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Tuesday, 31 March 1987
Page: 1792


Mr MILTON(5.32) —I cannot speak to the legislation before responding to the wild statements made by the honourable member for Mayo (Mr Downer). He was totally incorrect in a number of statements he made about the Office of the Supervising Scientist. He made a number of other accusations during his speech which were also unfounded. Firstly, it was the former Liberal Government that was responsible for locating the Office of the Supervising Scientist in Sydney; it was not our Government. The honourable member for Mayo shakes his head in agreement. Of course, I am right. Secondly, it is true that members of the Office of the Supervising Scientist travel around the world to attend conferences. However, mostly they go at the invitation of the conference organisers and their fares are paid for by the conference.


Mr McGauran —Can you prove that?


Mr MILTON —I am not saying that it happens in every case; I am saying that it happens in a large number of cases. The honourable member for Mayo misrepresented their case.

Opposition members interjecting-


Mr MILTON —Mr Deputy Speaker, would you mind asking honourable members opposite to stop their wild meanderings and allow me to continue with my speech?


Mr Beale —Can't you take it?


Mr MILTON —I can take it very well. Having dealt with the wild accusations made by the honourable member for Mayo, I will refer to the legislation. I must say that, in speaking to the package of environmental Bills before the House, I find myself with mixed feelings. I suppose, in some respects, government is the practice of the art of compromise between competing groups in society. We certainly have that concept enshrined in the proposed amendments to the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975, the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act 1978, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and the Lands Acquisition Act 1955. The Bills before us will implement the proposed amendments.

The competing interests are the mining industry, the conservation movement and the Aboriginal people of the Alligator Rivers region. Regrettably, the Northern Territory Government, which should be acting in the interests of all people of the Northern Territory, is only interested in development for development's sake and, in consequence, takes an entirely irresponsible attitude to protection of the natural environment. On the other hand, the Federal Government, with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) taking a leading role, has, in the introduction of the present Bills, attempted to balance the competing interests. I am firmly of the view that no mining should take place in national parks. Therefore, I am particularly pleased that the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Bill 1987 prevents exploration and mining in Kakadu National Park.

It follows, from what I have said, that I am disappointed that the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Bill 1987 specifies that 35 per cent of the Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases will be declared a conservation zone rather than totally being included in the park-although I am aware that, in the legislation, the Government is honouring its promise to declare the remaining 65 per cent of the lease area, totalling some 4,000 square kilometres, as part of Kakadu. The remaining Bills will extend the responsibilities of the Office of the Supervising Scientist to cover all minerals in the conservation zone section of the pastoral leases and will permit Aboriginal people to seek land claims in Gimbat and Goodparla for eventual lease-back to the Director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, as is the case with Aboriginal land within the present boundaries of Kakadu.

As I mentioned earlier, the Government's decision to prevent exploration and mining for minerals and related operations in Kakadu National Park is a most commendable initiative. The operations of uranium mining companies in the Alligator Rivers region, particularly the Ranger uranium mine, have been of particular concern both to me and to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation, of which I am Chairman. Our report on the Ranger uranium water management system, which I presented to the House in October last year, indicated that ideally the water management system should be based on a non-release of contaminated water and that this system be maintained until it is shown that releases of contaminated water have to be made. The Committee concluded, unanimously, that it had not been established that releases of restricted release zone water to Magela Creek need to be made.

For the information of honourable members, restricted release zone water includes all sub-catchments and storage units which are likely to generate or store contaminated run-off resulting from mine and process related activities. My view is that the operations of the Ranger mine conclusively prove that the original decision to allow the mine to operate in such a delicately balanced environment was both irresponsible and foolhardy. Let me make it clear that it was the Liberal-National Party coalition Government which made that decision. The Ranger uranium mine was called upon to conduct its mining operations in an area subjected to monsoonal floods over the period of the November to March wet season. Both the Ranger and the Nabarlek uranium mines operate in open woodland, close to seasonal water courses which flow into extensive flood plain systems, and are located on tributaries of the East Alligator River system.

