Uranium Mining — Environmental Management - Motion
Date:Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Extract from Hansard
Resumed from 2 May on the following motion moved by Hon Alison Xamon —
That this house recommends, should the government proceed with its intention to license uranium mining in Western Australia, the government adopt the same minimum environmental management regulatory requirements for any future uranium mine in Western Australia as exists under commonwealth and Northern Territory legislation for the operation of the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory with regard to the disposal of radioactive tailings, including the requirements that —
(a) the tailings are physically isolated from the environment for at least 10 000 years; and
(b) any contaminants arising from the tailings do not result in any detrimental environmental impacts for at least 10 000 years.
HON ALISON XAMON (East Metropolitan) [2.11 pm]: I left my contribution to this debate last time having made a point about the need to differentiate uranium tailings from ordinary mine operations and having explained why uranium tailings are particularly problematic. I was also talking about the various pathways by which uranium mine tailings may contaminate the local environment. In relation to the problems I outlined previously, we have seen that these problems have already occurred at the uranium mines that exist in Australia. Even now at Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory, seepage from tailings is contaminating groundwater beneath Kakadu National Park at a rate of 100 000 litres a day. That is according to official figures provided by the federal Office of the Supervising Scientist. This same source also advises that the level of uranium contamination in the water is 5 400 times the background levels. Therefore, preventing tailings contamination, even after a uranium mine has closed, has proven impossible to date. According to Dr Gavin Mudd, who works for Monash University, is recognised as a mines expert in this area and has studied every former and operating uranium mine in Australia as well as uranium mines overseas, there is no former Australian uranium mine that has been successfully rehabilitated. All are still radioactive no-go zones due to radioactive contamination. Therefore, the burden of ongoing monitoring and clean-up of uranium mines has frequently fallen to the Australian taxpayer; meanwhile, Aboriginal and other regional communities and the environment have suffered and continue to suffer irreparable losses.
I now turn my mind to what is considered to be so-called best practice in uranium mine management, and that is often referred to as the Ranger’s legislation. In 1999, in recognition of the toxic threats to human and ecosystem health posed by uranium mine tailings, the Northern Territory and commonwealth governments passed legislation to ensure that tailings from the Ranger uranium mine situated on land excised from the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park would not contaminate the surrounding region, which is also the home to the Mirrar people. This legislation requires that following the mine’s closure, Ranger’s tailings must remain physically isolated from the environment for at least 10 000 years and that any contaminants arising from the tailings must not result in any detrimental environmental impacts for at least 10 000 years. The legislation for the containment of uranium tailings at Ranger is the strictest legislation yet cast for the management of uranium mine tailings in Australia and, as such, we expect that it would constitute the bare minimum from any government promising to deliver world’s best practice regulation of the uranium mining industry. This includes the Barnett government, which has often repeated that it intends to do just that. As noted by the Conservation Council of WA, environmental regulations for Ranger also constitute the most representative legislation to date for any uranium mine in not only reflecting the true costs, but, importantly, also the longevity of uranium tailings management.
Having said that, it would appear—it is quite obvious—that no legislation can make uranium mining safe. No legislation to date has been able to prevent serious tailings management failures or serious radiation contamination. Ranger uranium mine itself, the mine that is the subject of so-called best practice, has repeatedly made headlines for serious radiological contamination, which ranges from contamination of Coonjimba and Majella Creeks with uranium over several wet seasons from the late 1990s onwards and the poisoning of 28 mine workers when radioactive process water was attached to the mine’s potable water supply in 2004—that has been thoroughly documented by the Supervising Scientist. Again according to the federal Office of the Supervising Scientist, which has been appointed to regulate the mine, there is ongoing contamination from tailings in groundwater beneath Kakadu National Park with leakage occurring at a rate of 100 000 litres a day. Even as recently as last year, 2011, the Ranger mine was forced to shut down from January to June due to its tailings dams being filled to capacity, even though that followed a fairly typical wet northern summer, and the risk of the tailings dam bursting.
