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Kakadu needs a new approach to cleaning up an old mine

7 May 2019
New ‘Unfinished business’ report co-authored by the SEI and ACF
A new report has found Australia's largest national park is at long-term risk unless the clean up of the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu is done comprehensively and effectively.
Ranger mine. Credit: Dominic O’Brien

Image courtesy: Dominic O’Brien.

Unfinished Business, co-authored by the Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) at the University of Sydney and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), identifies significant data deficiencies, a lack of clarity around regulatory and governance frameworks and uncertainty over the adequacy of current and future financing – especially in relation to future monitoring and mitigation works for the controversial mine site.

Mine operator Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and parent company Rio Tinto are required to clean up the site to a standard suitable for inclusion in the surrounding Kakadu National Park, dual-listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

“No mine in the world has ever successfully achieved this standard of clean up,” said report co-author Dr Rebecca Lawrence from SEI.

“Rehabilitating what is essentially a toxic waste dump is no easy task. Rio Tinto faces a complex and costly rehabilitation job.

“The challenge is not to simply scrape rocks into holes and plant trees, it is to make sure mine tailings, radioactive slurry and toxic byproducts of mining are isolated from the surrounding environment for 10,000 years.

“To ensure this in a monsoonal environment, such as Kakadu, which is already being impacted by climate change, raises enormous environmental and governance challenges.

“For the rehabilitation process to even have a chance at success, the existing opaque and complex regulatory regime needs an urgent overhaul,” Dr Lawrence said.

Tailings, the waste material remaining after the processing of finely ground ore, are one of the serious environmental risks outlined in the report. The report examines how ERA and Rio Tinto intend to deliver on the federal government’s requirement to protect the Kakadu environment by isolating any tailings and making sure contaminants do not result in any detrimental environmental impacts for at least 10,000 years.

“Long after the miners have gone this waste remains a direct human and environmental challenge,” said report co-author Dave Sweeney from ACF.

“This issue is key to the long-term health of Kakadu but there is insufficient evidence and detail on how this work will be managed and assured in the future. Without this detail there will be a sleeping toxic time bomb deep inside Kakadu.”

“At its London AGM last month Rio again committed to make sure ERA has the financial resources to deliver its rehabilitation obligations, however the financial mechanism to do so remains undisclosed.

“The community and environment of Kakadu need certainty and a comprehensive clean up.

“This work is a key test of the commitment and capacity of Northern Territory and Commonwealth regulators as well as the mining companies.”

The report makes recommendations to improve the chances of a successful clean-up at Ranger. It calls for increased transparency, public release of key project documents, a better alignment of research and operations and open review processes for key decision points.

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