One common feature of all Kakadu landscapes is that they give visitors a feeling of natural wilderness and solitude. I have been there a number of times and I have experienced that feeling of peace. The intrusion of mining into such an area is a threat to the priceless wilderness values which the park represents. Of all tropical wilderness areas in the Southern Hemisphere, Kakadu National Park is the most outstanding sanctuary for a wide variety of plants and animals, which includes, at the latest count, 50 mammals, 275 birds, 75 reptiles, 25 frogs and 55 fish species. Over 4,500 species of insects, covering a wide range of diverse types, have also been recorded so far. Many more species will be found in future. It is small wonder that mining, and particularly uranium mining, is a controversial issue, especially when the mine is surrounded by a national park of World Heritage status.

The conservation zone which the present legislation will establish in the Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases will also pose similar problems if the mining exploration reveals that there are commercial mineral deposits in the zone. Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd has already established that the gold and other mineral deposits at Coronation Hill in the Gimbat pastoral lease are rich deposits which it will be seeking permission to mine. The mine site, which I and other members of the Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation have visited, is very close to the upper reaches of the South Alligator River. Obviously, an environmental impact study will be necessary and it must include BHP's proposals to avoid possible contamination of the South Alligator River. The honourable member for Dunkley (Mr Chynoweth) has spoken in detail on the proposal, so I will not dwell on the problems relating to mining in the area. I only point out that experience has shown that, while mining companies are very good at promising that mining operations will not damage the environment, their deeds often fail to match their promises. The Ranger uranium mine is a case in point, with its sulphur dump and bags of chemicals unprotected and exposed. Members of the Standing Committee also noticed during their inspection of the site a trial tailings dam plot, completely unfenced and with a trail of animal footprints across it. The Committee was also concerned to note the number of breaks in the tailings pipeline which had occurred during mining operations and which had resulted in spillages of contaminated water in the restricted release zone. Fortunately, none of these spillages caused any damage to the park, but they might well have done so.

It must also not be forgotten that in 1982 the Ranger mine imported about one million cubic metres of water in excess of requirements when it was considered that there would be a shortage of water for its continued operation. The company subsequently asked the approval to release surplus contaminated water into Magela Creek, which is a tributary of the East Alligator River. Approval was not given, but in the event a fairly dry 1985-86 wet season, combined with spray irrigation within the mine site, enabled the company to dispose of the surplus water. Now, however, the company has once again proposed a water management system which requires the release of water from the restricted release zone into Magela Creek during two years of a five-year period.

The technical working group on water management at the Ranger uranium mine, chaired by the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers region and including representatives of the Ranger mine and the Northern Territory Government, made a submission to the Federal Government which stated that, on the basis of technical considerations alone, the working group supports a water management system which provides, under appropriate controls, for some release of excess water into Magela Creek. However, the technical working group did not consider the social factors which also need to be taken into account in determining the best practical technology for water management at Ranger. It has always been the clear understanding of the traditional Aboriginal owners that the Ranger mine would develop a `no release of contaminants' water management system. The best practical technology criteria required that, amongst other effects, the social effects-including possible adverse social impacts of introducing new technology-must be taken into account.

Accordingly, I am rather puzzled as to why the working group did not take into account the views of the traditional owners when preparing its recommendations on the possible release of contaminated water into Magela Creek. In this respect I am also surprised that representatives of the Aboriginal people are not included on the technical working group. I would hope at this early stage of the new legislation that the Government could consider including Aboriginal representatives on the technical working group, as presumably in the event of mines being opened up in the Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases the working group would be required to oversee the operations of any such new mines and the direct input of the representatives of the traditional owners would, in my view, be of crucial importance.

At this point it is interesting to compare the views of the working group with those of the Northern Land Council regarding the proposed release of contaminated water from the Ranger mine. The Northern Land Council, which on this matter certainly represents the traditional owners, has engaged consultants to advise it in this respect. In its view, the working group exaggerated the impact of an additional storage pond which could be used for water run-off purposes. It placed unrealistic emphasis on the impact of the $15m cost to Ranger in constructing an additional pond. Bearing in mind the comments of the honourable member for Mayo, who preceded me in this debate, and who pointed out that many millions of dollars-I think he said $1,000m, which seems an awful lot to me-have been earned by the Ranger uranium mine, could not some of that money be used to tidy up the environmental consequences of the work in which it is engaged at that uranium mine?

