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SENATE SELECT COMMITTEE ON URANIUM MINING AND MILLING
Uranium Mining and Milling
- Parl No.
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SENATE SELECT COMMITTEE ON URANIUM MINING AND MILLING
Uranium Mining and Milling
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Margetts)
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Table Of ContentsPrevious Fragment
SENATE SELECT COMMITTEE ON URANIUM MINING AND MILLING
(SENATE-Friday, 24 January 1997)
- Committee front matter
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Margetts)
Content WindowSENATE SELECT COMMITTEE ON URANIUM MINING AND MILLING - 24/01/1997 - Uranium Mining and Milling
CHAIR —Welcome. Thank you for appearing before us. Do you wish to make an opening statement before we proceed to questions? I just remind you that one member of the committee has to catch a plane and a couple of others have to go to a funeral, so we are wanting to get away as near to 1.15 as possible, so if you can keep your opening statement as brief as possible to allow maximum time for questions.
Mr Voronoff —We have an opening statement each, and I will explain that in due course. I wish to extend our thanks, on behalf of FoE and the Conservation Council of South Australia, to the Senate select committee for allowing us this opportunity to address this hearing. Also I wish to express apologies on behalf of Mr Stephen Baker, who is the co-author of the CCSA-FoE submission, for not being able to attend this hearing. Unfortunately, Mr Baker is meeting commitments made prior to notification that the committee would be hearing in Adelaide. Due to circumstances beyond his control, he has been unable to reschedule these commitments and he apologises.
As you are aware, ours is a joint submission between FoE and the CCSA. My colleague Dr Dennis Matthews will be addressing the hearing on behalf of the CCSA. Friends of the Earth Nouveau is an Adelaide based, non-government community environmental organisation. It is a member of Friends of the Earth Australia, which is a national network of 11 groups and two regional spokespersons in Alice Springs and Marree. Friends of the Earth Australia is also active at local, regional and national levels. It is also a member of FoE International, one of the world's largest such non-government environmental groupings.
FoE and CCSA are opposed to all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle: uranium exploration, mining, milling, processing and export, nuclear power; nuclear weapons construction and testing; the use of nuclear reactors for research and for the production of radioactive isotopes; and the mining, milling, processing and exporting of radioactive materials, including thorium and rare earths.
FoE and the CCSA strongly support the minimisation of radioactive wastes, minimising the use of ionising radiation, including X-rays, minimising the use of radioactive isotopes, environmentally benign alternatives to nuclear power and the implementation of end-use efficiency programs, these being the most economic and ecologically efficient means of displacing greenhouse gas emitting infrastructures.
We fully endorse the need for this inquiry. It is 20 years since the last major inquiry into this subject. Since then there have been two major reactor accidents: Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1989. There has been a sharp downturn in the uranium market and the release onto the world market, that is, both open and black markets, of weapons grade uranium and plutonium. As we speak, a ship bearing several tonnes of plutonium is traversing the ocean and will be passing seas in our region as it makes its way from France to Japan. This extremely high risk procedure is the inevitable consequence of the nuclear fuel cycle as the nuclear industry tries vainly to store, dispose of or re-use its lethal by-products.
In considering the terms of reference, FoE and CCSA have submitted evidence to the committee that, first, supports recommendations to phase out uranium mining; secondly, supports the need to commence the rehabilitation of mine sites and other regions affected by mining immediately upon cessation of mining; thirdly, supports the need to undertake effective minimisation of risk to radiological exposure posed to mine workers and communities adjacent to uranium mines; and, fourthly, shows Aboriginal communities have not been adequately consulted with respect to mining developments, including and especially the Olympic Dam operations at Roxby Downs.
The evidence, commentary and recommendations fall into the following
categories: tailings management, water management, effectiveness of
environmental protection standards, role of the OSS, workers' health and
safety, and consultation with the Aboriginal communities of the region. I
shall reiterate for the benefit of this hearing brief statements relating
to water management, environmental protection, the OSS and Aboriginal
consultation. Dr Matthews will make statements in relation to tailings
management and workers' health and safety.
