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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 850


Mr RONALD EDWARDS(8.03) —We are debating the Customs Tariff (Uranium Concentrate Export Duty) Amendment Bill 1987. I thank my colleagues for joining me. The quorum was called to enable the Opposition to get its house in order. However, I think we will have to wait until 1988 for that to happen. Although the honourable member for Dawson (Mr Braithwaite) has now arrived, I will continue with my remarks.

This Bill seeks to levy an increased export duty to enable the Office of the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers region to supervise the activities at the Ranger uranium mine. For those who are listening to the debate, I point out that there has been a great deal of public controversy over this matter. During Question Time today the honourable member for Cowan (Ms Jakobsen) asked the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) a question relating to some newspaper reports about the issue of water release into the Alligator Rivers region from the Ranger uranium mine. This legislation focuses not only on a financial matter but also on a very contemporary matter which concerns the Australian community. It is of concern to the wider community and it is specifically of concern to the traditional Aboriginal community in the Magela Creek area adjacent to the Ranger uranium mine. That is the framework of the matter we are looking at tonight.

This legislation is a financial measure to raise money. In effect, the Bill seeks to lift the levy on the export of uranium concentrate to enable the Australian community to fund the Office of the Supervising Scientist. I would like to give the House a quick piece of background to that. The Office of the Supervising Scientist was set up following the Fox Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. That inquiry was established in 1975 to look at the environmental impact of mining uranium in the Northern Territory. That inquiry reported in 1977 and the outcome is that we now have the Office of the Supervising Scientist there to look at a number of aspects, but particularly water management.

People who are listening to this debate would appreciate that tropical regions such as the Northern Territory tend to be subject to both floods and droughts. During the wet season, which is right now, a very large amount of water accumulates in the restricted zone of the Ranger uranium mine. Some of that water is necessary for the operation of the mine for the development of uranium concentrate, but the rest of it is obviously not necessary for the operation of the mine and it is a question of how it is disposed of. To be a little technical just for a moment, there are some terms which we ought to deal with. The first term is the restricted release zone-the RRZ. That essentially is the perimeter of the mine site within which one can safely assume that there are degrees of radioactivity of which we ought to be aware. I do not want to beat up an issue here because quite clearly radiation is spread throughout the community. At the moment we are talking about the Ranger uranium mine and there are degrees of radiation which can be observed in the RRZ.

A couple of issues need to be developed. One is the question of the tailings dam. Very clearly the tailings dam water at Ranger is not intended for, nor subject to, release into the wider community-into the Magela Creek system or the Alligator Rivers region. That needs to be made very clear. When the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation, chaired by the honourable member for La Trobe (Mr Milton), visited the area, one of the things that were made very clear was that there had been reports from time to time about the possibility of releasing tailings dam water. That is not on. That is not proposed by Ranger and we ought to reassure the Australian community of that. Therefore, we focus upon the question of the release of water from other holding ponds in the area, and subsequently upon the specific role of the Office of Supervising Scientist; in other words, in technical terms what is known as the best practicable technology for both handling and disposing of the water. The role of government intervention in this area is basically to protect not only the immediate environment-and that includes the traditional land owners and land holders-but also, obviously, the wider interests of the Australian community.

I would think that by and large there is bipartisan support for this in this chamber. We might get some enthusiasm and excitement in this place from time to time on matters such as taxation, but on this matter by and large there is bipartisan support that the concern of the Office of the Supervising Scientist is to look at the effective and safest method of managing the water system there. I will focus specifically on the question that was asked today by the honourable member for Cowan because I think it was a sensible question she asked. It related to reports that contaminated water at the Ranger uranium mine would be released into Kakadu National Park. Now that I have mentioned the name Kakadu, obviously what we are focusing upon is a very special area of Australia. In a sense we have one of those interesting contrasts in public life. We have a very important resource in market terms-uranium-but we also have probably an even more important resource, Kakadu National Park, which happens to surround it. Clearly the Australian community has on its hands one of those delicate situations that from time to time present themselves to the wider community.

I will deal just for a moment with the specific financial provisions of this legislation. The Bill basically gives effect to the increase in export duty on uranium concentrate produced from the Alligator Rivers region in the Northern Territory from 11c to 80c per kilogram from 19 August 1986. The export duty imposed on uranium since 1980 is to offset the special costs of environmentally monitoring the research activities-matters I have already mentioned-by the Office of the Supervising Scientist associated with uranium mining operations in the Alligator Rivers region. The increase in the duty will recover about 50 per cent of the costs.

