Friday, April 3, 2009

AUSTRALIA: Concerns Rise Over Leak at Uranium Mine

By Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Australia, Apr 4 (IPS) - The revelation that a substantial amount of contaminated water is leaking each day from a tailings dam at a uranium mine, located in a World Heritage Site, has sparked protests from environment activists.

About 100 cubic metres per day of contaminated water is coming from the tailings dam, according to official information given at a recent Senate committee hearing by Alan Hughes, the supervising scientist for the Alligator Rivers region in Australia’s Northern Territory, where the Ranger mine is located.

Tailings are the crushed rock that is left over from the mining process. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), these tailings contain some 80 percent of the radioactivity of the original uranium ore.

"We’ve been concerned about the toxic plume that’s been growing from the tailings dam for quite a while now but we were astonished to learn about the extent of that leak," said Justin Tutty, uranium spokesperson at the Environment Centre Northern Territory (ECNT), the peak non-government environmental organisation in Australia’s top end.

He was referring to estimates of the leak given by Hughes, who is responsible for ensuring environmental protection against the potentially adverse impact of uranium mining.

Hughes confirmed that the Ranger mine’s owner, Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), has undertaken several studies into the dam’s leakage rates, and that electrical surveys have been able to indicate where the polluted water has spread. Leading British miner Rio Tinto controls a 68 percent share of ERA.

However, Hughes added that it is hard to estimate the total amount of contaminated water that has escaped the dam so far. "The seepage into the groundwater goes into fractured rock aquifers, so it is quite difficult to know what the actual volume of material is in those fractured rock aquifers," Hughes told the Senate committee in February.

But while Hughes argues that he does "not see any significant reason for concerns" regarding the tailings dam leakages, environmentalists have expressed grave reservations.

"There is a serious environmental management problem at the aging and under-performing Ranger mine," says the ACF’s anti-nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney.

ERA has mined uranium at Ranger, located 260 kilometres east of Darwin, since the early 1980s. The drummed uranium oxide is sold to nuclear power operators in Asia, Europe and North America. The mining firm is said to provide 11 percent of the world’s uranium. Australia holds an estimated 40 percent of the global reserves.


For its part, ERA insists that the tailings dam leakage has not led to any contamination of Kakadu. "Sub-surface movement of water from the tailings dam has been monitored routinely and reported openly for many years. It is well understood," the company said in a briefing sent to IPS following the outcry, which accompanied the initial reports of the recent leak.

But despite ERA’s assurances that Ranger continues to have no detrimental impact on the environment of Kakadu, activists remain unconvinced.

Tutty told IPS that the waste management system at Ranger is "bursting at the seams" and that the mine is very different from what it was initially approved for. "The miner has successively applied for one variation after another so that the configuration out there and the volumes of contamination that the miner is trying to juggle on-site are just way beyond anything that anyone imagined," he argued.

There have been several major extensions to operations at Ranger since uranium was first mined at the site. In mid-March, ERA formally lodged an application for the construction of a heap leach facility at Ranger to extract uranium ore from millions of tonnes of low-grade material at the site.

But while approval of the project could increase the mine’s output by up to 40 percent from 2012 onwards, Tutty said that the "focus should be on cleaning up the old mess rather than making a new one".

Although ERA says that it "will rehabilitate the site to best practice when operations cease," Tutty describes this latest plan for expansion as "absolutely outrageous".

"I think that it shows that they’re right out of touch with what the community expects in terms of protecting the environment and the people of Kakadu," the ECNT campaigner told IPS

Read the complete article here:

No comments: