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ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND THE ARTS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
Environment and Heritage Portfolio
Supervising Scientist Division
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ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND THE ARTS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
Environment and Heritage Portfolio
Supervising Scientist Division
Senator Ian Macdonald
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ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND THE ARTS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
(SENATE-Thursday, 27 May 2004)
- Start of Business
- Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Portfolio
Environment and Heritage Portfolio
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Tchen)
Senator Ian Macdonald
- Australian Antarctic Division
- Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
- National Oceans Office
- Supervising Scientist Division
- Sydney Harbour Federation Trust
- Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator
- Australian Greenhouse Office
- Parks Australia
- Senator TCHEN
Content WindowENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND THE ARTS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE - 27/05/2004 - Environment and Heritage Portfolio - Supervising Scientist Division
Senator CROSSIN —Thanks for agreeing to rearrange the program today; I appreciate that. I have a number of questions about allocation of funds in the PBS. On page 49 of the PBS, if I am looking for the activities for the Office of Supervising Scientist or ERISS, it is classed under human settlements. Is that correct?
Dr Johnston —The uranium part of our program is classified under human settlements and the conservation of wetlands program is classified under inland waters. I think you will find those issues are covered on page 93 of the PBS, that is for uranium mining, and also on page 94 the funding allocation is indicated. Inland waters is on page 100 and is included in the total on page 106 for tropical wetland ecology and conservation.
Senator CROSSIN —Sorry, on what page was that?
Dr Johnston —Page 106. That is actually a total for that area. It includes our program, but our program is a smaller part of that.
Senator CROSSIN —What I am actually trying to have a look at is that under human settlements on page 49, the estimated actuals of 2003-04 is $23.5 million and for the coming year it is $22.4 million. Not all of that money is for OSS: is that correct?
Dr Johnston —No, far from it.
Senator CROSSIN —I was trying to get you a bit of extra money.
—The total for 2003-04 for the uranium part of the program is $7.4 million, and for 2004-05 it is $7.4 million.
Senator CROSSIN —So there is no change. That has been constant.
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —And for inland waters?
Dr Johnston —It is $0.83 million in 2003-04 and again $0.82 million in 2004-05.
Senator CROSSIN —So there has been a reduction in funding for the inland waters program: is that correct?
Dr Johnston —Point zero one.
Senator CROSSIN —No increase in yours, not even a CPI increase in that amount—7.4 last year and 7.4 this year.
Dr Johnston —I have to comment, however, that there is a CPI increase in the direct allocation. There is a variation in the corporate overheads which is probably hiding somewhere.
Senator CROSSIN —Is that how the funding is broken down between the uranium aspect and inland waters? Does that coincide with OSS and ERISS?
Dr Johnston —Both the OSS uranium activities, which is all of the OSS, and the ERISS uranium related activities come under the one title, the one sum, under human settlements.
Senator CROSSIN —ERISS would pick up most of that $0.82 million? Is that correct?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —I was going to ask about a breakdown, but you have given me that. On page 93 you have called it themes, the major themes for 2004-05, and the same on page 94: is there a specific allocation against those dot points or is it a work plan basically?
Dr Johnston —It is a work plan base to it. We work each year on a work plan developed during the previous year, and particularly for the ERISS program that is determined to a considerable extent by the recommendations of the Alligator Rivers Region Technical Committee. We take those recommendations, work up a work plan and cost it and make sure the total comes within that, prioritise it and take it within the total.
Senator CROSSIN —What sort of money would usually be allocated against the Alligator Rivers Region Technical Committee?
Dr Johnston —The cost of operating it?
Senator CROSSIN —Yes.
Dr Johnston —It is about $70,000 per year.
Senator CROSSIN —That is how you break your budget down?
—No, that is just the cost of operating that technical committee. That is a statutory committee that operates under our act. There are a number of people on it, and we have got to pay their attendance and their airfares and so on, and the cost of operating is simply the $60,000.
Senator CROSSIN —By and large, you do not have an amount that is attached to each of these dot points. Monitor and investigate the transport of contaminants through groundwater pathways: you would not say, `Okay, we will put a million dollars towards that next year'?
Dr Johnston —I have not got the details here for those things but, as you said, we go through the work plan process and allocate funds as required based upon the programs that are going on that following year.
Senator CROSSIN —These dot points are an indication of where your work will be concentrated on in the next year: is that right?
Dr Johnston —Yes. Previously we had many more specific programs that underlie those themes. Following recommendations made by the Alligator Rivers Region Technical Committee last year, we decided it might be appropriate to develop these themes and have those different programs feeding into them.
Senator CROSSIN —I want to ask you some questions about your review of the Supervising Scientist Division. Who instigated the review?
Dr Johnston —I instigated it and I discussed it with the previous secretary. I thought it was an appropriate time—as one should do every now and again—to have an internal review of programs to make sure that they are appropriately directed. There are a number of areas where change I see is coming. For example, it is now clear that the Ranger Mine will cease operating, probably in terms of mining, by about 2008-09—there will be a period of milling and so on. It has been decided now, as you are well aware, that Jabiluka will not proceed for the foreseeable future. There are a number of issues to do with the uranium mining program that will bring about change, and I simply wanted to make sure that that change was properly addressed in our planning.
Senator CROSSIN —Connected with the review, have the Alligator Rivers Regional Technical Committee, ARRTC, been undertaking a systematic review of the research needs of the committee or of your office?
Dr Johnston —It is both. The role of ARRTC is to make an assessment of the ongoing needs for research on the potential impact of uranium mining in the region, prioritise those, and also come to conclusions on which organisation would be appropriate to carry out the research that is needed.
Senator CROSSIN —The research needs they identified do not necessarily correspond with the points in the PBS?
—They can go beyond it. What came out of our internal review—we were addressing the same questions—was that we came to certain views on what the future programs would be that were needed to address all the issues that would arise from uranium mining. We came to our own internal conclusions as to who should carry out the work—whether it should be carried out by ERISS or by ERA. We then discussed those issues with ERA and then put a proposal to ARRTC. Out of our strategic internal review came a proposal to ARRTC, which has now considered that, and we now have what we called the `agreed key knowledge needs'.
Senator CROSSIN —Is that publicly available?
Dr Johnston —I can make it available. There have been some discussions going on in between meetings and I am just having confirmed, by various correspondence with all the members, that they are satisfied with the final product. I have asked them for a final response next week.
Senator CROSSIN —Does that coincide with the strategic plan that ARRTC is also developing?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —Has that plan been finalised?
Dr Johnston —No, it has not. The strategic plan for ARRTC was slightly beyond that; it is looking at its own operations. It is trying to see what should be the strategic objectives of the committee as opposed to ourselves.
Senator CROSSIN —Following the report of the incident in 2000, there were a number of recommendations, one of which was that the Supervising Scientist be required to carry out a routine environmental monitoring program. Is that different? Was that not a requirement prior to 2000?
Dr Johnston —No. Prior to 2000 the Supervising Scientist did not carry out any routine monitoring. All monitoring was, as has been normal practice elsewhere in Australia, carried out by the operator, in this case ERA—a program stipulated by the regulator, which is the Northern Territory Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development, and in specifying that program they always consult with us.
Then the regulator, as is common elsewhere, would carry out a check monitoring program to just occasionally check that the results that we were getting from the operator were indeed validated. We carried out, on the other hand, scientific research across a broad range of areas. One of the areas we carried out research on was methods by which monitoring could be improved. So, for example, we developed biological monitoring methods which were not previously required of the company by—
Senator CROSSIN —And you have done that since 2000?
Dr Johnston —We have done the development of the programs and the results are there from about 1991. But since 2000 there has been a formal program required, essentially, by the government. We agreed with the government that we would carry it out. Since that time we have put the results on our web site every week. They get updated every week on there during the wet season.
Senator CROSSIN —So when you talk about a routine monitoring program, what does that mean? What is routine about it?
—It means that, for example, it is specified that in chemical monitoring every week there will be a sample taken at a certain point downstream and a certain point upstream of the Ranger mine, and similarly at Jabiluka.
Senator CROSSIN —And you are doing that yourselves now, rather than the company?
Dr Johnston —Yes, it is entirely done by us. That has been for the last three years. All of those data are on our web site. Similarly with biological monitoring—radon monitoring and so on.
Senator CROSSIN —Okay. The review: have there been any staff changes or structural changes within the division?
Dr Johnston —Not so far, but one of my expectations is that that is what we will have to arrange. For example, the main thrust of our program from now on will have to be focused on issues that are associated with the rehabilitation of the Ranger mine. Whilst we have been doing some work in the past in that area, it is my view that it was likely—and the review itself has confirmed—that we should be doing more in that area. I have to look at the areas of expertise that are required and see how I can organise it so that we are working in the areas we are not currently in.
Senator CROSSIN —So that might mean additional staff or replacing staff?
Dr Johnston —Clearly I would want to take advantage of any staff leaving to engineer change. But also it need not necessarily be entirely internally done. We have a program run through external consultants. A judgment will have to be made as the breadth of the program—the extent of it and scope—and whether or not it can be done by external consultants.
Senator CROSSIN —I understand that some of your budget actually comes from external revenue. I was not aware of that. Do you actually get funding from external sources?
Dr Johnston —Yes. Particularly in the wetlands program—the non-uranium program—we carry out work under contract to external organisations.
Senator CROSSIN —Who would that be? Can you give me some examples?
Dr Johnston —For example, we have just recently been funded for a tropical rivers program under the NHT. That is a joint program that is being managed by ERISS and James Cook University. We have done work for other organisations—non-government organisations and overseas organisations. We have developed methods for Wetlands International, for example.
Senator CROSSIN —Is there a view that there could be or there ought to be greater expansion into raising external revenue in this way?
Dr Johnston —During the current financial year we were asked to raise an extra $230,000 compared to the previous year.
Senator CROSSIN —Who asked you to do that?
Dr Johnston —The government.
—The government asked you to do that. What had you been asked to raise previously?
Dr Johnston —The total previously was about $400,000 per annum.
Senator CROSSIN —So now it has gone up to $630,000.
Dr Johnston —It is about $600,000.
Senator CROSSIN —Why is there a requirement to raise external revenue? It is probably a good thing to work with James Cook and to get funding from other programs. But why is there an expectation that you will do it and it will be increased?
Dr Johnston —Prior to 1994, the Office of the Supervising Scientist functions were completely limited to the effects of uranium mining on the environment and spatially to the area known as the Alligator Rivers Region in the Northern Territory. The act was amended in early 1994 in such a way as to allow us, where appropriate, to carry out broader environmental research on a commercial basis. So the origin of the earning of our living came in in 1994. But it is for the non-uranium mining activities.
Senator CROSSIN —I understand you have completed the first phase of the review. I am looking at an answer to a question that Senator Allison asked last December, where you indicated that the first group of people have been consulted in the review of the division.
Dr Johnston —Yes, the process was essentially in two parts. We looked at the uranium mining related programs of the organisation and also at the broader research. We consulted for the first part with those stakeholders who are closely associated with our uranium activities—for example, the Northern Land Council, the Northern Territory government, the ERA and so on. It was a fairly narrow group, but we did involve some of the NGOs. They answered specific questions and gave us some advice. That process was virtually completed early this year. We then concentrated on the broader program, and there was a broader range of stakeholders. I sought the minister's agreement that I should consult broadly on that, including Northern Territory government departments other than DBIRD.
Senator CROSSIN —That was the second group?
Dr Johnston —That was in the second phase, yes.
Senator CROSSIN —Do you have a list of the people in the second group that you included in your consultation?
Dr Johnston —I can provide it to you. I do not have it with me.
Senator CROSSIN —You can take it on notice. I take it then that the review is finished now?
Dr Johnston —Not quite. We have been held up lately by other issues, as you might imagine.
Senator CROSSIN —I could not possibly imagine what they could be!
Dr Johnston —So I am afraid the review went to one side. I now expect it to be completed by about the end of June.
—Will the review be made public? Will you be able to provide it to this committee?
Dr Johnston —The intention is to provide advice to the minister. I have not raised the issue. I do not imagine there will be restrictions on it at all but will have to consult with the minister.
Senator CROSSIN —I want to go to the rehabilitation of Ranger. I might start at the end and work backwards, so to speak. Have any mining or environmental rehabilitation experts assessed the mine in the past five years to estimate what the cost of rehabilitation will be when the mine closes?
Dr Johnston —Yes, the system which is in place at Ranger, which is rather unique, is that each year there has to be a revised plan of rehabilitation for the mine. In other words, the company must come up with a plan for rehabilitation—in the sense that, were all operations to stop that day, this is what would be required to rehabilitate to the standards required. That is then assessed by the OSS, by the Northern Territory government and by the Northern Land Council, and it is agreed that that is a reasonable plan. Then that plan is costed by an independent, external assessor.
Senator CROSSIN —This is done on a year by year basis, is it?
Dr Johnston —Every year, and that gives a total cost as of that day for rehabilitation at Ranger. ERA must then provide to the Commonwealth government the cash, which goes into a Commonwealth trust fund, so that every year there is adequate funding available to pay for it.
Senator CROSSIN —I will get onto the trust fund in a minute. What is the current amount?
Dr Johnston —Roughly $40 million. I do not have the exact figure.
Senator CROSSIN —So there is some rehabilitation bond or trust account?
Dr Johnston —It is not a bond; it is cash.
Senator CROSSIN —It is an account?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —That is currently held by the Commonwealth government?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —It is held by the Commonwealth in consolidated revenue, is it?
Dr Johnston —The Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources is responsible for administering that. The Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources is the minister on the Commonwealth side who regulates mining under the Atomic Energy Act, so DITR manages that.
Senator CROSSIN —It is held within that department?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
—I assume the figure increases each year rather than decreases? Is there the expectation that that amount is added to each year?
Dr Johnston —It has tended to be a bit constant. As time goes on and progressive rehabilitation is done, that amount could decrease over time. In other words, if they start doing progressive rehabilitation, which there has not been much of so far, it could decrease in principle.
Senator CROSSIN —If the assessment next year were, say, $42 million, $2 million would not be added to that account?
Dr Johnston —The $2 million would then be added to that account. ERA must give that to the Commonwealth minister for resources, and it goes into that account.
Senator CROSSIN —So $40 million is sitting there. What happens with any interest that has accrued on it or with any benefits from it? Is it rolled back into the account? Is it a trust account?
Dr Johnston —I would have to take advice on that. I do not know. Do you know, Alex?
Mr Zapantis —I do not know. That would be a question for DITR. I think they could provide that information.
Dr Johnston —The point is that, even if there were interest—obviously I assume there would be—the amount that is held in any one year is the amount that equals what is required or assessed as being required at that time.
Senator CROSSIN —I want to ask you about Nabarlek.
Senator ALLISON —Could I go back to rehabilitation?
Senator CROSSIN —Yes.
Senator ALLISON —Is the rehabilitation plan and the assumptions that underlie it a public document? Is that available for public scrutiny?
Mr Zapantis —The status of that plan is that it is submitted to the regulators, DITR—which is the regulator at the Commonwealth level—and the Northern Territory Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development. In that sense, whether or not it is a public document is something which would best be asked of them. I do not believe that there would be any issues with the release of that document, given that it goes to the Northern Land Council and they consider it. Strictly speaking, though, I do not know that I would be able to say whether it is or it is not, but I suspect that there would not be any issues with it being provided to the committee or to anyone else that asked for it.
Dr Johnston —I do not recall the issue being raised before. It is not a document which goes, for example, to the Alligator Rivers Regional Advisory Committee. Any document that goes to that committee would automatically be on the public record. This one, to my knowledge, has never been submitted there; it has never been requested, so the question has not arisen. As Mr Zapantis says, I cannot imagine that there would be a problem.
Senator ALLISON —If you wanted to get a copy of it, who should be approached?
—I would suggest the assistant secretary in the uranium branch, minerals branch of DITR.
Senator ALLISON —Does this most recent plan take into account the rehabilitation impacts, for instance, of the increased output?
Dr Johnston —The increased output in what sense?
Senator ALLISON —As I understand it, there is a greater level of production because of the beneficiation, the deeper accessing of pit 3 ore and possibly even the milling of low grade ore stockpiles. Does it look at some possibilities into the future?
Dr Johnston —Not really. It looks at what is there at the mine site today, what would the mine site need to look like following rehabilitation and what work would be required to get from point A to point B, and then you would cost that. For example, the issue of whether there is further ore to be found at the bottom of pit 3 or whether the company will propose to go through beneficiation processes is not an issue that is being addressed now. The question is what money would need to be in the bank if the company were to go bankrupt tomorrow. That is the issue that is being addressed.
Senator ALLISON —Does that deeper accessing of pit 3 or milling low grade ore require approval?
Dr Johnston —It would need to go through the normal approval process under Northern Territory law, yes.
Senator ALLISON —Is the question of rehabilitation and the impact of whatever changes might or might not be sought taken into account in any way at that point of authorisation?
Dr Johnston —If there were likely to be rehabilitation issues of significance associated with the decision, they would have to be taken into account then, yes.
Senator ALLISON —I have some questions on Nabarlek as well. Can you provide an account of the current status of rehabilitation work at Nabarlek?
Dr Johnston —Briefly, I will say something and pass to Mr Zapantis for some detail. The Nabarlek mine site was decommissioned some years ago, and as part of that process there was a program of revegetation which was undertaken. We arranged an assessment of the appropriateness and success or otherwise of rehabilitation at Nabarlek about three years ago, as far as I recall, at a workshop. The conclusions of those of us who were present were that there were deficiencies in our view in the adequacy of rehabilitation, particularly in the area of revegetation. We have been looking at those issues, and seeing what can be done, for the last couple of years. The current status is that, based on some of the work—for example, done by a research institute—some issues were raised with the mine site technical committee for Nabarlek, and Mr Zapantis can probably tell you what the current status of those considerations is.
—Yes. Essentially, my colleagues in ERISS have been doing some work on assessing the state of revegetation at Nabarlek, and their conclusion, whilst not yet final because the project is continuing, is, as Dr Johnston referred to earlier, that there are some deficiencies. But, more importantly, they are also looking at what can be done—what is a reasonable expectation in terms of a future state of rehabilitation for Nabarlek. What they are concluding, and I will qualify it by saying it is not yet final, is that the strategy which is being implemented currently by the mining company of planting what are known as islands of trees—relatively small areas are planted; you protect those areas and keep fire out, and then they become a site of recruitment for surrounding areas—is an appropriate strategy, although in order to be successful in a reasonable period of time, the company should probably consider expanding that program so they are planting more of these at a higher rate.
Senator ALLISON —Is there a difference between the DSS role in Ranger and its role in Nabarlek? What sort of approval is your department required to give prior to ticking off either the plans or the works implementing those plans?
Dr Johnston —Our role is not formally, under our act, any different. Our act applies to the Alligator Rivers region, which includes the area where Nabarlek is—although Nabarlek is outside the park. But there was a difference, a quite significant difference, between Nabarlek and Ranger, in that Ranger had to have an agreement under the Aboriginal land rights act, under section 44, which was between the Commonwealth and the Northern Land Council. That was because the approval for Ranger was under Commonwealth law, under the Atomic Energy Act. The Nabarlek project, however, was approved by the issuing of a lease under Northern Territory law, and as such the agreement with the Aboriginal people under the land rights act was directly between the company and the Northern Land Council.
That caused in principle some issues, because the company and the Northern Land Council came to an independent and private agreement as to what the objectives for rehabilitation would be and the mechanisms by which they would assess whether or not they had been achieved. Our approach was, `Well, you can do that if you like, but at the end of the day we're going to make our assessment and we will make our recommendations on its adequacy or otherwise to the Northern Territory'—and that is what is happening now.
Senator ALLISON —But that is a bit toothless, isn't it, because you do not—
Dr Johnston —Sorry?
Senator ALLISON —Is that somewhat toothless?
Dr Johnston —No, it seems to work!
Senator ALLISON —As I understand it, the moneys that were held in trust were released last year.
Dr Johnston —That is another issue; you are quite right. There was a bond, rather than money in the bank, at Nabarlek. I think it was $10 million. Last year, the Northern Territory Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development revised that down to $400,000, as I understand it, but, importantly, did not consult me. When I found that out, I wrote to the minister for resources, who promptly wrote to the appropriate minister in the NT, and we are resolving that issue. It should not have happened, and it will be revised.
Senator CROSSIN —Is there any mechanism to recover some of that money now?
—The mechanism is not recovery; it is a bond.
Senator CROSSIN —As I understand it, $9.5 million has been given back to the company. Is that correct?
Dr Johnston —It has not been given back; the bond that the company has to have with the bank has been revised downwards.