In the light of this wider financial climate of ensuring that by and large, where we can, some public sector authorities are able to pay their own way, we are asking this industry to meet some of the cost of its monitoring and management. If I were to make a general observation, it would be this: By and large, the operation at Ranger is one of the most closely scrutinised and observed mining operations in the world. That does not mean that it is not without some difficulty or controversy. In fact, when the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation visited the area one of the issues that it examined was the breakage of a pipeline within the perimeter of the RRZ. Very clearly, that was a matter of concern. It had been reported and material had spilt out of that pipeline.

One of the interesting indices of good management of any site, be it an industrial site or a mining site, is very often the question of industrial safety and the observations that one can make about it. I make another general observation. The Committee did see examples of management practices that perhaps were not in the top drawer of management practices in relation to the mining or engineering trades, or other areas of manufacturing for that matter. I do not wish to cast a very heavy shadow over them but I simply make the observation that, when the Committee visited that site, members were aware-certainly from reports of the work force-that some of the safety aspects of that mine management were not ideal. Clearly, in order to keep the picture a little balanced, we also ought to observe that, when we are dealing with both a large scale mining operation and a uranium concentrate, quite obviously, we have a fairly large issue on our hands. In part of the process of concentrating uranium, kerosene is used. So, very clearly, we have a fire hazard issue as well.

Let me now focus upon another aspect of what we are talking about here. As a community we ought to be asking: `What are the best methods of water disposal in that area?'. I referred earlier to the fact that Ranger uranium is located in the tropical zone where there is very heavy rainfall. At the time we were there Ranger uranium had too much water to deal with and it was looking at a particular disposal method. The Environment Committee recommended that there be some investigation and follow-up of this aspect. I quote from paragraph 87 of the Environment Committee's report which states:

Approval has been given to Ranger to undertake land application trials on 33 hectares of land. Spray irrigation, at least on a trial basis, as a disposal method for excess water has the approval of all the organisations which spoke to the Committee.

That is the House of Representatives Committee. The report continued:

Both the ANPWS and the Office of the Supervising Scientist noted that land application is not without possible long term impacts. Both organisations believe that the trials should be accompanied by an increased experimental and monitoring effort. Territory authorities while supporting monitoring believe that further research is totally unnecessary. The Northern Land Council argues that the trial should be with treated water.

The Committee supports the land application trials and agrees that these should be subject to further research. Some months ago the Committee considered that these trials should be conducted with treated water. It appears now however that treatment is unnecessary.

On a matter of clarification, there was a question as to whether water from the holding areas should be sprayed into the area or whether there should be a treatment process before it was sprayed into the area. The advice we received at the time was, by and large, that untreated water could be sprayed. Incidentally, for the benefit of the House and the community, we looked at some areas where spray irrigation had been undertaken. Prima facie, we could see no evidence of environmental damage whatsoever.

I would just like to shift the focus for a moment. The other aspect of this environment question is the social environment. Part of that social environment is the Aboriginal community associated with Magela Creek. The question that still has to be addressed-obviously it is a matter of negotiation, good faith and time-is that that traditional community has a very different understanding and conception of pollution in the environment than we do. It may well be that we are able to demonstrate, both in a rational and logical sense, that there is no quantifiable environmental pollution over and above background radiation levels, for example, that would cause us, a Western culture, to be disturbed. But we also have to recognise, as an Australian community and as an Australian Parliament, that there is a traditional community there that has a very different view of the environment. I note that my colleague the honourable member for Charlton (Mr Robert Brown) is nodding his head in agreement. Clearly, from his experience he would understand that that is crucial in coming to terms with the traditional people.

That does not mean that we cannot have a spray application technique, nor does it mean that we cannot have a uranium mine in that area. What it does mean is that when trying to deal with the people in the surrounding community we have to be aware of their particular viewpoint. The observation I would make is that they are not particularly obstructive in that. What they seek is good consultation and by and large they have had good consultation.

The issue I have not addressed is whether or not there should have been a uranium mine within the bounds of Kakadu National Park. By and large, I think, those on one extreme of the conservation movement would say that it should never have been there. However, given that we as a committee went up when the uranium mine was in place, what conclusion could we draw as a parliament and as a community? I would say that the Ranger uranium mine is being managed very well in terms of meeting certain environmental safeguards. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to say that some of the management practices within the mine site leave a little to be desired. Accidents and problems have occurred on the site that we ought to draw attention to, and the Environment and Conservation Committee has drawn attention to them. If we had the time all over again, people might say that there ought not to be a uranium mine within the bounds of the park.

