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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
18/10/2011
Estimates
SUSTAINABILITY, ENVIRONMENT, WATER, POPULATION AND COMMUNITIES PORTFOLIO
Office of the Supervising Scientist

Office of the Supervising Scientist

[10:03]

CHAIR: Mr Hughes, do you have an opening statement?

Mr Hughes : No, thank you.

Senator LUDLAM: Mr Hughes, it is nice to see you again. I will get straight into it because time is pretty short. Can you tell us what your role was in the approval of the Olympic Dam expansion?

Mr Hughes : The supervising scientist division provided advice to the Environmental Assessment and Compliance Division of the department at a number of stages through the assessment process.

Senator LUDLAM: Have you had an officer based down there or do you still do all your work out of Darwin?

Mr Hughes : All our work is done in the Darwin office.

Senator LUDLAM: What was your office's view on the application of in-pit tailings management at Ranger being used at Olympic Dam—the key distinction being that at Olympic Dam the company proposes to leave the radioactive material on the surface? At Ranger, as you would be well aware, the requirement is to return that material to the pit.

Mr Hughes : These things need to be taken in their context, and the regional context, the geological context and the meteorological context are quite different in those two locations.

Senator LUDLAM: That argument has been heard a bit and, to be honest, I do not buy it. Do any of those factors matter when the threshold question is whether the material stays above ground or is returned to the pit?

Mr Hughes : We have assessed the proposals that were put forward, and it is my belief that the conditions that have been imposed as a result of that assessment process will ensure that the environment remains appropriately protected.

Senator LUDLAM: With a cubic kilometre of radioactive tailings left on the surface, it will be appropriately protected? On what basis do you make that judgment, Mr Hughes?

Mr Hughes : Sorry, Senator: I think you should ask the details about the approval conditions of the environment assessment and compliance division, who have carriage of that particular aspect of the work.

Senator LUDLAM: I absolutely intend to, but they will be seeking your expert advices as one of the best-qualified people in the country to make judgment calls on the management of this kind of material.

Mr Hughes : Yes, and a number of the conditions in that approvals process will enable assurance that those tailings will be made safe.

Senator LUDLAM: Made safe for how long?

Mr Hughes : I understand it is more or less in perpetuity.

Senator LUDLAM: In perpetuity this brand-new radioactive mountain range be made safe. By what means, given that you are, I believe, currently involved in a $7 million assessment of a vastly smaller radioactive hot spot at Rum Jungle that was mined out half a century ago? How, when we cannot even look after a tiny little deposit that was mined out in the 1950s—we are still working out how to rehabilitate that 50 years later—can you speak with such enormous confidence about a vastly larger mine with vastly larger quantities of waste?

Mr Hughes : The major difference between what is occurring now and what occurred in the fifties is that we are now planning for closure, and that is a part of the conditions of the approval.

Senator LUDLAM: I will come back to this if we have got a bit of time, but I want to take you to Kakadu, which is your main area of responsibility. Can you provide us with an update of Ranger's start-up—both mining and milling operations were closed for quite a period of time—and the process water management status.

Mr Hughes : The milling operations recommenced in June. I think it was 15 June, from memory. I am not sure when the mining operations recommenced in the pit, but I guess there were a number of different areas within the pit that were accessible. And there are still some areas in the pit which are not accessible; however, they are currently mining and transferring ore. But, in any case, there is adequate stockpiled ore on the site to enable the mine to continue with processing.

Senator LUDLAM: I find it a little bit odd that you are not sure of when mining started up. Is that not a fairly major event in your calendar—or the work of your office?

Mr Hughes : I think the milling operations are really more important than the actual digging operations in the pit.

Senator LUDLAM: That is interesting. Okay. During the last session we had quite a lengthy exchange on this. You indicated that ERA's main management option to avoid the near miss that occurred last wet season was for a further four-metre lift of the tailings dam and that that had to be completed prior to the coming wet season. Is it complete? What is its status?