Dr Matthews —Again I would like to thank you for this opportunity. Is it rather difficult for the environment movement to participate in these sorts of things because, unlike many of the people you heard today, we do not get paid for coming to these sorts of things. In order to pay for our voluntary activities, we usually have to work. So, essentially, what you are getting is people who are either unemployed or, like myself, retired. As you notice, there are practically no women appearing so it tends to discriminate against women. Perhaps in the future you might take those things into consideration.
Again, thank you for this opportunity. We would like to return the favour and invite all the panel to our public inquiry. It will be something like this, but, obviously, different. You could all take one of these invitations to our inquiry to be held on 8 and 9 March in Adelaide. We would also like to have the addresses of the other people involved in your inquiry so that we can circulate these invitations to them as well.
Perhaps I ought to start off by saying a little bit about myself. I am a scientist by training and have degrees from the University of Western Australia, BSc (Hons), and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. In the honours project and in the PhD project, I worked with radioactive materials, radioactive iron and radioactive tritium. So I have had experience, although at the time I had no inkling of what that experience implied.
Since coming to the Flinders University, where I was for 24 years before retiring last year, I was the radiation safety officer for the School of Physical Sciences, which encompasses both physics and chemistry at Flinders University. I was also on the Radiation Protection Committee in South Australia for a number of years. My activities include not just research and teaching in the area of physical chemistry, particularly solar energy and energy in general. I also take an interest in all energy issues at all levels, including policy, and all aspects of nuclear issues.
In general, I support everything that was said by Daniel here in terms of how I and the Conservation Council are opposed to all aspects of the nuclear industry. I do not think there is really time to go into the details of why our opposition is so strong, but you are probably aware of why by now.
There are a couple of things from our submission that I want to stress. Health and safety are highly relevant to this inquiry. I would like to emphasise that the data--which is well known by now--about the exposure levels that workers can be exposed to has changed over the years. In other words, as our knowledge has improved--and, generally speaking, knowledge improves exponentially--so we have understood more and more about the dangers and there has been an exponential decrease in the allowable dose.
Because there is an exponential decrease, it is very much like radioactive decay in fact. You can characterise it by what is known as a half-life--that is, the time taken for the amount of radioactivity or, in this case, the radiation dose to decrease to half its value. As I have shown in our submission, that typically is of the order of 12 to 14 years. So what has happened in the past--and there is no reason why this trend should not continue--is that on average every 12 to 14 years we can expect a halving in the allowable dose that workers and the public can receive.
We have seen this effect at both the Ranger and the Roxby mines. In their life time the allowable dose has decreased by more than a factor of two, pretty much overnight, so that one year our workers were allowed 50 millisieverts and the following year they were allowed only 20 millisieverts. We are suggesting that this trend, which is undeniable, should be taken into account. In other words, if a mine is going to last for 20 years, then you should say, `At the end of that 20 years, it is highly likely that the allowable dose will not be what it is now. It will be half or even a third of what it is now, so we should plan accordingly.' If not, I think that leaves the governments and the companies liable to action similar to what we had with asbestos.
We are concerned that the industry, in general, is using a worker rotation basis to try and decrease their doses. Because the allowed dose is continually falling, you either have to do something in terms of better circulation of air or better shielding of the workers to decrease the allowable dose. Instead of doing that, the industry is going for this rotation of workers. They have a euphemism for it--they have called it multiskilling.
What it means is that you can put a worker in a highly exposed position, and where normally they used to have only one, now they put three or four and then give them something else to do, so their exposure never gets over the allowed limit. We think this is intrinsically wrong because we know that it is the total dose that that working population receives, not the dose to one particular worker, that affects the total risk.
If I could just put that more vividly, as I did a number of years ago at
a meeting at Roxby Downs, if you take a mob of sheep--and at that time they
were killing sheep left, right and centre because there was a great surplus
of them--and you fire into that mob of sheep you are going to hit one
sheep--although not necessarily kill it. If you double the size of that
flock and fire a shot, it is still highly probable that one sheep will be
affected. It is the same with workers. Doubling the size of the work force,
doing a job which only requires half that number, does not affect the
overall chance of some medical problem. You can perhaps ask me more if you
want to make that clear, but that is a really important issue.
CHAIR —We understand what you say.
