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Friday, 3 April 1987
Page: 1844

Senator DURACK(12.52) —I want to raise briefly on the adjournment a matter which arises out of a statement which was made by the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Gareth Evans, and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment, Mr Cohen, on 30 March concerning the discharge of water from the Ranger uranium mine. I do so because of the response that Senator Evans gave today to a question which Senator Kilgariff asked him about the situation and the decision that was made.

As Senator Evans acknowledged in his reply today, following that joint statement, I have also issued a statement outside this place in which I have been, to put it mildly, critical of the Ministers and their reasoning which, in my opinion, amounts to a virtual rejection of the scientific report which was in fact commissioned by them and received by them in December last year. However, in the light of the findings and decision of the Ministers, and presumably of the Government, in relation to this matter, and in view of the extent to which the scientific report's own recommendations have been virtually rejected by the Government, Senator Kilgariff today wanted to know what further scientific advice the Ministers had got on which to base their decision. My recollection is that today, as usual from Senator Evans, Senator Kilgariff was simply given a long rigmarole denying that the Government had rejected this advice but without in fact answering Senator Kilgariff's specific question as to what further scientific advice the Government received.

It is quite clear, of course, from the statement itself that the Government's own reasoning in coming to a decision was not based upon scientific evidence but upon what the Ministers call `social considerations'. We know clearly that in recent months the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has been trying to curry favour with the extreme environmental lobbies in this country, or the greenie vote. He has been called by others-and it is a good description of him-a born again greenie. But that, of course, is a stance that he had been taking with an early election in mind. So this particular decision about the release of the water from Ranger uranium mine was made a couple of days before the Prime Minister finally decided that he would not win an election if he called it as he was then intending to do. So he abandoned the plans to have the early election which he had been contemplating quite clearly in recent weeks.

There may, then, be some sympathy for the Ministers concerned in that they were obliged to make a completely unscientific decision, contrary to the advice that they had received from their own technical working group and their own Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers Region. They have had to dress up the decision to try to give it some sort of scientific respectability whereas, of course, it was not made for scientific or social reasons; it was made for purely naked political reasons. It was because of the actual timing that they were called upon to make this decision, in the atmosphere, as I have said, of an imminent election that the Prime Minister was contemplating.

The Ministers' actual decision in relation to the release of surplus water on the Ranger uranium mine is as follows: They will refuse permission for the release of any water from the mine this year. Bearing in mind that this mine has now been in operation since 1981, and that water has been accumulating since the mine has been operating, over six wet seasons now, this is becoming a very serious problem. There is a prohibition on the release of any of this accumulated water on the mine site. Although there are retention ponds for it, they are filling up. It is only because the winters in the region have been comparatively dry over recent years that this problem is not at a critical point. But, again, the Ministers have decided to refuse permission for the release of any water.

Secondly, the Ministers are requiring Ranger to proceed immediately to deepen, by the end of this year-that is, before the next wet season-the existing retention pond. That will, of course, be an added expense for the mine, in addition to other added expenses being imposed on it to maintain the Office of the Supervising Scientist, which is the subject of legislation before the Senate at the moment. But, even if this pond is deepened, the technical scientific report presided over by the Supervising Scientist indicates that there will have to be a release of some water from this mine site over an average of one in 10 years. So, as the mine has already been there for six years, the time is becoming imminent. Even with the deepening of the pond, there will have to be some release of water.

That scientific report makes it quite clear that the release of this water poses no threat to the environment; yet the Ministers have not even accepted that modified option that the technical working group gave them, namely, some further delay, through deepening the pond, in having to face up to the decision itself. So the Government has managed to fob off yet again having to make a decision. It hopes, I suppose, that it has fobbed off the decision for as many years as it will be around.

But the third aspect or arm of the decision-and this is that one that has been the subject of criticism by me in my statement and by Senator Kilgariff in his question-is to instruct the Supervising Scientist to develop practicable and environmentally acceptable options aimed at ensuring that Ranger water management is fully consistent with the protection of the environment. That has all been done in the report. That is what this long 38 or 40-page report is all about-working out plans which will prevent environmental damage to the area. The group has shown the Government how that can be done and, indeed, it believes water can be released as often as two years in five, because of the great flow of water in the wet season and because the water itself is not highly contaminated. It will be diluted into the ordinary water system and therefore will not cause any problems. The scientists themselves have said that there could be social reasons and concerns which may justify a less frequent discharge of water, and that is why they came up with the idea of deepening the existing retention pond so that there would only be a release perhaps once in 10 years.