Let me focus on that for a moment. There is a lot of debate in the wider community, and I suppose that the nature of modern technology has a lot to do with that. Why is it that everyone knows about Kakadu National Park? Obviously there has been a lot of publicity about it, but I would have thought that a film called Crocodile Dundee had done more than anything else to focus the attention of the wider community on Kakadu. I also think that the visit of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has provided a recognition from us of this side of the House--


Mr Cohen —What about Environment?


Mr RONALD EDWARDS —And the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Environment-that it is a very important area. In world terms Kakadu National Park is quite spectacular and I am sure that the Australian community understands the significance of that.

I turn for a moment to the claims that are being made about Kakadu stage 3, and I think this is crucial. The Government has given an assurance to the wider community and to the world about its attitude to mining activity in Kakadu stages 1 and 2. Stage 3 is subject to other matters and to claims. The Environment and Conservation Committee took some time to look at this with respect to stage 3. I make this observation to the House: One of the things I find interesting is that there seem to be-and I suppose that there is a good geological explanation for this-an extraordinary number of claims associated with the water catchment area of the Alligator Rivers Region. I would also make the observation that I think it is interesting that the mining industry is putting pressure on the claims within the Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases. I think the community at large should perhaps also understand that outside the boundary of Kakadu stage 3 are other mining claims whose prospectivity may be of equal value to those that are being pressed within the bounds of the proposed Kakadu stage 3.

I think on balance, and in conclusion, that what we have here is a test case by the mining industry to see whether it can establish claims within the bounds of Kakadu stage 3. What does the Australian community at large think of that? Perhaps we ought observe that, in terms of stages I and 2, this Government has no doubt about its responsibilities both to Australia and to the world at large. I think many honourable members on this side would also make the observation that they believe that it would have been better had there never been a uranium mine within stage I. Given that there is, can we assure the Australian community that the management practices are the best possible? Certainly in terms of intentions, it is clear that the parties concerned are proceeding along agreed paths and processes. There is regular consultation. As I said earlier, it is probably the most supervised and tightly managed mine in the world. I think there is good reason for saying that the Australian public might feel relatively assured on that. In another sense that does not remove any wider responsibility for the Australian Parliament or for that particular mine site to be sure that down the track its management practices are the best possible and that its water release programs are the most desirable so that the Australian community can have the due confidence that it ought to have in that activity.

That takes me back, in a sense, to where we began, and we began by saying that this is a Customs Tariff Bill which is in fact to do with raising a levy. It may well be that the Opposition is concerned about the degree of the levy. However, given its focus upon matters economic, I say to it: What we are doing is looking towards setting a levy that enables us, as a community, to ensure that the management of that mine by the Office of the Supervising Scientist is the best possible. Honourable members should remember that we have responsibility not only to the immediate community, which is the traditional Aboriginal landholders, but to all of Australia. We also have a world responsibility because-honourable members should remember this-Kakadu has world status. We are talking about what would be, in geographic terms, one of the most splendid and spectacular places on earth. It is not as though this is an issue of some minor concern; it is an issue of considerable concern.

Given that decisions were taken in the past about proceeding with mining, we have a duty to ensure that mining has the minimum possible impact on the surrounding environment. Should we say that down the track there will not be any problems? I do not think we can say that. Do we think, as an environment committee, that everyone can rest easily? I think the answer to that question is no. We have an ongoing responsibility, and that is where we, as a parliament, have to be sure that we provide the support-both political and financial-for the Office of the Supervising Scientist to undertake its work. I am quite confident about the quality of the work that it does. I am confident that, in association with other authorities, that Office will pay close attention to the needs of the traditional community and the wider community. As a community, as a parliament, are we undertaking the best possible management processes and are we sure that the best practical technology is being used?

At this stage the answer to those questions is yes. Is it without problems? The answer to that question is no. Very clearly, as a parliament and certainly as an all party environment committee, we have at least had the opportunity to have fairly full and frank discussions with the interested parties. We reported to the Parliament on this matter in October 1986.

The water management of Ranger uranium will be an ongoing responsibility. It is not something we can assume will go away because clearly it will not. The Ranger uranium mine will continue to be an operation of export value and mining value, but we, as a parliament, must ensure that we fulfil our responsibility to the Australian community and the wider community for managing both the mine and its surrounding area, which is Kakadu National Park.