Dr Matthews —On environmental damage, we are very concerned about what has happened at Roxby. The industry keeps telling us that things are getting better and better and that they have learnt from their mistakes in the past and that what happened at Ranger, Radium Hill and Rum Jungle was in the bad old days and things are getting better. But no sooner do they make a statement like that than we find a massive leak of toxic radioactive material from the tailings dam of the best resourced mining company we have in Australia, Western Mining. RTZ-CRA is now bigger than them, but they were the biggest at that time. They are highly resourced, presumably highly competent, and yet under the eye, under the guidance, or under the supervision of the state government--the mines and energy department in particular--these things still occurred.
So we would just say, `Don't accept this idea.' If you accept the idea that things are better and that these things will not happen, then you are going to overlook a lot of things. So we say, `Be more vigilant. Don't accept that idea.'
We are concerned about the proliferation aspects of uranium mining. That has been reinforced today because recently it has been announced that Roxby has got an export contract to France. France is the best known of our nuclear-agro countries--and China is the other best known one--that are actively pursuing nuclear weapons programs. They are not the only ones. The USA and England are still pursuing a program, and they are countries that we are exporting to.
There is no way of dividing up that material that we export to those countries into stuff that goes into weapons and stuff that goes into power stations. We have no control over it, except on paper. On paper you can say, `Okay, all of our uranium will go to power stations and none will go to weapons.' In actual practice there is no way you can prevent our material going into nuclear weapons in France or wherever we export it to--the US and the UK at the moment.
We are concerned about the situation nearer to home and the countries we are going to be exporting to. Indonesia is one we are particularly concerned about. There have been a number of concerns expressed by much better known people than myself--people like Bill Hayden--in the past about Indonesia's ambitions in nuclear weapons, and yet we are discussing with them the possibility of exporting uranium to their country.
A lot has been said by organisations like the Chamber of Mines and by Western Mining about public consultation. The fact is that there is an EIS process occurring now. A draft EIS has yet to be prepared--it is coming out in April--and yet if you look at advertisements run by Western Mining in the papers for personnel, they say the expansion will occur.
They can say that simply because an indenture agreement has been entered
into between the state government and Western Mining. It is a fait
accompli. Yet they would like us to believe that we are being consulted.
I liken the situation to the story about the mushroom--being kept in the
dark and fed on manure. And then, in the case I am talking about, you get
enlightened at the moment just before your life is extinguished. I see
these organisations holding us, the mushrooms, up and saying, `Well, what
would you like to know?' just after they have cut our heads off. That is
rather a dramatic analogy, but it nevertheless exemplifies the situation
that we have, in particular with Western Mining but with the nuclear
industry in general.
Mr Voronoff —The committee is aware that close to the borefields used by Roxby for water extraction are a number of artesian springs known as mound springs. These naturally occurring wetlands are formed when fossil water from the Great Artesian Basin is vented at the ground surface. Springs are isolated habitats, forming an archipelago of aquatic islands in an arid sea. They are, in fact, oases in the desert.
Many individual springs and spring complexes exhibit a high degree of endemism, often at higher taxonomic levels such as genus, family or order. The springs are shallow and often small in area. Without an adequate flow of ground water they would rapidly dry up and be irreparably damaged. The committee is also no doubt aware of current rates of water extraction by the mine in the Great Artesian Basin, which is between 12 million and 15 million litres of water per day.
It was anticipated that water extraction from borefield A would affect local mound springs. According to the draft EIS, the nearby Venable Spring was expected to dry up completely, while three other bores would be reduced by 80 per cent. The removal of fossil water from the Great Artesian Basin by WMC has indeed been implicated with draw down effect in water levels, resulting in the possible drying up of some mound springs.
The effect on local mound springs has been much greater than was anticipated in the EIS. Two mound springs complexes, Gosse and Fred, were destroyed during the sinking of monitoring bores. Since operations began, Beatrice Spring has almost dried up and two others, Venable Spring and Priscilla Springs, have completely dried up.
WMC's proposed expansion to 150,000 tonnes per annum copper will require the development of a new wellfield named borefield B, as a source of water. The project assessment of environmental impact report 1989 stated in relation to the proposal for the borefield B that the development as proposed had not been demonstrated to be acceptable at that stage. It was given approval on a conceptual basis only. It was recommended that a comprehensive environmental survey be undertaken with special attention given to the mound springs and Lake Eyre heritage area. Nevertheless, a new state-run process for the assessment of the environmental impact of wellfield B was endorsed by the South Australian cabinet in November 1994.