I have to say that Ranger’s problems are not atypical, and at the other operating uranium mines in Australia we have seen repeated serious contamination incidents involving radioactive waste water, and spills of tailings and other uranium-bearing solutions. For example, between 1998 and 2007 at the Beverley uranium mine in South Australia, the operator of this mine, Heathgate Resources, reported 57 spill incidents to the South Australian Department of Primary Industries and Resources. This included, in 2002, 62 000 litres of radioactive fluid leaking followed by a separate leaking of 6 000 litres of a uranium-bearing brine solution. In February 2012, for the second summer in a row, heavy rain caused a major spill, this time of 34 cubic metres, over an unconfined area, which required a plant shutdown—that is according to the South Australian department. The Honeymoon uranium mine in South Australia is in development and as recently as January 2012, Honeymoon experienced a major spill of more than 440 cubic metres of leached solution over an area of several square kilometres, raising radiation levels and requiring personnel to be excluded from the area. We note that monitoring equipment failed to pick up the problem due to inadequate instrumentation. Again, that is according to the South Australian government’s own reports. This followed an incident early in January involving a 30–cubic metre spill of injection solution that contained uranium concentrate, and last October, in 2011, another spill involving uranium oxide concentrate slurry.
I now turn to the Olympic Dam uranium mine, Roxby Downs, in South Australia. The number of reported licence violations at Olympic Dam involving spills, including numerous tailings leaks, is enormous and it is too long to list now; I do not have enough time left for my speech to be able to list them. In 1994, the former operator, Western Mining Corporation, announced that up to 5 million cubic metres of liquid had leaked from its tailings retention system over at least two years, sparking a major inquiry. Seven years later, in December 2001, after many smaller incidents, more than 420 000 litres of mining slurry containing 0.1 per cent uranium leaked from one of the mine’s holding tanks. Since then, the tailings dam at Roxby Downs has come to attention for mass bird deaths in 2005 and a South Australian government audit in 2006 found the tailings dam structure inadequate. The planned massive expansion of Olympic Dam, approved last year, will only increase Olympic Dam’s tailings problems; and BHP Billiton, the operator, itself estimates that there will be 8 million litres of seepage daily from its tailings dam for the first decade of expanded mining. That figure will then be 3 million litres daily until 2050.
In 2003, a Senate committee was conducted and found a whole series of problems. Of course, we have the 2011 WA Auditor General’s report that I also want to refer to because it also identified a series of problems. In 2002 the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Committee examined the regulation, monitoring and environmental reporting at Ranger and Beverley mines following numerous leaks and spills at both. In its final report, which was released in 2003, it found that there was a pattern of underperformance and non-compliance, there were many gaps in knowledge and an absence of data on which to measure the extent of contamination or its impact on the environment, and short-term considerations had been given greater weight than the potential for permanent damage to the environment. As I have noted, since this report was handed down in 2003 we have seen ongoing spills and contamination incidents at all of Australia’s operating uranium mines. In other words, there has been no improvement at all in the past decade. Therefore, even with the best legislation yet passed for an Australian uranium mine, as we have seen at Ranger mine, uranium is still inherently, by its very nature, accident prone and subsequently toxic for the environment, mine workers and regional communities for years and years and years, especially if such communities are reliant, as they often are, on local groundwater and surface water stores for their water supply.
Uranium mines do not have a special ability over other mines and industrial processes to be accident free. Just like other mining and milling operations, even with the best regulations yet to be implemented in Australia, they are prone to accidents caused by non-compliance and underperformance by the operators or by human error or unforeseen circumstances and variations in the weather. The difference is that the results of uranium mine accidents are far more toxic and long-lasting and expensive than accidents at other mining operations. Even though the Senate committee findings date from 2003, here in WA we have strong reason to be concerned that compliance on mine sites with environmental regulations continues to be inadequate and that this may also be the case for uranium mines here should they go ahead.
We know about the Auditor General’s report that was released in September last year, which was an audit on mining compliance in this state. That report highlighted the facts that monitoring and enforcement of environmental conditions needed significant improvement and that currently there was little assurance that environmental conditions were being met. The audit also found that the Department of Mines and Petroleum’s inspection regime did not adequately deliver coverage or assurance that mines were meeting their conditions. For example, only 43 per cent of mines sampled in the audit had been inspected over the five years to 2011.
This is a very serious environment in which to be looking at the most deadly mining industry known in the world. As explained, ground-up rock and dust containing uranium, thorium and radium in uranium mining tailings continue to emit harmful levels of radiation and radon gas over tens of thousands of years. Although we have barely scratched the surface in terms of these timescales, for all Australia’s former operating uranium mines we can see that each one is still a toxic no-go zone despite millions of dollars being spent on clean-up.