The Northern Land Council was also of the view, and I certainly share its view, that the company should be requested to commence immediately detailed studies with the object of arriving at the optimum mix of pit access requirements, land application with irrigation spraying and additional pond storage, so that an efficient water management system can be operational by 1988. As the Land Council has pointed out, it has a direction from the traditional owners to maintain the integrity of Magela Creek and therefore cannot accept a water management system which is based on regular water release. In my own view, the argument of the Ranger mine management that the construction of an additional storage pond will be environmentally disastrous does not make sense when we already have the impact of many other storage and tailing ponds, not to mention the huge quarry site of the open pit itself.

It is important to insist that the Ranger uranium mine conduct its mine operations in a way that presents no possible danger to Kakadu National Park. If it is allowed to get away with a lesser degree of environmental protection, the mines which might be allowed to operate in the conservation zone of stage 3 might also provide less environmental protection. I consider that the Ranger mine has been particularly irresponsible as, despite repeated warnings in past years that a no release system was necessary, the management made no serious attempt to design a method of water disposal within the restricted release zone, apart from the introduction of some minor spray irrigation. I hope that Ranger will now take steps to expand the spray irrigation system, subject to the approval of the Office of the Supervising Scientist. I was most pleased to note that a joint Press release made yesterday by the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment stated:

The Government is totally committed to ensuring the complete environmental protection of the Kakadu National Park and guaranteeing that it is not damaged in any way by the Ranger uranium mining operation.

The statement went on to announce:

The Government has decided:

to refuse permission for the release of any water from the mine this year;

to require Ranger to proceed immediately to deepen, by the end of 1987, the existing retention pond (RP2); and

to instruct the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers Region, in consultation with Ranger, to develop practicable and environmentally acceptable options aimed at ensuring that Ranger water management is fully consistent with protection of the environment.

I congratulate the Ministers on their commitment and I know that all members of the Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation will be particularly pleased that the Government, in making its decision, has taken into account the issues raised in our October report.

Members of the Standing Committee, including me, have visited the Northern Territory on a number of occasions and I am particularly disappointed that after the last visit representatives of the mining industry sought, in a series of letters to the Press, to misrepresent our views on environmental matters. For example, Mr G. H. Sherrington, as well as other members of the council of the Northern Territory Chamber of Mines, misrepresented me by stating that I had said in discussions on 7 August 1986 with council members in Darwin that I would have no objection if the Ranger uranium mine was a gold mine. I wish to state quite categorically, as I did in a personal explanation in the House on 17 October, that I did not make that statement, that I am opposed to all mining in national parks and that the dishonesty and maliciousness which members of the Chamber of Mines had displayed in their letters does the organisation no credit. I have great pleasure in repeating that in this speech to the House today.

The Northern Territory Government and the honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Everingham) are little better. There is a constant barrage of invective against the Federal Australian Labor Party Government and its representatives, and against the magnificent efforts we are making to protect the Kakadu National Park from the avariciousness of the mining industry and to promote the tourist industry. There is no recognition by that Government or by the honourable member for the Northern Territory of the tremendous work we are doing.

Whilst the Northern Territory Government is about to declare two new and substantial national parks-I commend it for that-Litchfield, in the Talletop Range 100 kilometres south of Darwin, and Gregory National Park in the Victoria River Downs areas, many outstanding areas remain totally without proper protection, particularly in the Gulf country. For both the Territory Government and the Federal Government, degradation by feral animals and destructive plants remains a problem. Buffalo numbers are being drastically reduced by shooting programs. The weed, mimosa pigra, which I have seen in huge quantities from the air, forms dense impenetrable thorny thickets in the flood plains and paperbark swamps, and is an ever present and growing threat. Both the Northern Territory Government and the Federal Government are presented with a number of problems in relation to the protection of the environment of Kakadu National Park. I trust that, when the package of Bills before the House has been approved by this Parliament, the two governments can pool their resources to co-operate on environmental protection in one of the most beautiful areas of Australia.

The Federal Government has made it clear that there will be no uranium mining in the conservation zone of stage 3 of Kakadu National Park and that there will be no uranium mines in Australia other than Nabarlek, Ranger and Roxby Downs. I would have preferred that there be no uranium mines in Australia, but in the circumstances I must at least applaud the Government for its decision not to allow uranium mining in the conservation zone, even though I understand that there is little indication that there is uranium ore in the area. In conclusion, I commend the package of environmental Bills to the House as I believe that the legislation will provide as wide a measure of environmental protection for Kakadu National Park as is possible at the present time.