Despite the proven impacts on the mound springs in the vicinity of borefield A, the operators were given the necessary approvals. Furthermore, the location, which was earmarked by the operators and subject to the public environmental assessment process, was not the final location chosen for the site of borefield B. While the concept of wellfield B was discussed in the EIS, the environmental impact could not be fully assessed as the location had not been finalised.
This situation is the second known major instance where WMC has been given the necessary state government approvals to significantly change a program after public environmental assessment has occurred. The first was the changes to the tailings dam system, which resulted in the tailings leak. Are we see a repeat performance in terms of the maximising of environmental hazard due to inappropriate state government regulations and approvals and mismanagement by WMC?
These instances clearly indicate the need for an independent monitoring body and a more active Commonwealth involvement in the environmental impact assessment process. The combined effect of borefields A and B will mean that the Great Artesian Basin could be drained at a rate of up to 42 million litres per day for the next 40 years. WMC will be getting every litre of this water for free. No fee is obtained by the state for the mining or use of this valuable public resource. This flies in the face of cost recovery and user-pays principles underpinning the national competition policy. It is also in direct conflict with the state water plan and water reform program.
The Olympic Dam operation is governed by the Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act 1982. Clause 34 of the act is the non-discrimination clause which prevents the state government from imposing on the venturers virtually any condition, including environmental requirements or radiation protection measures other than those specified in clause 10 of the indenture. The government is thus effectively prohibited from imposing more stringent standards of radiological protection from bodies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Britain's National Radiation Protection Board.
Clause 35 of the indenture prohibits the government from making public
any information pertaining to the indenture--in particular, the results of
the environmental monitoring of the project. Thus, public access to
critical information is not guaranteed. This is a parlous circumstance in a
democratic nation in this day and age. This act shamefully flouts all the
principles and expectations our community has for accountability and
transparency in public affairs, especially in matters that can have serious
implications for community health and the environment. This assertion is
consistent with the ERDC inquiry into the massive tailings leakage, an
inquiry which clearly acknowledged that the Roxby operations needed to be
more open to public scrutiny.
Senator MARGETTS —May I just interrupt very briefly? We are going to lose our quorum in 10 minutes.
CHAIR —I was going to suggest that a subcommittee be formed for a further 10 minutes beyond that, until 1.30 p.m.
Senator LEES —That is fine, but we are running out of time.
Mr Voronoff —That is fine; we can take questions if you wish.
Senator LEES —Could you summarise what else you have to say, if possible?
Mr Voronoff —I will move to our argument for the role of the Supervising Scientist. The other issue addressed by the ERDC inquiry was the desirability of the South Australian Department of Mines and Energy having prime responsibility for environmental matters in relation to the mine's operation. As we have seen, the fruit borne of the relationship between the South Australian DME and WMC has been the disaster of the tailings leakage. This raises questions of the advisability of such liaisons to the exclusion of a direct regulatory capacity for agencies dedicated to environmental protection.
It is our opinion that, to ensure national uniformity in the
environmental regulation and management of uranium mining and milling
operations, the authority of the Office of the Supervising Scientist should
be extended to all uranium operations, including Roxby. Past environmental
disasters and sleight of hand in relation to environmental assessment
procedures require the establishment of an independent, well-resourced,
dedicated, long-term monitoring agency. It is entirely in keeping with the
1990 Taylor review of the OSS that the OSS assume responsibility for the
monitoring and supervision of the Roxby Downs uranium mine to provide for
independent monitoring of the mine's activities.
CHAIR —Thank you. I have a few quick questions. Firstly, having looked at your recommendations, I note that a number of them appear to be a direct lift from recommendations made by the Senate Select Committee on Radioactive Waste, which I also chaired and which was a predecessor to this committee.
Mr Voronoff —Yes. They were rather good, so we thought we would use some of them.
CHAIR —I just wondered why, given that they have already been a recommendation of the committee, you have used them as recommendations to this committee.