Mr Hughes : I think it is probably almost complete.

Senator LUDLAM: 'It is probably almost complete.' That sounds a bit conditional. Are you 100 per cent confident that that tailings dam lift will be finished in time for the onset of the next wet?

Mr Hughes : I am very confident that the tailings dam lift will be finished to a point to enable the environment to remain protected over the coming wet season.

Senator LUDLAM: What was your involvement in assessing the potential of that four-metre lift?

Mr Hughes : The proponent, which in this case is Energy Resources of Australia, has to provide a proposal to the day-to-day regulator, which is the Northern Territory Department of Resources. The Northern Territory Department of Resources refers these things to the Minesite Technical Committee members for comment and considers the comments that are put forward by Minesite Technical Committee members. We provided input into that process through the Minesite Technical Committee.

Senator LUDLAM: Were you asked to consider, or did you volunteer to consider, the implication that it has for rehabilitation beginning at Ranger by 2021 if the company is still charging ahead with rises on the dam?

Mr Hughes : Sorry, could you repeat the question?

Senator LUDLAM: The company at the moment are supposed to be starting to pack up their operations and leave in 2021. Was there any consideration of the impact that this additional lift on the tailings dam would have on their closure proposals?

Mr Hughes : I was not aware that there was a requirement for the company to be packing up at this stage. My understanding is that they are authorised to operate until 2021.

Senator LUDLAM: And then what?

Mr Hughes : Then they will be undertaking the rehabilitation program, as required during the rehabilitation program phase.

Senator LUDLAM: Can you tell us what further role you will play in the assessment or oversight of the planned expansion of Ranger 3 Deeps? When is work expected to start on that project?

Mr Hughes : The latest advice I have had from the company is that they intend to start earthworks on the box cut for the exploration decline in May 2012.

Senator LUDLAM: What is your understanding of the sequence of events and timing of the project, and are there any further regulatory hurdles in the way or is it now just over to the company to get on with it?

Mr Hughes : Do you mean to construct the exploration decline for exploration purposes?

Senator LUDLAM: Yes.

Mr Hughes : There are no further impediments to the company. The timing is now entirely up to the company—

Senator LUDLAM: It is up to them. Okay.

Mr Hughes : on putting that piece of infrastructure in place.

Senator LUDLAM: You were choosing your language very carefully there because, I understand, to transition that decline—that very same hole in the ground—from an exploration facility to a production facility will require further regulatory work.

Mr Hughes : It would require further regulatory approvals, yes.

Senator LUDLAM: I think since we spoke ERA have abandoned plans for an acid heap-leach plant at Ranger, which was wonderful news. I hope you played a part in that. The company has stated that it will continue to explore methods for recovering uranium in the low-grade material in the stockpiles, which sounds a bit like some kind of heat leach, if they are still trying to recover material. What is your understanding of what is being considered by the company?

Mr Hughes : I am not aware of any proposals for any form of heap-leach activities at all on the site.

Senator LUDLAM: How else would the company get the low-grade or recoverable uranium out of the waste rock stockpiles? Is it just by feeding it into the mill or is there some other technique?

Mr Hughes : I would be speculating on what the company might do, and that would be inappropriate, but if you are asking me a technical question I could answer that?

Senator LUDLAM: The technical question is: are you aware of any proposals to recover further uranium from the low grade in the waste rock stockpiles?

Mr Hughes : No, I am not.

Senator LUDLAM: Did OSS provide any advice that led to ERA recently significantly increasing its financial provision for rehab and closure at Ranger? I will offer you congratulations if you did.

Mr Hughes : I might invite my colleague to comment on this.

Mr Tayler : As I am sure you are aware, ERA faced some challenges over the previous wet season with water management. The infrastructure that will be required going forward to manage their water inventory was going to be quite expensive. We work with ERA to ensure that their water is managed appropriately. So in that regard I guess we did have some input but we did not provide any direction to the company to do anything, other than guiding them to protect the environment.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay, but on your advice that was going to cost them more than their existing rehabilitation arrangements would have provided for.

