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Wednesday, 1 April 1987
Page: 1632


Senator SANDERS(5.24) —This report of a technical working group entitled `Application of Best Practicable Technology to Water Management at Ranger Uranium Mine' comes to the conclusion that the complementary use of land irrigation during the dry season and the direct release of water to Magela Creek during the wet season constitutes the best practicable technology as applied to water management at the Ranger uranium mine. The report also concludes that by deepening retention pond No. 2-or RP2 as it is called-and restricting the seepage of water into the mine pit, releases into Magela Creek would be necessary once every 10 years on average. It seems that the Government has accepted this scheme while asking that further work be done aimed at avoiding any releases in the future. In other words, it has two bob each way.

The essential problem facing Ranger, the Northern Territory Government and the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers Region is that water accumulation had been badly underestimated in the initial design of the water management system. Rainfall in the area is higher, and evaporation rates lower, than had been assumed originally. The mine managers badly miscalculated. Actually, they stored water in the early years, and this created the problem. It really does not give us much confidence for the rest of the uranium mining operation. Consequently, some method has to be found to release contaminated water from the mine's restricted release zone into the surrounding environment, if the mine is to remain as economic as Ranger would like it to be; in other words, if it wants it to operate as cheaply as it would like.

I agree with the Government's decision to require further work to be done on ways of avoiding direct releases into Magela Creek. I note from the report that it may be possible to implement a policy of `no release' if some excess water is stored in the pit, with some interference to mining resulting. While it is clear from the report that Ranger is opposed to this approach on economic grounds, the fact is that it must face the economic consequences of underestimating the water problem at the mine in the first place. I trust that the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) will ensure that a `no release' policy based on the possibility of some interference to mining is fully evaluated for the future.

I have major reservations about the findings on land irrigation, which is the recommended method for water disposal during the dry season. The contaminants are supposed to be trapped in the topsoil thereafter, but they could be leached out. I actually visited this area and watched the irrigation program, and frankly I have little faith in it. The report is very vague on the environmental consequences of land irrigation. It says that this method appears to be acceptable, `at least for a period of a few years'. The long term impact has yet to be assessed. It may be that in the long term, heavy metals and radionuclides in the irrigated topsoil will find their way into the Magela Creek ecosystem. Frankly, I think it is a dead certainty that they will.

I ask the Minister to ensure that a rigorous study of the environmental impact of land irrigation be conducted and reported to Parliament before any approval to use this method is given. Overall, this report is based on the premise that preventing the release of contaminants from the restricted release zone is too expensive. However, the report does show that it is not impossible. In that case Ranger should be made to bear the costs of protecting the ecosystem from pollution from the mine.

Mining uranium opens up a Pandora's box, and this is just one of the disadvantages of it. The troubles at Ranger should be a warning to us all. We are not dealing with just simple environmental pollution which could be cleared up by ceasing the pollution activity itself or by some major operation of, say, removing soil to somewhere else. We are dealing with a pollutant which is capable of polluting that area for thousands and thousands of years and of having a major impact on the ecosystem, on everything that lives in it and on the people who live around it. The basic message here is that uranium should be kept in the ground. Ranger should never have been allowed to begin operations in the first place. Once it encountered its first water problems, which it did many years ago, it should have been shut down. Now that it has shown that it cannot adequately manage its water, it should be shut down forthwith.