Mr Voronoff —Because it was not obvious that it applied to uranium mining. It appeared to apply to material further down the road.
CHAIR —Secondly, with regard to the recommendation which you have made about the Office of the Supervising Scientist having a role beyond its current role in the Northern Territory, would you accept that the particular expertise of the Supervising Scientist is with regard to wetland tropics? Therefore, what relevance does their expertise have beyond that area which they currently have involvement with?
Mr Voronoff —This clearly is a result of the restriction of the OSS activities to the Alligator River region. If the field of the OSS were expanded, it would be necessary to resource it and fill it with personnel, to the extent that they would be able to cope with monitoring uranium mines throughout the country. That would be a fundamental prerequisite; so whether or not it is regarded that the OSS has personnel whose expertise is only for the Alligator River region is in some ways irrelevant. Provided that they are well resourced and are provided with adequate personnel to cover all regions, the OSS would, hopefully, provide an adequate independent monitoring body.
The proceedings of the committee having been interrupted by interjections from the public gallery--
Senator FERGUSON —Mr Chairman, I suggest the committee adjourn.
CHAIR —Yes, so do I. The committee stands adjourned and will reconvene shortly.
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Margetts) —I would like to thank you for staying around. I am reconvening what is now a subcommittee of the Senate Select on Uranium Mining and Milling. I would like to thank the Friends of the Earth Nouveau and the Conservation Council of South Australia for their patience and those other people who have stayed with us, including the staff, whilst we dealt with the situation.
Before we start, I did make a promise to the group who has now allowed us to continue without disruption that I would put their concerns on public record. I will be taking them to the committee but I will just read them into Hansard. Their concerns were that they had made a submission and that they had a long history on the issue in this state, but they were not invited to give a verbal submission. The group were from the South Australian Greens. They said they were not informed that the hearing was coming to Adelaide. They in fact said they had asked whether it was and told that it was not. So they were concerned and angry that they found out only by the media this morning.
They were concerned about the discrepancy of time allocated between the committee's access to industry versus the committee's access to the community. They were concerned about comments by the chair on the media in support of the industry line and they also indicated that Bruce and Meg from their group had further information re the Great Artesian Basin in relation to work by John Hoare, who is now deceased, who has utilised some of the work by Professor Habbermile, who is located in Canberra with the CSIRO.
I indicated to them that they could still provide us with further information in relation to the Great Artesian Basin as it is information which has recently become available to them and relates to some of the questions we have been asking today in the hearing. So having fulfilled my promise, welcome again. If there are other statements that restricted you because of time, please briefly give those now.
Mr Voronoff —Thank you very much. I would like to make a brief statement relating to Aboriginal communities affected by the eventuality of the uranium mine on their country. Many Aboriginal people have voiced disapproval over the activities of Western Mining Corporation. Two local communities, in particular, the Kokatha and the Arabunna, have raised concerns about damage done to their sacred sites and about inadequacies in the consultative process between WMC and Aboriginal people. The Kokatha are traditional owners of the region where the mine is situated and the Arabunna have ties to the mound springs area where WMC extracts water from the Great Artesian Basin.
Some of the social and cultural impacts upon Aboriginal communities include the following. Firstly, the lease arrangements established by the indenture prohibits the Kokatha people access to sacred sites except in the presence of company personnel, thereby violating the sanctity of these sites. Secondly, so far numerous sites have been destroyed, including one which has been desecrated by the main shaft of the mine. Thirdly, the mound springs are of very high cultural significance to the Arabunna people. As discussed earlier, these unique habitats are threatened by WMC operations. Fourthly, WMC has consistently avoided serious consultation with Arabunna people. Fifthly, WMC have paid anthropologists who have drawn up territorial boundaries which appear to favour Aboriginal groups supportive of the company. Sixthly, WMC has helped set up and resource Aboriginal groups favourable to WMC.
It appears WMC has supported the establishment of small Aboriginal groups that have challenged the rights of the Kokatha and Arabunna peoples. It is believed WMC has provided some groups with financial aid and vehicles. It is believed that these groups have been established and promoted as official representatives in order to promulgate the appearance that WMC is going through the legal process of consultation, while in fact ignoring legitimate concerns.
It is these series of relations that may have created the tensions
amongst Aboriginal communities in the region that led to a riot in Marree
in January of 1995. The riot resulted in one death and several people being
badly injured. Appeals by environmental groups and the Arabunna people to
the federal government to hold an investigation into this violence appear
to have been ignored. CCSA and FoE believe that a more open, inclusive and
independently arbitrated consultation process is required. I thank the
ACTING CHAIR —Thank you very much. Are there any further statements that either Dr Matthews or Mr Noonan would like to make?
Dr Matthews —No.
ACTING CHAIR —I have made a major request to both the Conservation Council of South Australia and Friends of the Earth Nouveau; I think particularly Dr Matthews was here through the rest of the evidence today. A number of statements were made by Western Mining and by the Chamber of Mines which may well be seen to address a number of the concerns that have been mentioned about water usage, health and safety, dam leakage or seepage, environmental approvals, level of consultation and so on. I am wondering if the most helpful thing might not be for you, through either your notes or the Hansard from today's hearing, to look through those comments by Western Mining and by the South Australian Chamber of Mines and make any comments if you think there is any clarifying information or if you have a dispute with any of the information that was given in relation to those issues.
Dr Matthews —So you will send us the submissions that were made today?
—Today's submissions should be available now.
ACTING CHAIR —Could we provide those by post as a matter of urgency? If it is acceptable to you could you give us, as a committee, feedback on that information?
Senator LEES —I would just put on the record that we are aware of the limits on your resources and the recent financial cuts that have been made, particularly to the Conservation Council's budgets, and we thank you in advance because we realise how difficult it is for you to get this work done with such limited resources.
On page 3 of your submission, recommendations 6, 7 and 8 relate to the Great Artesian Basin: to the mound springs and particularly to borefield B. Could I ask you for any background information you may have regarding the impact to date on the mound springs of borefield A? Do you have any documentary evidence?
Dr Matthews —The expert on this is Steve, but David has also got some background material.
Mr Noonan —I would be glad to submit material. I am not in a position to speak to it at present.
Senator LEES —It would be more than helpful if you could do that for us, along with the other information you are going to give us. When you say in recommendation 6 that you are looking at borefield B, is this in regard to where the new borefield B is now to be situated?
Dr Matthews —Again, that is Steve's area, but my understanding--maybe you can correct me--is that there is already a borefield B and it is already pumping. It is all a fait accompli as far as I am concerned. Is there another borefield B?
Senator LEES —No, I am just looking at comments that have been made relating to the fact that the site of borefield B was changed after the public approval process.
Dr Matthews —That comes from Steve. Are you able to say anything about that, Steve?
Mr Voronoff —The public process--the EIS--was only able to approve borefield B on a conceptual basis because no detailed survey evidence was submitted to the EIS to enable approval outright.
Senator LEES —I understood what was on the table at the time of the consultative process was that the site was about halfway out from between A and B, where B is now situated.
—That is correct.
Mr Voronoff —The substance of the matter is that it has changed.
Mr Noonan —Even in regard to the current location of borefield B, the matter of particular importance is the designated boundary of borefield B, which is the area under state legislation, at which the state government monitors the drawdown effect that Western Mining induces on the Great Artesian Basin.
In the survey and assessment report for borefield B--a state government process, not an environmental impact statement--there was a particular boundary nominated by the company and by the government as the one that would be approved. It was on that basis that the public made submissions and comments to that survey and assessment report. Soon after submissions closed, the company approached the government to dramatically change the location and the size of that boundary--in effect, to double the area that was enclosed within the legal boundary.
I would note, for your interest, that within this boundary there is no legal limit on the draw-down effect caused on the Great Artesian Basin. The only legal limit on draw-down effect is measured at the boundary periphery. So, it was a situation where Western Mining had gone to the public with one proposal, and then, after a public scrutiny of sort had been completed, they had gone to government with a second proposal. Government granted licences to Western Mining on the basis of the subsequent proposal and they were passed into law and approved. The public was not, at any time, informed of the changes.
Senator LEES —Perhaps I may have further comments once you have submitted the additional material, but could I follow on the public consultation issue. Western Mining has assured us that they are indeed giving organisations, such as yours, ample opportunity to see the results of their monitoring and to be involved in the whole issue of environmental impact assessment. Do you consider that the opportunities you have are adequate?
