
Weepers pointed out that the effect of blocking the Ranger mill option is to buy time: time to raise public awareness and to pressure the government, increasing the chances of preventing the mine from going ahead altogether.
Despite the obvious need, the federal government has not yet given a clear undertaking to proceed with a new EIS, although it is clearly bound to "further environmental assessment". It is vital that the government not be allowed to minimise public scrutiny by settling for a quick, token assessment in place of a full EIS.
The rejection of the "mill at Ranger" option by Jabiluka's traditional owners has significantly raised the stakes. A mill at Jabiluka would have a significantly greater impact at the site than a mine alone.
Immediately adjacent to heritage-listed Aboriginal art sites, it would involve the construction of a processing plant and tailings dam, and bring with it — judging by the record at Ranger — the prospect of leakages and the risk of contamination of the Malaga wetlands. The tailings produced would require containment for thousands of years.
Less than two decades of mining at Ranger have already created an ecological time bomb. By refusing to approve the mill at Ranger, the traditional owners have not chosen two smaller ecological time bombs over one larger one; they have bravely chosen the third option — not to give up, to take the fight to the government. This is in the interests of us all, and will require our energetic support.