Senator ALLISON —It is the same thing.
Dr Johnston —It is not cash in the bank, which is different. But you are correct. I am not worried about the pedantics of it.
Senator CROSSIN —At the end of the day, it is going to cost much more than $500,000 to rehabilitate that site.
Dr Johnston —I am not quibbling with the NT government in that it was reasonable to do an assessment. The assessment of $10 million was back in 1995 before they had done any rehabilitation. They have now decommissioned substantially and it is reasonable to go out and reassess what the value of the bond should be. My objections are that they did not consult with us, as they are required to do, and I saw no evidence that a proper assessment had been made of what the cost of the remaining work would be. That is what we have agreed we will now assess.
Senator ALLISON —Could this happen at Ranger? Could the Northern Territory do the same thing: hand back the dough?
Dr Johnston —No. The Ranger money is held in trust with the Commonwealth.
Senator ALLISON —So all those approvals will need to be sought through DSS?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —So you are saying there is now a process in place between you and the Northern Territory government to try to reassess the amount of money that would be need to rehabilitate Nabarlek?
Dr Johnston —Yes. The intention is that, during this year, there will be a reassessment, involving us, of what the bond should be, based on the sorts of things Mr Zapantis was saying a few minutes ago about the ongoing work required at Nabarlek.
Senator CROSSIN —What if the company then says, `That's fine but we do not want any part of it now'? If it has been reassessed down to only $500,000, what legal obligation is there now for the company to have to pay more than that for rehabilitation?
Dr Johnston —This is done under Northern Territory law. As I understand it, under the Mine Management Act, the minister can require and change the bond every year.
Senator CROSSIN —So it has not been reassessed and then expired, so to speak?
Dr Johnston —No. It can be reassessed each year.
Senator CROSSIN —So this $10 million down to $500,000 was a reassessment last year, was it?
—That is correct. That is what has been done. The Mine Management Act is pretty new in the Territory and I think a systematic procedure has been adopted by the department to go through and set bonds for all the mines. It was in that process that Nabarlek was readjusted downwards.
Senator CROSSIN —So the NT government now know to consult you about this?
Dr Johnston —Yes they do. There has been correspondence between the Northern Territory Minister for Mines and Energy and the Commonwealth minister for resources on this issue.
Senator CROSSIN —Dr Johnston, perhaps to your credit, you made an observation that the rehabilitation at Nabarlek was far from ideal and that a lot more work was required at the site. Are OSS, in conjunction with DBIRD, looking at the work that is required to bring it up to your level of satisfaction?
Dr Johnston —Yes. That is exactly the process that is underway. Mr Zapantis can give you the detail. As he said, the staff at ERISS are going out to make assessments not only of revegetation but of the status of erosion at the site, the extent of radioactive emanations from the site—gamma ray exposure and all the radiological issues. They are systematically going through and assessing all of those and then providing advice to the OSS through the Mine Site Technical Committee, which assesses Nabarlek.
Senator CROSSIN —So, at the end of the day, the reassessment will go through the Mine Site Technical Committee?
Dr Johnston —There is what we call a Mine Site Technical Committee for each of the mines—Ranger, Nabarlek and Jabiluka.
Senator CROSSIN —Do you know if there has been any investigation or discovery of why they did not talk to you about this or of why they simply rescaled it down without consulting? Have you asked the question and got an answer?
Dr Johnston —The minister for resources asked the Minister for Mines and Energy of the NT and there was a response. I think it simply stated the facts of what had happened. I think there was simply an acknowledgement. We have had discussions with the Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development and they have agreed to the process whereby we are consulted through the process.
Senator CROSSIN —So they have agreed the process was inadequate?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator Ian Macdonald —I hope Mr Macfarlane was suitably critical in the media, as the state minister would have been had the boot been on the other foot.
Senator CROSSIN —I am not defending DBIRD here. I want you to tell me the process was inadequate and that it was not good enough. Can I now turn to the number of incidents this year—that is, to the main incident, the release of the water at Jabiru east, and to the incident with the truck at the CDEP compound.
CHAIR —Senator, is this the matter we discussed earlier?
—Yes, it would be the matter you think is relevant.
CHAIR —There is a possibility that this matter is sub judice. The Senate does have some rules about sub judice matters, which I will just acquaint the witnesses with.
Senator CROSSIN —Sub judice, just to clarify that, is if a matter is before the courts. Is that correct?
CHAIR —I will get to that. If I could, I would like to outline the procedure. The parliament is exempt from the laws of contempt of court. However, it does have some conventions regarding matters which are sub judice. The convention requires an assessment of the risk of a particular parliamentary discussion or inquiry prejudicing proceedings before a court and that the danger of prejudice must be balanced against the benefit flowing from the right of the houses and their committees to discuss and inquire into a matter. The Senate has no standing order relating specifically to sub judice matters, but it has been the Senate's practice for the interpretation of the convention and the extent of restraint exercised to be determined by the President's ruling. In a committee hearing the application of the balancing test required by the sub judice convention is a matter for the committee chair and the committee, guided by the precedents which form the President's rulings.
In some circumstances it is possible to hear a matter in camera, but that is not possible in an estimates hearing. Were matters to be held in camera, any impact on legal proceedings could be avoided. But, as I have said, that is not possible in an estimates hearing. It is noted here that the issuing of writs in a civil case is not regarded as placing the matter in dispute before a court for the purposes of the convention and until proceedings have actually commenced the danger of prejudice must be regarded as much less than when the proceedings have started. In the case of criminal cases, the laying of a charge may be regarded as the point at which public discussion of the circumstances may influence a determination by a court. In general terms, the guidelines say, the risk of prejudice is considered greater where the court proceedings involve a jury. What I would like to ask you, Senator, is whether or not there are court proceedings being taken in this matter and whether or not documents have been lodged with the court authorities in the Northern Territory.
Senator CROSSIN —To my understanding there have not been documents lodged with the court authority, nor is there any matter before the courts. Dr Johnston may well be in a better position to answer that.
Dr Johnston —My understanding is that the Minister for Mines and Energy has referred the report of his department on the incidents to the Department of Justice and that it would be the Department of Justice which recommends whether or not proceedings should commence.
CHAIR —So no proceedings have actually commenced?
Senator CROSSIN —At this stage, to my knowledge, the report of the incidents—the main incident we are going to talk about in a moment—is still an internal Northern Territory government report.
CHAIR —Is that your understanding of the state of play, Mr Borthwick?
—My understanding is that it is as you have described. Even though there has not been a decision, as I understand it, by the Northern Territory, Dr Johnston needs to be a little wary in case, if it goes to court, anything is prejudicial. But I think this matter is of significant public importance and he can make some factual comments on the events. I would also make the point, as Dr Johnston said before, that he is conducting an inquiry under his own auspices and intends to submit a report to the minister. Under his legislation, I understand the minister then is required to table the report within 15 sitting days. Dr Johnston is still conducting that inquiry. Having said that, I think it is appropriate for him to provide the committee with some factual information around the circumstances of what happened.