Australia’s earliest uranium mines date back to the early twentieth century, but neither those closed in the 1960s onwards nor more modern uranium mines opened since the 1970s onwards under supposedly stricter environmental regulations are yet to be fully rehabilitated. Every single uranium mine ever operated in Australia is still causing radiation contamination. For example, we have Radium Hill in South Australia, which was closed in 1961. Waste rock and tailings are still being dispersed by wind over the site, meaning ongoing monitoring and maintenance is required. Of course, there is Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory, which was closed in 1971. Despite some $20 million in works, the site remains a major source of extreme acid and metalliferous drainage to the Finniss River. We also have the upper South Alligator River valley in the Northern Territory, the last operations of which were in 1974. About 13 uranium mines and two uranium mills were abandoned in the mid-1960s leaving the Aboriginal people and tourists of southern Kakadu at risk of radiation exposure or safety hazards as well as localised acid mine drainage at some former mines—that is, mainly rock hole. Minor rehabilitation was undertaken in the late 1980s but no-one was tasked with complete rehabilitation.
Following the blocking of the re-mining of Coronation Hill in 1991 and after considerable negotiation with the Aboriginal elders, all rehabilitation work in the valley was finally completed in 2009, but only the test of time will reveal its degree of success or, more likely, otherwise. We have Mary Kathleen uranium mine in Queensland, which was closed in 1982. Despite the rehabilitation project winning an engineering excellence award in 1986, acid mine drainage tailing seepage erosion and/or metal radionuclide uptake are now prevalent across parts of the site. We have Narbelek in Northern Territory, which was closed in 1988. This was a uranium mill and mine opened in the so-called modern era of strict environmental regulations, and yet despite closing in 1988, the site was not rehabilitated until 1995. Although post-closure assessment has shown a reduction in average radon flux from the former ore zone, gamma radiation rates have increased across many parts of the site, which formally showed only background levels. At present, there is no former uranium project in Australia, which can be claimed as a successful long-term rehabilitation case study. All still require ongoing monitoring and maintenance, and some remain mildly to extremely polluting.
The cost of uranium mine rehabilitation is enormous and, as we have seen at formerly operating mines, often blows out to be far greater than what is expected. Available figures on what uranium mine remediation is estimated to cost at Australia’s existing and former mines provide an idea of the scale of the problem. Unfortunately, more up-to-date figures were difficult to get. Ranger mine is facing an ever-growing bill for the site’s remediation once the mine is closed. Updated annually, this bill for tailings and waste remediation work at Ranger was estimated as far back as 2002 to cost more than $40 million. A decade on, the figure is likely to be much higher than this. The 2003 estimate of the remediation cost for Olympic Dam mine in South Australia was $130 million, of which remediation of tailings was estimated to cost $65 million. There is a real risk here, because it is taxpayers who have to bear the cost of this. To date, Australian taxpayers have too often been obliged to share the cost of fixing uranium mine damage. The federal government spent $18 million in the 1980s and 1990s rehabilitating and remediating—or attempting to remediate—the Rum Jungle former uranium mine in Northern Territory, yet the site, as I said, including the Finniss River, is still polluted with acid mine drainage.
In 2009 the federal government allocated another $8.3 million over four years for further monitoring and repair. We are not seeing an end in sight in terms of the amount that the taxpayer is expected to cough up in order to clean up the mess that these uranium mines have left behind. At least $17.5 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent by the commonwealth rehabilitating former uranium mines in the Northern Territory South Alligator River valley.
Meanwhile, the economic benefits of uranium mines, if that is the only thing that floats members’ boats, are uncertain and, at best, short lived. The projected mine lives of the most advanced proposed WA uranium mine projects—that is, the time in which they are deemed to be economically useful—is just 10 to 15 years. BHP Billiton’s proposed Yeelirrie mine south of Wiluna was expected to be the first uranium mine to open in this state and to operate for 30 years, but that project has been on ice since mid-2011 apparently due to the project being uneconomic. Toro’s mine is estimated to have a life of 10 years; Mega uranium, 10 years; Cameco—this is in Kintyre—15 years; and Mulga Rock, 12 years. We are talking about a huge amount of damage that can be wrought over such an extraordinary time frame for such an absolutely limited so-called benefit.
We should contrast the relatively short period during which these proposed mines may operate with the thousands of years that radioactive waste rock and dust, previously held underground and geologically stable, will remain at the mine site, potentially threatening the environment and human health. We want to compare that as well with the ongoing cost of cleaning up and monitoring the tailings at the sites over not just tens or hundreds but tens of thousands of years. We do not yet have in Western Australia, Australia or anywhere in the world adequate legislation to force companies to be responsible for their former mine sites over these time frames.
