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Northern Territory: Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation concerned about Jabiluka mine contaminated run-off water.

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PETER GEORGE:  The Mirrar community, traditional owners of Jabiluka, claim contaminated run-off water from the uranium mine in the Top End is set to overflow into Kakadu National Park because of a serious design fault. They say the interim water management pond, which collects the run-off, is filling so fast it won’t be able to contain this wet season’s downpour. The mine owners, ERA, Energy Resources Australia, say this claim is not true. It maintains that the pond won’t overflow and that there is enough room in both the pond and the mine site to contain all this wet season’s water. ERA is now working on scenarios for future years, but the Aboriginal owners say the park is under imminent threat, and we’re joined now by Jacqui Katona, Executive Officer of the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation. Jacqui, good morning.


JACQUI KATONA:  Good morning.


PETER GEORGE:  Of course, we also asked ERA to join the discussion, but the company did decline. So Jacqui, why do you believe the pond will overflow?


JACQUI KATONA:  The current depth of the pond is 4.8 metres and they are allowed a maximum operating level of 5.7 metres. Now, the company itself has raised the alarm here. They have called a meeting, a matter of days ago, to discuss options, scenarios, for the release of excess water. Now, this indicates a serious planning fault in Energy Resources Australia’s proposal. The interim water management pond was only to be constructed for one year and does not fall in line with the approved model for the Jabiluka milling alternative that has been provided to them by government.


PETER GEORGE:  Well, Jacqui, have you actually been to the site recently and been able to see what the situation is for yourself?


JACQUI KATONA:  Well, we have been to the site, but we haven’t seen the situation with the water at present. What we understand is the water is quite highly contaminated, it contains 206 parts per billion radionuclides, and this is 10 times higher than the safe drinking level. This is of imminent danger to Kakadu National Park.


PETER GEORGE:  But ERA says there is in fact still plenty of room within the pond and within the mine site as a whole. Now, that is a reassurance. Are you prepared to accept that reassurance or not?


JACQUI KATONA:  No. In our view, it’s not a reassurance. Every time this company has inadequate planning for their water management, they simply ask the regulator to trust them. Now, they are mining a toxic substance. It is in their care and control how they manage different aspects. They are obviously not able to manage the water retention, and every time they come up with a problem, they simply go to the regulator and seek an amendment. We want a clear and transparent process, which requires government approval, which is going to strictly show how areas are going to be protected. Publicly, in January this year, the company stated that it had a no-release policy. ‘Zero release mine water management program’—that’s a quote from their document, and now we’re seeing them turn away from that commitment.


PETER GEORGE:  Well, are we sure that there is an excess of water, and why is that the case?


JACQUI KATONA:  Well, Energy Resources Australia themselves identified this excess of water. That is why the meeting was called. The Northern Land Council, the Office of the Supervising Scientist, ERA, Environment Limited and Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy were present at that meeting.


PETER GEORGE:  And at that meeting, were you led to believe that the reason for this is because of an unusually big wet or what?


JACQUI KATONA:  That the interim water management pond is accumulating water at a rate that cannot be contained within it.


PETER GEORGE:  And did the company or any other officers describe it to you as a serious planning mistake, which is, I think, how you describe it?


JACQUI KATONA:  Yes, it is a serious planning mistake. They obviously have to put other measures in place. The suspension has meant that all their interim plans are not sustainable. Now, this company is ... the only option for this company to pursue this mine is the Jabiluka milling alternative. That is all that they have approval for, and this pond is not part of that plan.


PETER GEORGE:  Do you think that there is an imminent danger at this stage, and what would be the effect of a spill of this excess water?


JACQUI KATONA:  In our view, there is less than one metre that they have depth the ability to gather the water in. Now, there are high levels of contaminants in this water. It may not be the case that the retention pond will overflow, but they certainly have to take some measures to remove the water. This is what this meeting was about: what measures are they able to take; what are the least damaging to the environment and the surrounding areas.


PETER GEORGE:  What damage would be caused, so far as you know? I mean, do you have evidence or any research which would tell you what the effect of a release of some water would be?


JACQUI KATONA:  Contaminated water into the wetlands indicates an uptake of radionuclide and heavy metals by animals and plants. Now, we rely on those animals and plants in the freshwater system to feed us. This is the concern that Aboriginal people have.


PETER GEORGE:  Well, Jacqui, as you know, the company declined to join the discussion, but were you left, after your meeting, with a sense that the company saw this as a serious problem or as simply a contingency discussion with you?


JACQUI KATONA:  Well, in their view, it might have been a contingency discussion, but they aren’t the people who harvest their food from Kakadu National Park. They aren’t the people who are going to be left with the results, for many, many years, of any type of contamination that could take place. They aren’t the people who ultimately are going to suffer the heath effects. We are, and we need to have information made available to us that is going to satisfy our fears about future generations.


PETER GEORGE:  Well briefly, Jacqui, what could ERA do at this stage to give you a reassurance which you would accept?


JACQUI KATONA:  Well, we want to be sure that ERA is going to stick to their commitment of a zero release policy at the Jabiluka facility and we want to know exactly where they stand in terms of the approvals. Senator Robert Hill provided approval for elements common to two proposals to be part of construction. This management pond is not part of that approval. Now, Energy Resources Australia is dragging the chain; they are not taking care of the proposed site as they should, as they should be required to by the regulators.


PETER GEORGE:  All right. We will leave it there. Thank you, Jacqui.


JACQUI KATONA:  Thank you.


PETER GEORGE:  Jacqui Katona, Executive Officer of the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation. As we said, we asked ERA to take part in this discussion, but the company declined.