CHAIR —I am just seeking advice from the secretary. The guidelines do say that it is a matter for the chair and the committee. We might have a quick private meeting between the four committee members here and then decide whether to proceed.
Proceedings suspended from 5.14 p.m. to 5.16 p.m.
CHAIR —We have decided to proceed. Senator Crossin has some questions to put, but she has just suggested that an opening statement, if you would like to make one, about this matter might deal with it.
Senator Ian Macdonald —I think we might just go to the questions. This matter was raised in the Senate a couple of times and I have, on behalf of Dr Kemp, given a written statement.
CHAIR —Minister, the matter was raised with me by the secretariat, and so I have gone though the procedure accordingly and a decision has been made that the questions might proceed. But, of course, Dr Johnston has the right not to answer a question if he feels that he is straying into areas which might be legally sensitive.
Senator Ian Macdonald —Thank you.
Mr Borthwick —Thanks for your guidance on the sub judice issue, Chair.
Senator CROSSIN —Dr Johnston, have you have got a statement, a report or something you wanted to table before we go into this issue?
Dr Johnston —No, I do not. You know I am preparing a report for the minister. He has asked for a fully comprehensive report, and it is not yet complete. It will probably be a few weeks yet before the report is complete. As the secretary said earlier, once that happens, the minister would be required to table it in the parliament within 15 sitting days. We are close to the end, but it is not quite there; but I am quite happy to answer questions.
Senator Ian Macdonald —Whilst I appreciate the right of the committee to ask whatever questions it likes, unless there is some urgency, could I suggest to the committee that there is an assumption that the report will come to the minister shortly, and it will then be 15 days and it will all be public. By all means ask questions, but Dr Johnston will be somewhat limited. He is not about to pre-release his report here, and so that would constrain him somewhat in how he could answer, but if this is somewhat urgent to do before the process runs its course I guess we can see what happens.
—My understanding is that on 23 March at about 10.30 p.m. an incident occurred at Ranger. Can you tell us the nature of that incident?
Dr Johnston —Yes. We found out about the incident the following morning, on 24 March. I was notified around 10 in the morning that an incident had occurred, that the potable water system had been contaminated, and it was suspected that the contamination was caused by what is called the process water system at the Ranger mine. I sent Mr Zapantis to carry out a full investigation—he can answer detailed questions of fact. The bottom line is that at probably just before 10 o'clock on the evening of the 23rd an operator at the mine went to a particular location to try to enhance the flow of what is called process water into what is called the final bin scrubber and opened a valve which was, in fact, not connected to the process water system but connected to the potable system.
The pressure in the process water system is considerably greater than that in the drinking water or potable system, which had the obvious effect of, rather than enhancing the water flow into the desired area, reducing it because water went from the process system back into the potable system and not forward. We could go into the details of why, but the basic facts are that that was not discovered until the following morning when there were several reports by staff that the water tasted poor—that it was foul tasting. Some people complained of itchiness on the skin following showering. The water was tested by the people on site, and it was then discovered that it was indeed contaminated by process water. An announcement was made to all staff on site to stop drinking water from the system immediately. They went through a process of shutting down the mill and all operations at the site, and all staff other than those who were considered essential were sent home.
Senator CROSSIN —By what time was the operation shut down?
Mr Zapantis —It was just before 9 o'clock. The log shows they shut down—
Senator CROSSIN —That night?
Mr Zapantis —No, the morning of the 24th.
Senator CROSSIN —Okay. Did the opening of the wrong valve occur because the valve was not tagged properly or was it human error? What has your assessment of that been?
Senator Ian Macdonald —If it is Dr Johnston's opinion, then (a) it is not relevant under the Senate rules anyway, but (b) it gets into the sorts of things that Dr Johnston may be questioned about if he is called as a witness in any prospective proceedings. I think that, erring on the side of caution, we should take the point that you are asking for Dr Johnston's opinion—which is not what is supposed to happen.
Senator CROSSIN —Can I ask you if the valve was tagged properly?
Dr Johnston —I can answer that the place where the valve was opened was actually at the process water end. That end was connected by a hose to another location, and the person who opened the valve did not realise that the other end was connected to the potable water system. It was a considerable distance away and high up.
Senator CROSSIN —It would have been kilometres away, wouldn't it?
—No, not a kilometre away but just not observable from the point at which he opened the valve.
Mr Zapantis —Tens of metres.
Senator CROSSIN —So the valves opened at one end of the mine, not knowing there was—
Dr Johnston —At the other end of the hose.
Senator CROSSIN —Was the water tested at 8,000 parts per billion—which is about 400 times the standard of drinking water?
Dr Johnston —For uranium, yes.
Senator CROSSIN —Do we know how many thousands of litres this would have been?
Dr Johnston —We have not quite finished that part of it. It is quite a complicated system. Working out just how much water went from the process water circuit into the potable one is not trivial. It also is the case, as you are aware, that that water was driven several kilometres to Jabiru East where it overflowed from a tank. That complicates the exact calculation of how much went from one position to the other.
Senator CROSSIN —I have seen figures somewhere where that overflow was about 150,000 litres. I am assuming it is very hard to assess, because you would have no idea how much water was used through the night.
Dr Johnston —At the moment I would say it is of the order of a couple of hundred thousand litres.
Senator CROSSIN —So you were actually notified the following morning?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —Who made the decision to shut the mine and when?
Dr Johnston —The mining company.
Senator CROSSIN —At 9 o'clock?
Dr Johnston —At about 9 o'clock.
Senator CROSSIN —And then they notified you.
Dr Johnston —Yes. They went through a process. Their primary concern was people drinking the water—their own staff and people in Jabiru East, because the mine provides the drinking water supply to the businesses in what is called Jabiru East. It is not Jabiru town itself but it involves the airport, our laboratories and the Gagudju Association's maintenance store.
Senator CROSSIN —Can you clarify that for me? I thought the run-off of the 150,000 litres at Jabiru East actually occurred the next day.
—No. It was going on continuously. If I can explain it, water is delivered from the mine to Jabiru East. Just before you get to Jabiru East there is a large storage tank, whose function is to provide emergency supply should there be something wrong at the mine and you have to switch it off. It turns out that the valve supplying that storage tank had been faulty for some time without people knowing it.
Senator CROSSIN —It is an isolation valve, isn't it?
Dr Johnston —Yes. It had been faulty for some time, which meant that water continually went into that tank and overflowed. So when it—
Senator CROSSIN —When that tank overflows it goes to the Coonjumba Billabong and into the Majella, doesn't it?
Dr Johnston —The particular pathway flows past Coonjumba Billabong; it does not actually enter it. It enters the Majella Creek at just about the exit from Coonjumba Billabong.
Senator CROSSIN —It is the water on the way to the Jabiru East tank that ERISS's offices and the airport are connected to. They are on the same line, aren't they?
Dr Johnston —Yes, it is the same line but beyond that point—beyond the tank.
Senator CROSSIN —I have a mud map here. I am not going to show it to you because you will laugh.