Where are we headed now? Across WA there are currently five uranium mine proposals in the approvals process and at least 45 uranium exploration projects, some of which have received government funding. Of these, 30 deposits are regarded as significant by the Department of Mines and Petroleum. If we conservatively estimate the amount of tailings that will be produced by even the five most developed uranium projects alone, over their projected lifetime, the figure is about 440 million tonnes of radioactive waste, rock and dust, which will have to be stored at these mine sites and which will remain dangerously radioactive over millennia.
I want to paint a bit of a picture of that; 440 million tonnes is considerably more than our state’s annual iron ore production. The great pyramid of Giza, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, stands 147 metres tall and weighs an estimated 5.5 million tonnes, so we are talking about 75 times the mass of that pyramid. It is a time frame that is almost unfathomable, and an amount of radioactive poison that is too huge for us to adequately comprehend—and that is just the radioactive waste from the five most advanced projects. Take Toro Energy Ltd’s proposal for a uranium mine at Lake Way, which is now regarded as the leading project since BHP Billiton put a stopper on the Yeelirrie project. Toro’s environmental review management program is currently being assessed by the Environmental Protection Authority, with an incomplete mine closure plan, and it has failed to give the Department of Mines and Petroleum or the EPA an estimate of the mine closure costing. It appears that it is not even formally required to do so; we therefore cannot feel confident at this point that this company will continue to act responsibly for the more than 20 million tonnes of tailings it will produce at this mine—if it goes ahead—in 25, 50 or even 100 years’ time, let alone the thousands or tens of thousands of years that is necessary to responsibly manage uranium mine tailings.
Further, as highlighted in a detailed joint submission on Toro’s ERMP by the Conservation Council of Western Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia and the Wilderness Society, there are also concerns that Toro Energy has failed to provide even preliminary estimates for the cost of the mine site’s rehabilitation. Given that Toro optimistically proposes that it will complete rehabilitation and relinquish its tenure just 10 years after the mine has ended production, this is serious cause for concern. Also, while Toro plans to line the sides of the tailings pits—the former shallow open pits—it does not plan to line the base of the pits, which will lead to leakage of tailings into the groundwater. The proposed pits and tailings disposal will occur below the watertable and be connected to aquatic ecosystems, thus risking contamination of aquatic ecosystems through changes in water chemistry, including the mobilisation of radioactive compounds. This is an area known to be inhabited by a unique population of stygofauna; they are microscopic crustaceans found in groundwater, which the scientific community is only just beginning to understand, and for which the EPA is still reviewing legal protection.
This will be the first calcrete deposit uranium mine in Australia, meaning that there is a lack of expertise and experience in engineering and mine design for these deposits. Toro Energy has not demonstrated a comprehensive understanding or analysis of the cumulative impacts of water extraction for the proposed mine, and has made the false assumption that the Wiluna region has naturally elevated radiation levels. It has failed to submit accurate and complete evidence on the radiological environment at Lake Way and its surrounds.
What has been the Barnett government’s response to this to date? It has made much fanfare over the last couple of years about its promises to strictly regulate a future uranium mining industry in Western Australia. For example, I note that in its 2010–11 state budget media release, the government declared that world’s best practice will rule Western Australia’s uranium sector. Again, in August 2010, it announced a supposedly independent reference panel to oversee uranium mine environmental regulation, which would provide high-level advice on how to employ a world’s best uranium sector regulatory framework. I note that this report was handed down only a couple of days ago. Before I get to that report, I will say that this panel has questionable independence; its independence has certainly been disputed by environmental organisations, and it has taken quite a long time to benchmark Western Australia’s existing uranium regulations with so-called world’s best practice.
At the same time, we note that the Environmental Protection Authority is moving full steam ahead with assessing uranium mine proposals, so one has to ask: what is world’s best practice about this failure to provide transparency? I have had the opportunity to briefly look at the report that has come down, and even given the reservations that quite a few people have about the make-up of this particular inquiry, the state government’s review of uranium mining regulation in Western Australia has effectively vindicated the concerns that so many have had about the need for a public inquiry into this industry. I note that, even within the independent report, serious flaws have been revealed within the regulations. It has revealed regulatory holes in terms of openness and transparency and the risk-based assessment process, particularly in respect of environmental health, mine worker safety, relevant training and community consultation.
