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Thursday, 1 December 1983
Page: 3173


Senator REYNOLDS(7.31) — I want to make an important statement regarding the position of democratically elected senators speaking publicly on issues of concern to their constituents. On 3 November I responded in the Townsville Daily Bulletin to statements made by the Premier of Queensland in which he said a mining lease would be granted for the processing of uranium at Ben Lomond in north Queensland. To many in the community this appeared an irresponsible move as in 1981 Erich Landich, the mining warden at Charters Towers, recommended against the granting of a lease to Minatome Australia as he felt it could prejudicially affect the interest of the public. There was, in his opinion at that time, grave doubts concerning the safety of the mine in relation to the pollution of the water catchment area of the Burdekin system, and Minatome had not provided sufficient technical information to enable a proper assessment of the situation.

In my statement I reminded the Premier that several years ago a radioactive uranium stockpile at Ben Lomond was found to be leaking into the local creeks feeding Keelbottom Creek and the Burdekin. If further seepage occurs in that creek system, the magnitude of the consequences could be formidable. Not only could the water supplies for the residents of Charters Towers and Townsville be affected but so too could the grazing and agricultural industries in the north. This response was based on evidence produced in the Mining Warden's Court in 1981 and from several well-discussed news reports of the aforementioned radiation leak.

Yet on 21 November I received a letter from the Chairman of Total Mining Australia Pty Ltd, formerly Minatome, Mr Phillip De Boos-Smith, in which he wrote:

I have seen somewhat belatedly, a report in the Townsville Bulletin of 3 November in which you make very serious allegations concerning operations at the Ben Lomond site by Total Mining Australia (formerly Minatome Australia). In particular you are quoted as saying '. . . several years ago a radio-active uranium stockpile at Ben Lomond was found to be leaking into the local creeks feeding Keelbottom Creek and the Burdekin'.

He went on:

This statement is not correct, and is of course very damaging to us, particularly in view of the fact that it was made on the eve of our publishing an environmental impact statement for the Ben Lomond project, which had been prepared at very significant cost and which involved three years of work. In fact we have been informed by our legal advisers that the statement is clearly defamatory and would give us grounds for legal action.

I was somewhat surprised by the tone of this letter which was clearly designed to intimidate by reference to possible legal proceedings. My legal advisers have informed me that in any action for defamation under Queensland law, a defendant has recourse to the defence of truth and privilege when matters allegedly defamatory are published in the public interest.

Furthermore, the question of the radiation leak was confirmed by the Queensland Water Quality Council, and in evidence submitted in the Charters Towers Mining Warden's Court in 1981. At this stage I seek leave to table two documents, one from the Queensland Water Quality Council and a report headed 'Creek Radiation Over the Limit'.

Leave granted.


Senator REYNOLDS —The basis of my concern has in fact been aired publicly by many people over a number of years. Therefore, any public expression of concern is clearly my responsible duty to the people of Queensland and I will not be silenced by veiled threats of legal proceedings. My concerns have been echoed by individuals and groups from very diverse backgrounds including the Queensland Minister for Northern Development and Aboriginal and Island Affairs, Bob Katter Jnr, the Townsville and District Regional Conservation Council and the Charters Towers Council.

In Charters Towers the local councillors recently passed a motion opposing all heavy mining in the Burdekin catchment, including Ben Lomond. It is also reported that the Charters Towers Development Bureau and the Charters Towers Chamber of Commerce are deeply concerned about the Ben Lomond proposal. The trade union movement has also spoken out on the issue of potential environmental and health risks. Members of the James Cook University of North Queensland community with expertise in relevant disciplines are currently studying the implications of uranium mining at Ben Lomond.

Yet the Total company dares to stifle genuine community debate by writing to me in this clearly intimidatory manner. I would like to know why this company feels so under threat from a mere back bench Government member who speaks of genuine community concerns which have been discussed publicly over a number of years. If the company's recently released environmental impact study satisifies the doubts expressed by the Mining Warden's Court in 1981, why is it so nervous about my comments? Why should a reputable company wish to silence me on such an important issue?

The fact that the letter suggests legal action will not result if I am prepared to withdraw my statement is, I believe, an insult. Surely if the Total company is serious about alleged misinformation it certainly has the resources and the influence to argue its own case through the media. It can, if it has appropriate documentation and research, surely prove its own case without resorting to such bullying standover tactics.

Its recently released environmental impact statement is a public document, which is open to scrutiny and comment. That scrutiny and comment, I would submit , cannot occur in an atmosphere of intimidation. How many similar letters have been sent to concerned members of the community who dared to question the proposal of Total Mining? How many more letters are planned for anybody who dares to speak out? Will the State Minister for Northern Development, Bob Katter Jnr, be similarly rebuked for his letter to the Premier on 7 December 1981? In that letter he said:

Dear Mr Premier

re BEN LOMOND

This issue has sparked off an enormous public reponse in Charters Towers and the surrounding district, and a very strong public opinion has voiced itself through the 'Concerned About the Burdekin and Ben Lomond' (CABBL) Group.

One of the major fears of our community, whether the individuals are pro-or anti-uranium mining, is that the decision to extend Minatome's lease will not be given back to the Warden's court.

Although I have always thought the magistrate was an inappropriate person to make such decisions, in this case it is important that the case should go before an open court once again, rather than behind closed doors in a situation where the public are not able to put forward their case.

You have previously said yourself--

this is referring to the Premier's statement in the Australian of 6 June 1981--

that the decision will have to go back to the Court. In this way justice will be seen to be done. This decision must be made in an open hearing or we will leave ourselves open to accusations of a 'snow-job'.

I would plead with you not to take this case lightly. The untold damage that this issue could do to this town can already be seen. Enrolments in our largest industry, education institutions, already appear to be down to a significant degree as a direct result of the uranium situation.

Awaiting your urgent reply.

Yours sincerely,

BOB KATTER JNR, MLA

I believe a further incident should be reported to the Senate. On Wednesday, 23 November, just two days after receiving my letter from Total Mining, my office began inquiries to locate the report of the Queensland Department of Mines on which the Minister based his decision to grant the lease without reference back to the Mining Warden's Court, as called for so vehemently by Mr Katter. That report is shrouded in secrecy. Apparently, it is not to be made available for public scrutiny despite the comments in this letter of 1981. If officers of the Queensland Department of Mines are so confident that they can recommend the granting of mining leases, surely their report to the Minister should be a public document.

At the same time as I was making fairly fruitless inquiries about this report, I received an anonymous STD phone call at my Townsville office, telling me simply to keep out of Ben Lomond. Whether this call was made deliberately by a person of some authority or was merely a coincidental call from an unknown antagonist is questionable. The issue I wish to highlight in this place is that democratically elected representatives have a clear responsibility to their constituents and should not expect to be thus intimidated. In the case of Ben Lomond, it is certainly not my intention to assume a dogmatic expertise on the complex issues involved. I welcome an ongoing rational debate about any issue of significance to the people of Queensland. Therefore I hope that, despite the unfortunate circumstances on which I have reported tonight, it will be possible to resume such debate to guarantee that all opinions and information are duly considered in decisions affecting Ben Lomond and the people of that area.