Mr Voronoff —Absolutely not.
Dr Matthews —No, definitely not. It is after the event. They give us a chance to comment after everything is over and done with.
Mr Noonan —There are a number of points that one could make. Over a number of years the monitoring reports--I won't use the correct title at present; the annual monitoring reports--for the Olympic Dam operations of Western Mining, only became public perhaps some three months after the period of the monitoring data had been completed. They were quite expensive documents. They had very limited public availability. You basically had to make arrangements either through the Department of Mines and Energy or through Western Mining to get access to them.
In the last 12 months that situation may have changed slightly, but a
more fundamental matter of aspect of access to environmental monitoring
information--in fact, to all information relative to Roxby Downs--is that
under the state indenture act information can only be released in regard to
the mine if it is by the approval of both the company and the government.
It is not on public record as to on what occasions it was requested by
either the company or the government that information not be released. It
is not on the public record as to on how many occasions information has
been withheld because either the company or the government requested that
it be withheld. And it is not on public record as to what that information
may have been. So, while some documentation is released, and it may have
broader public access now than it has had over most of the period of the
life of the mine, there is still a broader legal question as to whether
that information is complete.
Dr Matthews —I should also add that there was a recent conference in Adelaide called Resources 95 and Richard Yeeles and Pearce Bowman gave a paper there. I attended it and at the end of it I asked him two questions which he successfully dodged. Although he replied he did not answer the questions. Also, you will probably find some letters to the editor in the Bulletin--there was an announcement, a media release from Western Mining and an article in the Bulletin. I sent a letter to the editor and I raised several questions. Richard Yeeles replied to my letter but, again, did not answer the questions that were raised.
Senator LEES —If the committee could have access to those letters it would help to fill in some of the gaps.
CHAIR —There are models of community consultation for other mines, like Ranger. Would you like to see a model developed similar to the Ranger community consultation model?
Dr Matthews —No. I am not sure what you are talking about.
Mr Voronoff —I would not say that the Ranger model is entirely adequate either.
Senator LEES —What model would you like to see?
Mr Voronoff —We have reservations about that.
Senator LEES —What would be your ideal?
Mr Voronoff —It would have to be monitored. It would have to be a consultation process that has an independent form of arbitration which would allow for all interested parties to put their views and also assess any data, research, hypotheses, et cetera, that are promulgated by various sources. I think the problem at the moment is that there is a proliferation of data, et cetera, from one source, or very limited sources and they are vested interests. Even the Department of Mines and Energy have specifically stated that one of their key strategies is to facilitate the expansion of ODO.
It is our view that whilst the data, research, hypotheses et cetera may
in fact be scientifically true, they need as a bare minimum to be subjected
to fundamental scientific methodology, which is to have them repeated and
tested by independent sources. There is a paucity of that process being
undertaken. We would see that that is a bare minimum requirement and we
think that that role could be adequately fulfilled by broader community
consultation and the intervention of a body such as the OSS.
ACTING CHAIR —I must say that, from my point of view, this is the first time I have heard of the acid leach method. I do not read about new uranium mines in that sense all the time; I had not heard about it in Western Australia. What has been the Conservation Council's and the Friends of the Earth Nouveau's view about the acid leaching process and the assurances that were given by proponents that the process is environmentally benign?
Dr Matthews —We do not have any information from the company about the process that they are going to use yet. There is nothing that we can refer to, but it is very similar to a project that we do know something about--the Honeymoon project that was closed down.
The in situ leaching--the ISL process--can be actually acid or alkaline. They vary it depending on the circumstances, and I think he was favouring actually an alkaline leach. I think he talked about a carbonate leach which is an alkaline leach. Irrespective of what sort of solution you use to dissolve the material, the biggest concern is where the water goes. If you are pumping out this corrosive leaching solution down into the ground, you had better make sure you get it all up again, especially because it is going to dissolve the nasties. Control over where the water goes is the key thing and in the case of Honeymoon they lost control. There is a fine point between mining, pilot plants and trials and between minor trials and major trials but they essentially tried out their process with the accord of the pilot plant. I would have said they were doing trials for the pilot plant and they lost control. They got blockage, which they had not anticipated, due to precipitation of a certain mineral. They did not inform the government and now it is a different company. I am not talking about the same company, but these are the sorts of problems that can go wrong. The only way the government found out was through the campaign against nuclear energy, which happened to come by--I cannot say how--the internal memos about what was going on. They supplied those to the government and then the government shut down that operation.