Dr Johnston —I can see it.
Senator CROSSIN —So were there about 20 workers involved on the site?
Dr Johnston —There were more workers on site but it turns out that—
Senator CROSSIN —Involved in the contamination of water, I suppose.
Dr Johnston —There were, as far as I can recall, about 26 people who reported symptoms.
Senator CROSSIN —I had read that perhaps only 12 had reported health issues. Publicly, ERA said on 25 March only three had reported mild symptoms.
Dr Johnston —It went up. There were three; then there were six; then there were 12; then there were 26.
Senator CROSSIN —Sixteen accepted an offer to be tested—is that correct?
Dr Johnston —It would be of that order. The ERA has been going through a program of testing people. They have offered that not only to their own staff who were on site at that time but to anyone else in Jabiru town who felt that they wished to have urine tests or blood tests.
Senator CROSSIN —So were you involved in that process as well? Does OSS actually get involved in the welfare and the physical wellbeing of the workers there or are you purely involved with the environmental side?
Dr Johnston —The OH&S generally is considered a responsibility of the Northern Territory. But we have always traditionally taken a full interest in the radiation exposure aspects of OH&S of workers.
Senator CROSSIN —My understanding is that ERA offered to test the workers five days after the incident—is that correct?
—Earlier, I think. Certainly we know that some of the urine samples taken for uranium testing were three days, four days or five days.
Senator CROSSIN —So there were no blood or urine samples taken on 24 March, which was the day you were notified and the day the mine was closed down—is that correct?
Dr Johnston —As I understand it, that is probably correct.
Senator CROSSIN —The first lot happened three days later—is that right?
Dr Johnston —Yes, it would certainly be three.
Senator CROSSIN —Do you know why there was a delay in the testing?
Dr Johnston —No. You would have to ask ERA. I am aware, however, that a lot was going on at that site that day.
Senator CROSSIN —I bet there was.
Dr Johnston —It would not surprise me if something slipped between the cracks.
Senator CROSSIN —Do you know what information was provided to the workers?
Senator Ian Macdonald —By ERA?
Senator CROSSIN —Yes, by ERA. In terms of radiation exposure, you say you have an interest in it and I am just wondering—
Senator Ian Macdonald —In a strict legal sense this is all hearsay evidence. It is not something Dr Johnston has done or something he has commissioned. I do not know what harm there is in it but if Dr Johnston has heard it you might have heard it as well. I just do not know that we are going to get too much further than this. The report will come out and be public shortly and everyone will be able to see it. Go ahead, but just be aware that Dr Johnston can only give hearsay evidence, which is not much good to anyone.
Dr Johnston —On that point I would stress that the principal area holding up the final report is the assessment of human health, the workers. That is mainly because there are areas other than radiation exposure for which I do not have the expertise in-house, and I have had to engage a group of scientists who are expert in human toxicology to provide me with that advice.
Senator CROSSIN —Will those elements be covered in your report?
Dr Johnston —They will be fully covered in the report.
Senator CROSSIN —I understand that a doctor was flown out from Britain and that a number of doctors have made comments that they have not dealt with cases where people have drunk this much water with so many parts per billion of uranium in it.
Dr Johnston —I would make the more general comment that the expertise in these areas is quite hard to find within Australia. We worked quite hard before we found good advice and who to choose. ERA made their own choice that they would bring in their own expert from Rio Tinto in the United Kingdom.
—Yes. I suppose you do not say to people everyday, `Drink this bucket of water so that I can see what effect it's going to have on you,' do you? I suppose that was one of the other difficulties.
Senator Ian Macdonald —Yes. I can think of some people I would like to make the offer to.
Senator CROSSIN —You would not be alone there, I can tell you that. Again, I will just take your judgment on how to answer these questions. Do you know why the processed water was switched to the fresh water system? You gave us an answer before that it was to try to increase the flow of water. Is that right?
Dr Johnston —Yes. The immediate need was for increased water. I would not like to go much beyond that right now. We are making an assessment of why this incident occurred, and that will be in our report.
Senator CROSSIN —So there has never been a separate supply of drinking or usable water at the mine?
Dr Johnston —It is a completely separate supply. It is meant to be kept completely separate.
Senator CROSSIN —It is just connected with a valve?
Dr Johnston —Yes. It should never have happened—I will not say impossible, but it should not have happened.
Senator CROSSIN —I understand from press reports that a public forum was held at Jabiru on 30 March, which about 150 people attended.
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —Both representatives from ERA and you attended that meeting.
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —What sort of information was provided by you and ERA at that meeting?
Dr Johnston —I gave a summary to people at the meeting of just what had happened in the basic factual form that we knew at that time. I was able to give reassurance on the radiation exposure aspects of worker health. I was able to give reassurance on the impact on the environment and the impact on people living downstream. Then the meeting was opened up for questions, and I answered whatever questions I could.
Senator CROSSIN —When were the TOs consulted or informed about the incident?
Dr Johnston —They were informed, just as I was, on the morning of the incident by ERA. I have since that time gone out on several occasions to discuss the whole issue with the Mirrar people and I have also discussed it with the Gagudju Association.
Senator CROSSIN —Have the company come with you at those times?
—No, I have done that. What the company has done has been separate, but I believed it essential that I speak to the Mirrar people and to the broader community.
Senator CROSSIN —Do you know whether the company in its own right has also had consultations with them and advised them about what happened?
Dr Johnston —I understand that the company has had discussions certainly with the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation and with the NLC. I am not sure whether that has led to direct discussions between the company and the Mirrar.
Senator CROSSIN —You might remember from the Senate inquiry before last that one of the criticisms by the traditional owners, the Mirrar people, was that the company did not actually directly discuss with them. I wondered whether that that situation had improved.
Dr Johnston —I do not want to make a comment on behalf of the company, but I can tell you that we have been trying very hard to make sure that the Mirrar are directly involved and directly advised at all times.
Senator CROSSIN —Has there been an ongoing problem with the management of the processed and potable water?
Dr Johnston —That is the kind of issue I would prefer not to discuss here.
Senator CROSSIN —That is fine. I respect that. Has there been any consideration, or perhaps recommendation, from you that some sort of real-time probe be inserted into the potable water line?
Dr Johnston —That was one of the conditions which I specified to the Northern Territory that I would want to see in place before the company were allowed to start operating the mill again.
Senator CROSSIN —I was going to go to those matters in a minute. Has that occurred?
Dr Johnston —What occurred immediately was that an agreement was made that they would put in place such a system but until it was made they would make measurements of the water quality in the drinking water system every four hours, so there would be a transition period involving manual but very frequent measurements until they could get the technology implemented to have continuous operation.
Senator CROSSIN —Are you confident that that is occurring?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —DBIRD have completed their report. Is it correct that you are still completing your report? You have not completed it and withheld it pending the DBIRD outcome?
—No. Our report is more extensive than DBIRD require. For example, we have done all the environmental measurements in the Majella Creek and the biological monitoring. We are doing a full assessment, as I mentioned a moment ago, of the human health implications, particularly any potential long-term human health implications. DBIRD, to my understanding, have done none of those things, and they are relying on our advice for that. Those things take a lot longer to do, and to complete a report on, than what DBIRD has done.