These are really serious issues, and I look forward to hearing the Minister for Mines and Petroleum’s response, because I have no doubt that he will want to laud the success of this so-called independent assessment, even though I do not think there is anything to be particularly proud of. Again, I note that the report recommends more staff for the department, as current staff levels and skills are considered to be inadequate. It indicates that the department is certainly stretched to the limit when uranium mining issues emerge. I note also that a lot of similar concerns were raised in the Hunter report, which looked at the regulatory regime for fraccing for unconventional gas.
To get back to Toro, the Toro Energy proposal is currently being assessed by the EPA with an incomplete mine closure plan. Moreover, the plan fails to give the Department of Mines and Petroleum or the EPA an estimate of the mine closure costing; it does not even seem that it is required to do so. We do not need a million-dollar uranium regulation panel to tell us that it is not best practice to assess uranium mine proposals without a comprehensive and detailed mine closure plan that ensures that the proponent maintain full responsibility for the mine closure and rehabilitation for no less than 10 000 years. I would like to point out that this proposal also lacks a complete transport management plan and an Aboriginal heritage management plan and is yet to be released for public comment. Furthermore, the EPA is refusing to allow longer periods of public comment on new information provided by the proponent, which is now late and has effectively bypassed public scrutiny. I have to say, that is as far away from world’s best practice as we can possibly get.
I should acknowledge that the phrase ?world’s best practice? regulation has been misused so many times by government and industry as to be rendered meaningless, anyway. In fact, critics of this terminology are largely correct; ?world’s best practice? is explicitly defined in the ?National In Situ Leach Uranium Mining Best Practice Guide?, recently issued by the federal Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism, as being influenced by factors such as government policies and approaches. I can tell members, I am not assured by that. In other words, according to this guide, which is also referred to in the terms of reference for the government’s expert panel, ?best practice? can be defined as whatever is considered to be politically acceptable rather than something relating to any particular standard or practice.
Nevertheless, beyond the rhetoric, the Western Australian public has every right to expect the state government to go to every length possible to protect our environment, our water resources and the health and heritage of our regional communities from the radioactive contamination that is caused by uranium mining in the present, over the long term and in the very long term. Also, taxpayers should not be left to foot the bill, as they have done extensively to date, for the ongoing clean-up and rehabilitation of former Australian uranium mine sites. One would have to think that if the companies were to be fully liable for the clean-up, uranium mining probably would not be quite so economically attractive to go ahead with in the first place. The Barnett government therefore—if it is serious about best practice—cannot do anything less than impose at least the same minimum environmental management regulatory requirements for any future uranium mine in Western Australia as exists under commonwealth and Northern Territory legislation for the operation of the Ranger uranium mine. In fact, it could and should go further by extending by several tens of thousands of years the period that isolating uranium mine tailings is required, because the half-life of thorium, after all, is 75 000 years; and, also, as this motion proposes, by legislating for this requirement to occur during mine operations as well as after their closure. Indeed, if the Barnett government refuses to consider such legislative provisions, is it because it is acknowledging that we can expect as bad or worse problems with tailings here than have existed at the Ranger uranium mine? If it were possible to achieve tailings management in WA without contaminating local groundwater and ecosystems, then I would imagine they would have no problem with looking at such provisions. The answer, of course, is that successful tailings control has never been achieved. We know that even if the Barnett government passes such legislation, presumably it would be the last thing that the government or the industry would want to see happen because, frankly, it sets the bar too high. Uranium mine rehabilitation in Australia is notorious for its failures, cost blow-outs and the need for taxpayer-funded government intervention. In light of these fundamental truths Ranger’s legislation would be considered a step in the right direction towards protecting not only the environment but also the taxpayers from the ongoing costs of management and rehabilitation of uranium mining. A better step would be to not mine uranium at all, because 10 000 years is obviously an absurd undertaking as we cannot even manage to contain these tailings for 10 years.
Amendment to Motion
HON JON FORD (Mining and Pastoral) [2.42 pm]: The Labor Party cannot support the motion moved by Hon Alison Xamon on the basis that we do not believe that Ranger is a good example. I agree with all the arguments raised by Hon Alison Xamon about Ranger. I move, without notice —
(1) To delete ?, should? in the first line.
(2) To insert after ?government? in the first line —
(3) To delete all words of the motion after ?Western? in the second line and insert —
The motion would then read —
That this house recommends the government should not proceed with its intention to license uranium mining in Western Australia.
Debate adjourned, pursuant to standing orders.