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Friday, 28 November 1986
Page: 3949

Mr MILTON(10.47) —In my statement which I tabled with the report of the Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation on the Ranger uranium water management system on 16 October I said that uranium mining is a controversial issue, particularly if the mine is surrounded by a national park of World Heritage status. Media reports over recent years have alleged that the operations of Ranger Uranium Mines Pty Ltd were defective and that the proposals of the company relating to water releases were not in the best interests of the environment. Naturally, the Committee appointed by this House to monitor environmental matters could not ignore the statements and headlines such as `Ranger crisis: Option to put Tailings into Creek', and `Atom Deluge threatens Park', and reports of numerous incidents relating to the tailings pipeline.

Accordingly, the Committee agreed to undertake informal investigations into the environmental aspects relating to the water management at Ranger. The Committee decided to report on two issues and two issues only, namely, failures in the tailings pipeline and the Ranger's proposal to release water from its restricted release zone into the Magela Creek.

Since the report was tabled the Committee has received comments from sections of the conservation movement criticising the manner in which we conducted our investigations. Of concern to the conservation movement was that the Committee did not consult widely enough, nor did it cover all the issues relating to Ranger's water management system. I believe the Committee was justified in concentrating on the two issues of pipeline failure and water release. The Committee's investigations were a direct result of public concern relating to these two issues. There were many other areas which were of concern to individual members of the Committee, such as worker health and safety, industrial relations, and other aspects of Ranger's operations, but it was agreed that the report should be restricted to these two aspects.

It was important that our report be available before a decision was made relating to water release. This urgency precluded widespread consultation which may have occurred had the Committee conducted a formal inquiry. The Committee limited its discussions with the conservation movement to the Northern Territory Environment Centre. We had no reason to doubt the competence of this organisation to discuss with the Committee the two matters under consideration. Notwithstanding these comments, it appears from the correspondence received that if the Committee had consulted more widely its conclusions would have been no different. The Committee report was the result of informal discussions and inspections rather than the result of an extensive formal inquiry. The Committee has adopted this approach on a number of occasions in the past when resource and time constraints have made this method of operation necessary. We have never before been criticised. If the Committee were to conduct formal inquiries into each of the many environmental issues upon which we comment, limited member time and limited secretarial resources would make it difficult to table even one report each year.

I do not propose to cover all the issues included in my statement of 16 October because there are other speakers who want to talk about the report. There are, however, a number of issues which I wish to highlight now. While it is apparent that the numerous and regular leakages from the tailings pipeline have had no adverse impact on Kakadu National Park these occurrences are reasons for concern. The Committee cannot accept that a company which is located within an area of such significant environmental value and which claims to be as efficient as the most regulated of any operation in the world should have allowed the number of incidents which have occurred. The Committee understands that the tailings pipeline has been replaced. Should these regular, accidental releases continue the Committee would support the cessation of operations until such time as the system was rectified. However, the Committee accepts the Supervising Scientist's assessment that there has been no discernible adverse impact from these incidents on the surrounding park or in the environment.

Organisations have argued that Ranger has little regard for the environment and operates on a least cost basis. There are a number of examples which may support this view. During our inspections the Committee observed the state of the sulphur dump, exposed and decaying bags of chemicals at the water treatment plant, and the trial dry tailings plot unfenced with animal footprints in the tailings. The decision by mine management to import on to the site about one million cubic metres of water in excess of requirements during 1982 suggested a lack of concern about the longer term environmental consequences should rainfall return to normal in the following seasons.

Ranger is developing a water management policy which will include releases of water to the Magela Creek. Such releases, Ranger argues, may be necessary in some years to enable the company to gain access to the mine pit at the end of the wet season. Such releases would not be regular occurrences and may not even occur once in 20 years. The company has emphasised that the releases would be of mildly contaminated water and not tailings dam water as some sections of the media have suggested and could be made only when the Magela was in flood in accordance with water release criteria developed by the Office of the Supervising Scientist.

The Office of the Supervising Scientist holds the view that on technical grounds occasional controlled discharges of water to the Magela could be made in such a way that there would be virtually no damage to the environment, including no harm to people. On balance the Office of the Supervising Scientist believes that water released in the Magela should be accepted as one of the water disposal components of Ranger's water management system. This view is supported by the Northern Territory supervising authorities. On the other hand, the Australian National Parks and Wildlife advises that it is unaware of the environmental impact of direct release, but believes that there are still too many unknowns for assurances to be given that there will be no impact.

The Northern Land Council argues that traditional owners believed that Ranger would operate on a no-release system, and failure to achieve this objective can result only in an unacceptable social impact. The Northern Land Council points to adverse biological reactions within the creek when water, which was less contaminated than that now under consideration, was released last year. The conservation movement supports the NLC's attitude. The Committee notes in its report that, in the development of a water management system, Ranger is required by its mining agreement to take account of the social effects of its operations. This indicates that the views of the traditional owners must be respected in developing this water management system. The Committee considered in great detail the question of release. Some members, including me, are not satisfied that there will be no adverse environmental impact. Neither the Northern Territory officials nor the Office of the Supervising Scientist were able to give 100 per cent assurance.

As stated in the report, Ranger imported huge quantities of water on to the site and then experienced two seasons of unusually high rainfall. Despite these problems, Ranger was able to operate without water release, and the system is now in balance. The Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, commonly known as the Fox inquiry, believed that ideally the water management system should be based on non-release of contaminants and that this system be maintained until it is shown that releases of contaminated water have to be made. It is the Committee's view, irrespective of individual attitudes on the impact of the release of water on the Kakadu wetlands, that it has not been established that the release of water to the Magela needs to be made.

Nothing in the findings of the Committee has led me to change my personal view that it was a disgracefully irresponsible decision of the Liberal-National Party Government to allow mining operations to commence in an area of such great environmental sensitivity as Kakadu. In this respect, it is most commendable that the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) introduced into the House yesterday a Bill which will prevent exploration and mining on land proclaimed as the Kakadu National Park and which provides that no compensation is to be payable by the Commonwealth. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on their initiative which is welcomed by conservation organisations around Australia.