Senator CROSSIN —In the transcript of the Senate hearing—not the last report we did, but the one before—on 30 September 2002 in Darwin, the chair, Senator Allison, asked DBIRD if they could explain the means by which the Northern Territory department may sanction ERA for breaches of its environmental requirements in general authorisation. I am just going to read you what Mr McGill said, because I want you to tell me whether he is correct about the process. I am not going to the content of the breaches or the incident; I just want to know if this process is correct, as described by DBIRD. Mr McGill says:
All environmental legislation in the Northern Territory references an act called the Environmental Offences and Penalties Act. The Mining Management Act also references that same legislation so that all environmental legislation references the same system of penalties and offences. The procedure that we would adopt—were there to be an offence against the legislation which could not be rectified in another way and it was decided that we would go down the path of prosecution—would be to use the environmental offences and penalties legislation, which provides for up to a $1 million fine for a company and jailing of its directors.
Is that process correct?
Senator Ian Macdonald —You are really asking—
Dr Johnston —I am not able to answer that. That is the Northern Territory law, quite honestly, and I am not expert in what those processes are.
Senator CROSSIN —So you are saying that we would need to ask someone else whether or not sanctioning the company would be under that process?
Senator Ian Macdonald —Yes. It is seeking a legal opinion on the effects of Northern Territory law. Anyhow, Dr Johnston said that he does not know.
Senator CROSSIN —Dr Johnston, is it your view that the incident is a breach of the Atomic Energy Act?
Senator Ian Macdonald —That is not appropriate.
Senator CROSSIN —The Atomic Energy Act is a federal act.
Senator Ian Macdonald —Yes, but you are asking for his opinion. I am struggling to know where you are heading with the questions insofar as the estimates are concerned, but can I just alert you to the fact, as a one-time practising lawyer, that sometimes questions that are recorded in a non-court situation can end up harming the sort of outcome that perhaps you and I, and others, might want to achieve. So I really do caution too much furtherance of that at this stage.
Senator CROSSIN —Dr Johnston, would an incident like this perhaps constitute a breach of the Atomic Energy Act?
—What I would comment is that one of my functions under the act is to provide advice to the minister on the law that applies to the operation of the Ranger mine. That includes the environmental requirements for the Commonwealth, and I will certainly come to conclusions on that issue, which are my opinion—
Senator CROSSIN —Will we find that in your report?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —What is an acceptable radiation exposure level?
Dr Johnston —Acceptable? There are limits on radiation exposure for both workers and members of the public. For workers, in the units they use—millisieverts—it is 20 per year, and for—
Senator CROSSIN —Twenty what?
Dr Johnston —Twenty millisieverts per year—
Senator CROSSIN —Are these recorded and reported?
Dr Johnston —over a five-year period, with a maximum of 50 in one year. For members of the public it is one millisievert per year.
Senator CROSSIN —I have a number of questions about the statement that was tabled in parliament on 31 March.
Senator Ian Macdonald —Is that the statement I tabled?
Senator CROSSIN —That is right.
Senator Ian Macdonald —Go ahead; we are just finding it.
Senator CROSSIN —It said the OSS was working with the Northern Territory government to ensure that appropriate mechanisms were put in place to prevent a recurrence. What are the appropriate mechanisms being referred to in that statement?
Dr Johnston —There were some changes made to the water outlets which would make it much more difficult for such a thing to happen again. They introduced new internal management systems within the company to make sure that the connections which would be required would not be available other than through certain very controlled processes. As I mentioned in response to one of your earlier questions, the continuous monitor in the potable water system, which will set off an alarm in the mill operations room, would be the—
Senator CROSSIN —So this is a probe that might be in the pipes—
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —and if the levels went up the probe would go off, or something?
Dr Johnston —Yes. It measures a particular chemical variable which would be a very good indicator that there was process water present, and that would shut down the system.
Senator CROSSIN —Are they mechanisms that you wanted to put in place to prevent a recurrence, or did they need to be in place before the mine reopened—or both?
—I would like to distinguish between the operations of the mine and the mill. The origin of the problem was the mill rather than the mine. My principal concern was that, before the mill started operating again, systems were in place that would ensure this would not happen again and that even before that position there was a way of detecting it. So that was the approach I took for the mill. On the other hand, I had less concern then about the quality of the water which was available to people at the time mining commenced. So there were different considerations at each stage.
Senator CROSSIN —Is it true that none of the events have caused any harm to the people or the environment outside the mine site?
Dr Johnston —Yes. We had an extensive monitoring program, which you mentioned earlier. A routine monitoring program was in place at that time so that we have measurements before, during and after the event, both from the chemical perspective and from the biological perspective, and we are able to give very firm reassurances that there was no impact on the downstream environment or on the people consuming food downstream.
Senator CROSSIN —This statement also says that you `sought specialist advice on possible health impacts'.
Dr Johnston —That is right.
Senator CROSSIN —What advice was that?
Dr Johnston —I mentioned earlier that human toxicology is not an area where we have internal expertise. I sought advice through a consultancy with the Australian Centre for Human Health Risk Assessment, and I am still awaiting that final report.
Senator CROSSIN —I want to turn to the spillover from the Jabiru East water supply, which I understand is off the mine site. Is that correct?
Dr Johnston —It is on the mining lease—in other words, it is in the Ranger project area but off the mine site.
Senator CROSSIN —I particularly want to talk about the incident that occurred at the ERISS offices. Is that on the mine lease?
Dr Johnston —It is on the lease. It is in the Ranger project area.
Senator CROSSIN —Can you take me through the factual events that occurred once the spillover from the Jabiru East water supply happened? Was the water turned off after the incident?
Dr Johnston —The water was turned off on the morning of the 24th, by around 9.00—8.15 in one report. In other words, the water supply from the mine to Jabiru East was physically valved off at that time. Members of ERA staff then visited the businesses in Jabiru East, including our laboratories, to advise staff not to drink any of the residual water. Those were the first actions taken.
Senator CROSSIN —So the system should have been shut down; that was the right thing to do.
Dr Johnston —That is correct.
Senator CROSSIN —Was that to flush out that water, basically?
—No, the flushing out came later. Water was flushed back to the mine by pumping. For example, they used the water in our large storage tank to pump water back up to the mine so that any contaminated water went back to the mine and did not get flushed out into the system.
Senator CROSSIN —Who made that decision, and when did that happen?
Dr Johnston —That started happening in the first day and a half. There followed a period of proper flushing from the point of view of getting it back to condition of clean water that could be used for human consumption.
Senator CROSSIN —What systems were in place to prevent consumption from taps? My understanding is that the next incident occurred at a tap outside the ERISS offices. Is that correct?
