World Heritage Committee to discuss Jabiluka

Issue 

BY SAROJINI KRISHNAPILLAI

For the third consecutive year, the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory is on the agenda of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee (WHC), the international body charged with protecting the World Heritage values of Kakadu National Park.

The WHC will meet in Cairns from November 27 to December 2. The Mirrar people, the traditional owners of Kakadu, along with numerous environment and anti-nuclear organisations, have called on the committee to act to protect Kakadu. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission has recently lodged a submission in support of the Mirrar, calling on the WHC to list the Kakadu as "World Heritage in danger".

In October 1998, a WHC mission to Australia found that "severe ascertained and potential dangers to the cultural and natural values of Kakadu National Park posed primarily by the proposal for uranium mining and milling at Jabiluka". The mission recommended that "the proposal to mine and mill uranium at Jabiluka should not proceed".

At a December 1998 meeting, 20 of the 21 WHC member countries — except Australia — called for an immediate suspension of work at Jabiluka. However, that recommendation was ignored and, following a massive lobbying campaign by the federal government, the WHC declined to list Kakadu as "World Heritage in danger" in 1999.

Australia is set to become the chair of the WHC for 12 months from the Cairns meeting.

Jabiluka mine developer Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and the federal government during World Heritage negotiations in 1999 put the mine's development on temporary hold. Mine construction remains suspended pending resolution of a number of issues including milling options and the possible sale of ERA.

North Ltd, the former majority shareholder of ERA, was taken over by global mining conglomerate Rio Tinto earlier this year. There is now speculation about the sale of ERA to French nuclear utility Cogema. The proposed sale of ERA to Cogema would require federal government and Foreign Investment Review Board approval, which would be strongly opposed by the Mirrar, environment and anti-nuclear groups.

ERA has failed to gain approval from the Mirrar for the transport and milling of Jabiluka ore at its existing Ranger uranium mine site. In October 1999, the Mirrar instructed the Northern Land Council to place a five-year moratorium on discussions around milling at Ranger.

Consequently, if ERA chooses to develop Jabiluka it would need to construct a mill at Jabiluka. Known as the Jabiluka Mill Alternative or JMA, this would be a costly option. The JMA was not considered by the 1997 Environmental Impact Statement, the 1998 World Heritage Mission or the July 1999 special meeting of the WHC. Jabiluka still lacks key elements of project design, including radioactive waste management and mine design. The project approved by the federal government in 1997 is fundamentally different to that being pursued by ERA now.

A number of actions are being held around the country before the WHC meeting in Cairns, including a rally in Melbourne on November 26, 2pm, at the State Library. Phone Friends of the Earth on (03) 9419 8700 for more information.

Information on other campaign activities around Australia can be found at: Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation <http://www.mirrar.net>; Friends of the Earth <http://www.foe.org.au>; Australian Conservation Foundation <http://www.acfonline.org.au>; and Environment Centre Northern Territory <http://www1.octa4.net.au/ecnt>.

[Sarojini Krishnapillai is a member of the Jabiluka Working Group in Melbourne.]