Senator Crichton-Browne —That was only to placate the ideologues. I mean, it is not necessary.

Senator DURACK —Of course, it was to placate people in case the Prime Minister decided to call an election. I suppose that he wants to keep placating them until the election is held at the end of the year. It is not dressed up social reasons, but naked political reasons, that are influencing the Prime Minister and his Ministers.

The absurdity of the third arm of the decision is that the Ministers are asking the very same person, namely, the Supervising Scientist, the Chairman of the Technical Working Group, who has already given them all the answers, to develop further options aimed at protecting the environment. It is an absurd decision; it is unscientific; it is totally irrational. These two Ministers are setting themselves up as witch doctors of Kakadu. They are trying to stop the elements. Senator Evans gained some notoriety for his prowess at sending aircraft around the country. Now he is apparently trying to develop some prowess, not in a rainmaking operation, but in some sort of deseeding operation. It is a totally unscientific and irrational attitude. He is saying: `We have accepted the scientific report. We will adopt its option of the deepening of the pond and the release of water in perhaps one in 10 years'. But that is not what the Ministers have done. They have instructed the scientists to come up with some other option which will relieve them of the need of making this very difficult decision, in the light of their attempt to curry favour with the greenie vote-the extreme greenie vote, in this case.

Anybody who has read the report of the technical working group will realise what a sensible, rational and totally scientific report it is. Indeed, the scientists in their report have already taken into account the so-called social reasons. Of course, as I said, Senator Evans is now trying to say that that is not the right interpretation, that I have been misrepresenting him and that Senator Kilgariff, presumably, has misunderstood him. The fact is that the first sentence of the joint statement by Senator Evans and Mr Cohen reads:

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 demand that they are making is absolutist. The scientists have shown that there will be no effective damage to the environment by the release of water in the way in which they have suggested. Of course, Professor Ovington and his national parks people-the extreme greenies, and so on-are requiring this absolutist guarantee that there will not be any damage of any description, no matter how minor and inconsequential. The Government is now saying that it accepts that. That is, of course, why it is fobbing off the decision and telling the Supervising Scientist to develop further options, when it knows that the Supervising Scientist has already developed all the options in this report of the technical working group. The Ministers really let the cat out of the bag in this part of their statement:

The Government has now decided upon a plan of action for the . . . problem of water management . . . which should make unnecessary the need to consider release of water of any kind from the mine's restricted release zone in the foreseeable future.

The foreseeable future for them is the next election. Of course, they want to avoid having to make that decision before their new-found born-again greenie role is put to the test. Finally, they say:

. . . the Government has decided that another major effort should be made to develop further practicable options aimed at reducing to a still greater degree the need for water release ever to be considered.

Those quotations from the statement make it perfectly clear that Minister Gareth Evans and Minister Barry Cohen have rejected the modified scientific report which they commissioned. They have asked the Supervising Scientist to go away and come up with something which will mean they can avoid making the hard decisions that they may ever be called upon to make. Despite their pretentions to witch doctoring, they cannot control the flow of water in the long run in this area. They cannot control whether the season is very wet, not very wet, or whatever. They cannot control the elements. They have been very lucky for six years. They want to prolong their luck in this totally unscientific way.

The Office of the Supervising Scientist was set up to protect the environment of Kakadu and to give governments advice as to how it should be done. It is costing the taxpayers of the country $4.5m a year. The Supervising Scientist has about 70 or 80 people working for him. Many of them are in Sydney, but presumably they are able to do the work there as well as on the ground at Kakadu. The Supervising Scientist has been working in the area for years. He had the number of staff which I have cited. He has presented this report. He has suggested a modification of the totally scientific conclusion. The Government is not satisfied with that and it has asked him to come up with other options.

This is one of the most absurd, irrational and totally unscientific decisions that I have ever seen any government make. The Ministers, Senator Evans and Mr Cohen, stand condemned for their failure to act upon a report given by the Government's own watchdog and adviser to protect the environment of this region. Its adviser has shown how it can be done. The Government has not had the courage to act on that scientific advice, even though it was modified to take social factors into account. It has caved in most abjectly once again to the extreme environmentalists, simply because the Prime Minister was considering calling an early election and did not want to take any hard decision on the eve of an election which, of course, will not now be called. If the Ministers had any courage or any standing as Ministers of the Crown, they would reverse this decision and act on the advice that they have already received.