Dr Johnston —The connection from the line going in front of ERISS, the connection into the system, feeds two large storage tanks on the ERISS site, which are used for two purposes. One is to supply drinking water and water for other purposes—gardens and so on—on the site, and the other purpose is to supply fire protection. It was believed that that was the only connection from the outside world into those tanks, so once that input was sealed off there was no way that water could get back into the water system within ERISS. That turned out to be incorrect. ERA had to collect a sample for testing one morning and to do that turned on the connection outside on the roadway to feed the water in and inadvertently did not switch it off again afterwards. That, coupled with the fact that there was a separate way of getting water into our system from that point, meant that the system was charged over the weekend.
Senator CROSSIN —Did the two outside taps that you are talking about that are connected to the tanks need to be secured or tagged?
Dr Johnston —They were physically removed and bolted up.
Senator CROSSIN —Isolated.
Dr Johnston —Yes. So no tagging was thought at the time necessary within the complex because it was believed there was no way water could get in, whereas over at the airport there are multiple outlets, which were individually tagged.
Senator CROSSIN —Was it one of those outlets at the airport that was used?
Dr Johnston —No, it was one of the ones in ERISS itself. As I said, it was inadvertently left on.
Senator CROSSIN —Even though they were tagged, someone still turned them on?
Dr Johnston —No. They were not tagged on the ERISS site; they were all tagged at the airport.
Senator CROSSIN —Is that because you did not think there was a need to tag them at the ERISS site?
Dr Johnston —It was done by ERA rather than us, but it was thought that it was reasonable since there was only one way for the water to get in.
—What do you mean when talk about the quality of water being good?
Dr Johnston —It means drinking water standard at all times, even on the very first day at the ERISS site and also at the airport and Gagudju. It was found that the contaminated water must have got quite close, but it did not make it to the ERISS site.
Senator CROSSIN —I understand that it was actually nudging the maximum allowed at 19 parts per billion, instead of 20. Is that correct?
Dr Johnston —That is correct, yes. At one stage one of the samples in one of the lines in Jabiru showed 19 parts per billion. The drinking water standard is 20.
Senator CROSSIN —How many people were drinking that water?
Dr Johnston —Three people: one of my staff and two of the Mirrar people who were assisting.
Senator CROSSIN —Have they been tested?
Dr Johnston —No, they have not been tested. They have been assured that the quality was fine. We measured the quality of the water beforehand and afterwards, and at all times it met drinking water standards. I discussed it with the Mirrar people—Yvonne Margarula; and one of the people who drank the water was also there—and they accepted my assurances. They were comfortable that there was no health risk involved.
Senator CROSSIN —Is it correct that we do not know what the reading was on the day of the incident? Five days beforehand it was just nudging the limit, wasn't it?
Dr Johnston —No, not at that point. On the very first day of the contamination the water was tested at the ERISS site and it was normal but roundabout five, six or seven parts per billion. On the day immediately after the incident it was five to six parts per billion. At another point in the Jabiru East system—not at ERISS—it once reached 19.
Senator CROSSIN —Is the incident that happened in ERISS's yards also part of your report?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —I will not ask you questions about that, then. I just want to talk to you about the machinery incident in the CDEP yards. What happens to machinery when it leaves the mine site? I am particularly talking about the machinery that was on the mine site and went back to the CDEP yards.
Dr Johnston —Mr Zapantis will give you details, but any machine that has been in certain areas needs to go through radiation clearance when it leaves the site. Having been issued with a radiation clearance, that clearance needs to be presented at the gate before it leaves the site.
Senator CROSSIN —I understand that it has to be cleaned and issued with a decontamination certificate. Is that correct?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —Who signs off on that?
—The radiation safety officer.
Senator CROSSIN —An employee of ERA does that?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —What role do you have in supervising or monitoring that process? Do you look at a log sheet?
Mr Zapantis —We do not get involved in that level of detail. In terms of ensuring that the radiation practices are appropriate and meet relevant standards, we review their management plans and whatnot. We ensure that the radiation management plan states that there are procedures for clearing and decontamination of equipment prior to leaving the site. But we do not as a rule go into that level of detail, except on an exceptions basis.
Senator CROSSIN —Do they need to provide to you reports or records of machinery that has been cleared?
Mr Zapantis —No, they do not.
Senator CROSSIN —There has been an allegation that one of these vehicles had on it 50 kilograms of dried, contaminated mud. Who is responsible for coming to the assessment that it is contaminated mud? Is that you or ERA? What happens?
Dr Johnston —There are two issues. In general, it is ERA's responsibility to ensure that they do the assessment of machines leaving the site. If you take this particular case, once it was reported to me that there could be an issue I made sure that my staff carried out a full assessment of those particular vehicles.
Senator CROSSIN —When it talks about inspectors finding that it had higher radiation levels above the normal background level, are they your people? Does the Jabiru CDEP ring you and say, `There's a truck here that has been cleared, and we do not think it should have been'?
Dr Johnston —That is what happened, yes.
Senator CROSSIN —Did you go out and inspect the mud on the truck?
Dr Johnston —On the evening before I went out to talk to the Mirrar about the Ranger incident, I got a phone call to say that the CDEP people would like to talk to me about the issue of trucks leaving the site. So I agreed to see them that day and I brought with me one of my staff who would carry out an assessment of the yard. They did a radiation survey of the yard that day. We have been following it up since then. By the way, I should comment that there will be a report on this issue as well.
Senator CROSSIN —Is that a separate report?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —I understand that the complaint from the Jabiru CDEP is that, at the time, the mine failed to produce paperwork or records in relation to that truck.
—That is has been said. I would just comment that we are investigating the details of what records there were and what were not there, and we will include those in our report.
Senator CROSSIN —Are you aware of whether the company has looked at these processes or at a way to improve the system?
Dr Johnston —As part of our report we will be recommending improvements.
Senator CROSSIN —Are you working with the company to examine and improve those processes?
Dr Johnston —Yes.
Senator CROSSIN —Is it correct that it took seven weeks before the CDEP management received a, unsigned and unsatisfactory, report from the company?
Senator Ian Macdonald —I do not know that you would agree that it is unsatisfactory, would you?
Senator CROSSIN —The issue I want to go to is whether it was seven weeks, not the nature of the report.
Dr Johnston —The timing of this is quite complicated because at least two vehicles were involved. Sorting out just what vehicle left when has been quite difficult. I do not have it at my fingertips right now as to whether it was seven weeks from when. We have gone through a systematic investigation of it, and we will lay it at all out as clearly as possible. The clear issue that I would comment on right now, and this is really the bottom line, is that two vehicles did leave the site in a contaminated state; one did so without clearance and one did so with clearance. There are issues there that need to be addressed. This should not have happened, and we will give a full report on it and make recommendations as to how this can be improved in the future.
Senator CROSSIN —Dr Johnston, it has been raised with me—and perhaps I do not want your opinion on this—that OSS have changed their role, that increasingly you have been asked to placate the public over the actions of the mine. It is an interesting observation.
Dr Johnston —That was put to me differently: the minister for mines wondered why we, rather than his department, had such a high profile.
Proceedings suspended from 5.58 p.m. to 7.02 p.m.