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Wednesday, 1 April 1987
Page: 1633


Senator VIGOR(5.29) —As most people would know, the Ranger uranium mine is located in the Kakadu National Park, adjacent to Magela Creek. This creek floods during the wet season over the flood plains extending to the coastal waters of the bay. If there were any contaminated water, it could be potentially disastrous for living things in the creek, on the flood plains or in the shallow coastal waters beyond them. This would have associated problems for the people who live nearby, particularly for the Aboriginal community which lives on some of the foods that are available in these creeks and from these flood plains, such as oysters and mussels, which accumulate heavy metals, including uranium.

The Ranger mine has not been without its water management problems. Since 1985 there has been an authorised discharge of less contaminated water than the restricted release zone-RRZ-water stored in the retention ponds Nos. 1 and 2, mentioned in this report. This release occurred in the wet season when it could be washed away. During the 1985 wet season there was some evidence that the water release did affect the native mussels which were breeding downstream. In fact there was a breakdown in the breeding cycle of these mussels, although the cause may have been some other toxicity which has not yet been determined. Water has been released in smaller quantities in following years, but no opportunity has been found to check on the specific cause of the decrease in mussel fertility. To date no authorised or unauthorised releases have been made from the restricted release zone waters into Magela Creek.

In order to avoid the overflow problems during the wet, Ranger has experimented with irrigating land above the retention dams with contaminated runoff water during the dry season. This has apparently proved satisfactory as a way of overcoming the problem to date as it gives a much larger area of evaporation. The problems which have been pointed out by Senator Sanders are still to catch up with us. The planned expansion of production at the mine this year, rising to a 50 per cent increase in production in five years, will change the requirement for water retention systems. It is imperative that adequate depth of the tailings and runoff dams be provided and that a very good water management program be adhered to so that no future problems arise, which can affect the environment for many, many years to come.

The other major problem which this report does not address-although it makes passing reference to it-is that of the tailings dam. We have evidence in the report that all walled dams show some evidence of seepage. While water tested below the dams shows no evidence currently of contamination, absorption of metals on to the clay in the dam walls may mean that we have a long term problem which is developing without showing up in its early stages. It is essential that this difficult environmental problem be taken into account in the long term supervision and planning of water in the area. I trust that attention will be given to ensure the long term safety of the tailings dam and to avoid the environmental disaster that even slow release of this much more poisonous water would cause.

I note that the Northern Land Council remains unconvinced that the region will not suffer in the long term from any runoff water release. I sympathise with its stand on this matter. The land in the Kakadu region belongs to the Aboriginal people who want a long term safe environment in which to raise their families and live a traditional lifestyle which involves effectively living off the land. While proposed releases may not pose any threat to people living a European lifestyle, I commend the Northern Land Council for its concern and urge that no effort be spared to protect the owners of the land from long term detrimental effects of uranium mining. I finish by commending the Government for its responsible attitude in choosing a water storage option which involves no runoff this year, but I feel that it needs to do more.

Question resolved in the affirmative.