ACTING CHAIR —What was the time frame?
Dr Matthews —Zonks, ages.
—From the time the community became aware and the
time they were able to shut it down?
Dr Matthews —It was fairly quickly. As soon as we took the information from the industry, we more or less closed them down overnight.
Mr Noonan —I think it is on the record in the House inquiry report that it was two years or slightly more that the company and the mines department people were aware of the leak prior to action.
ACTING CHAIR —And so it was a lengthy pilot plant?
Dr Matthews —They were trying that process out on site, so it was not full production. I do not know if you would call it pilot plant or trials. The words are not important as far as I am concerned. They were trying the process on site and it went wrong. They did not communicate with the government. The problem is not only blockages and losing control over the liquid but preventing the liquid from moving sideways or up and down. Up and down it can contaminate other water layers and, in this case, the Great Artesian Basin in the ultimate scenario.
They are depending on two things. One is the blocking effect of what they refer to as 300 metres of clay. I would be surprised if there were 300 metres of clay over the entire area--that there were not areas where that was not the case. Again, we have no information so we have to take their word for it, I suppose, at this stage. They are relying on that to prevent it going down to the Great Artesian Basin. Plus, they are relying on the fact that they are pumping out faster than they are putting in. So, there will be a tendency for water not to move away, but it depends on porosities. If there is an area of rock that is less porous than another, it will tend to go in the less porous area. If you see that happening then you have got to increase your pumping rate and put down more water to prevent that. So things can go wrong.
ACTING CHAIR —The company indicated that would not really be a problem if there was a minor leak, if I am reading their words correctly, because the water is not potable and it is not used and therefore it is not able to move into other parts of the Artesian Basin.
Dr Matthews —The Great Artesian Basin water is not potable; they are putting it through reverse osmosis process to make it potable. You can do that in principle to any water. Of course, the more saltier the water, the more cost. You can do it but it is more costly. If you have got a big mining operation that desperately needs water, they are going to have to pay to purify the water to their standards. Potentially, any water body, especially in inland Australia, is commercially useful. As you run out of water then you are prepared to pay more for what is left.
—They also indicated that a lot of the Artesian
Basin water in that area was already radioactive so it did not matter if
Dr Matthews —Again, radioactivity is a bit like salt. You can get it out if you have to. The same process, reverse osmosis, will take out the radioactive contaminants.
Senator LEES —I would like to have a look at the additional material on the mound springs and what is happening with the water. What do you see as the greatest problem relating particularly to the mine at Roxby? With the Beverley one we have to wait for more information and look closely at what was said today. However, in terms of Roxby you have raised a range of issues. Is there any one issue that stands out more than any other?
Dr Matthews —The two that occur to me immediately are health and safety and the tailings system. It is still not clear to me what they are doing. They talked today about a clay liner on their tailings storage facility. There is TSF, tailings storage facility, and TRS, tailings retention system. The tailings retention system is the overall thing and the various elements within that, one of which is the tailings storage facility. The other is mine water evaporation and wash water evaporation, et cetera. Actually, their literature uses the two terms interchangeably so that is really confusing as to which is which.
Today they talked about clay linings for the tailings storage facility. It was not clear to me whether that is the same old lining they used before. In other words, it was stuff that occurred on site, which is very sandy clay which has been somehow compacted and treated to try and make it impervious, but it obviously is not. They admit themselves that there is seepage down through it. Maybe they have put in a proper clay liner but I doubt it; I have not seen any evidence of that. As far as I know it is still the same pervious sandy clay non-liner that they are using.
ACTING CHAIR —Thank you very much. We really appreciate your patience and we appreciate you coming back to the committee. We appreciate the effort it will take you with your limited resources to be able to respond to the further questions that the committee has put on notice.
Subcommittee adjourned at 2.20 p.m.