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July 2009

Uranium Miners Turning Water Into Liquid Waste

By Jim Green

Environment minister Peter Garrett buttressed his decision on Tuesday to approve in situ leach (ISL) uranium mining at Beverley Four Mile with the claim that he is “certain this operation poses no credible risk to the environment.”

Thus Mr Garrett adds another chapter to the history of spin surrounding ISL mining. Environmental debates typically revolve around differing assessments of the possibility of environmental contamination. But with ISL mining, environmental pollution – specifically, contamination of groundwater with radionuclides, heavy metals and acid – is a certainty.

ISL mining involves pumping an acidic solution into an aquifer, dissolving the uranium ore and other heavy metals and pumping the solution back to the surface. After the uranium has been separated, liquid radioactive waste – containing radionuclides, heavy metals and acid – is simply dumped in the aquifer. Isolation and containment of the pollutants would not be difficult or expensive, but the mining companies will take the cheaper option of polluting groundwater for so long asthe politicians let them.

Proponents of ISL mining claim that ‘attenuation’ will occur over time − that the groundwater will return to its pre-mining state. However there is considerable scientific uncertainty about the future of ISL-polluted groundwater and uncertainty about the timeframe for attenuation if it does occur. A 2003 Senate References and Legislation Committee report recommended banning the discharge of radioactive liquid mine waste to groundwater.

The Rann Government responded by commissioning a study which had all the hallmarks of a whitewash yet still acknowledged that attenuation is “not proven” and could only cite a period of “several years to decades” for it to occur. Yetthe companies proposing to use ISL mining at Beverley Four Mile want to absolve themselves of any future responsibility for the site just seven years after they have finished mining.

ISL uranium mining is used at the Beverley uranium mine and it is the mining method proposed for Beverley Four Mile, Oban and Honeymoon. The future of this mining technique is plain to see − short-lived mines leaving South Australians with a lasting legacy of polluted aquifers. Spills and leaks are also common at ISL mines. The SA Department of Primary Industry and Resources lists 59 spills at Beverley from 1998-2007.

Water is also turned into radioactive waste at Olympic Dam. In 2005 it was revealed that over 100 bird deaths were recorded in a four-day period − the birds had drunk liquid tailings waste from the mine. Ongoing seepage from tailings dams are a further concern. In March 2009, the ABC published photos taken by an Olympic Dam mine worker showing radioactive tailings liquid leaking from the so-called rock ‘armoury’ of a tailings dam. The leaks were ongoing for at least eight months and probably amounted to several million litres, but were not publicly reported at all. BHP Billiton’s response was to threaten “disciplinary action” against any workers taking photos of the mine site. Charming.

Serious questions must be raised as to BHP Billiton’s capacity to safely manage radioactive tailings if, as planned, tailings production increases seven-fold to 68 million tonnes annually and water consumption increases to over 250 million litres daily − over 100,000 litres every minute of every day, in the driest state in the driest inhabited continent.

BHP Billiton pays nothing for its massive water take for the Olympic Dam mine despite recording a $17.7 billion profit in 2007-08. That arrangement is enshrined in the Roxby Downs Indenture Act 1982 − as anachronistic a piece of legislation as you’re ever likely to see. The Indenture Act provides a raft of exemptions and overrides from the SA Natural Resources Act 2004 (encompassing water management issues), the Environment Protection Act 1993, the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 and even the Freedom of Information Act 1991. 

BHP Billiton and the Rann Government are currently engaged in secret discussions over the future of the Indenture Act. We can only hope that they reach the conclusion that the exemptions and overrides are indefensible and that the Olympic Dam mine should be subject to the same standards that apply to all other mines in SA.

 The Australian Nuclear Free Alliance − which brings together Aboriginal custodians with representatives from environmental, medical and public health groups − is calling on the Rann Government to initiate an independent public inquiry into the impacts of uranium mining on SA’s water resources. This inquiry ought to take place in the lead up to next year’s state election. It would provide political parties with an opportunity to demonstrate their resolve to properly regulatethe state’s dwindling water resources and to address the contradiction between corporate water profligacy and theresponsible attitude and actions of ordinary South Australians.

Dr Jim Green is Friends of the Earth’s national nuclear campaigner and a member of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance’s national committee.

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