Mr Tayler : We tend to work with outcomes rather than telling the company how to manage their business.

Senator LUDLAM: Not 'how' but 'what'—the fact that they were going to need to do more than their existing rehabilitation provisions.

Mr Tayler : I am sorry, I was not talking about the rehabilitation provision. I thought we had moved from there.

Senator LUDLAM: All right; let's backtrack a bit. Did you provide advice that led to ERA significantly increasing its financial provision for rehabilitation and closure? It sounded as if you said yes. That is fine. I will move on if that is the case.

Ms Dripps : I think Mr Tayler already answered the question and I think the answer was yes. Whether there is a causal link as direct as you are suggesting is the matter we are discussing now, I think. Mr Tayler is making it clear that we prescribe environmental outcomes and conditions. The way things need to be done are the decisions of the company. So any financial decision is a decision for the company.

Senator LUDLAM: As to the cause and effect, we can speculate. Has OSS provided or been asked to provide or formulate any advice on possible mechanisms whereby Australia might best comply with the recommendation of the recent UN multiagency system-wide review of the nuclear power industry post Fukushima? I might break this up into a couple of parts. Are you aware, firstly, that that UN review did make recommendations on uranium mining; it went further than strictly considering nuclear power?

Mr Hughes : No.

Senator LUDLAM: In that case, I guess your answer to my second question would also be no: did the government tap you on the shoulder and ask you to evaluate what the UN had said?

Ms Dripps : It may be that the resources and energy department may have considered this matter. I think it is possibly slightly beyond the scope of Mr Hughes's role.

Senator LUDLAM: I would rather it was the OSS. I commend that document to you, Mr Hughes, and come back to you in February or March estimates. There are, on page 14, specific recommendations around the management of local impacts of uranium mining.

Mr Hughes : Certainly.

Senator LUDLAM: Much appreciated. Ms Dripps, can I ask you: who would the lead agency be? I am happy to put it to DRET later in the week. But it is around the environmental impacts of mining fissionable material, which I would have thought fits squarely within Mr Hughes's mandate.

Ms Dripps : We are happy to take your advice to consider that report before next estimates.

Senator LUDLAM: Thank you. I will put it to Minister Ferguson's officials as well. I am not sure who to direct this one to: can you tell us the current status and the process for extending the OSS advisory role to uranium proposals across Australia? There is one recommendation of the Hawke review that I think the Australian Uranium Association said would not be necessary, would be unwise, terrible and awful. To me it sounded like a perfectly sensible recommendation. Mr Hughes, do you have a view of where that is going?

Mr Hughes : I am aware of the recommendation. It was recommendation 63 of the Hawke review. The government response to that recommendation was to agree to that, in general terms. The situation currently is that under the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act, there is already the provision which allows the minister to ask us to comment or to provide services or advice on activities outside of the Alligator Rivers Region. That has been used in the past for my division to provide advice to the environment assessment and compliance division. That will essentially be formalised through answering that recommendation.

Senator LUDLAM: Does that require a legislative change?

Mr Hughes : It probably does not require a legislative change but I think there is a view that it is worth making a legislative change to the EPBC Act, in order to make it quite clear.

Senator LUDLAM: I would concur with that. Can you tell us about any advisory role that your office has played or is playing to the Western Australian government or Western Australian industry, including participation in conferences or anything of that sort, on the introduction of commercial uranium mining into WA?

Mr Hughes : We have provided no advice whatsoever to the Western Australian government nor to Western Australian industry on developments in Western Australia. We have continued to provide advice to the environment assessment and compliance division of our own department on proposals that come across their desk.

Senator LUDLAM: So you have not been invited by the WA government, and your advice has not yet been sought by WA industry?

Mr Hughes : Correct.

Senator LUDLAM: That is a bit scary. So probably the sooner we make these amendments to EPBC the better.