ABC: ERA told: Clean up Ranger uranium mine site and clear out rather than shifting underground

Publish Date:
9th April 2014

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Public health experts have joined traditional owners and environmentalists in calling for Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) to focus on land rehabilitation rather than expansion of its Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory.

The company's latest report shows that despite operations being suspended at the site since a toxic leak last year, plans to mine uranium underground continue.

ERA is holding its annual general meeting in Darwin today.

NT branch secretary of the Public Health Association of Australia, Dr Michael Fonda, says underground uranium mining poses serious health risks.

"One of the main things that is concerning us is that they [miners] are going to be exposed to dangerous levels of radon gas," he said.

Dr Fonda says ERA has a troubling safety record and it cannot be trusted to ensure safe work practices for the underground uranium mining.

"What is being planned for the R3 Deep's expansion is for very large extraction fans to take much of that radon [gas] out of the mine," he said.

"I am concerned, and the Public Health Association is concerned, that will not be enough."

'High risk and low return'

Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) national nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney says ERA should change strategy in the final years of its mining lease.

He says ERA and its parent company Rio Tinto should realise the planned underground mine is high risk and low return.

"Instead of accepting the inevitable and cleaning up and exiting, and having a staged and a costed and managed rehabilitation of the Ranger site, ERA is increasingly desperate and is chasing the illusion of dollars by going underground with the Ranger 3-Deep project," he said.

Indigenous traditional owners have expressed concerns that ERA will not have enough money to follow through on rehabilitation plans for the mine, which is near Jabiru and inside the boundaries of Kakadu National Park.

ERA says it is still unclear when the company will be able to resume processing at its Ranger uranium mine.

The Federal Government suspended processing in December after a leach tank burst, spilling more than a million litres of uranium slurry.

Chief executive Andrea Sutton says ERA has signed off on a "restart readiness plan", which includes inspecting and testing critical infrastructure on site.

She says the company will be able to start processing by the end of April but will have to wait for final approval from federal authorities.

"While we have announced the readiness plan, we continue to work closely with the government-appointed taskforce as well as the independent regulators with regards to their investigation and their progress," she said.

"It is difficult to provide an estimate [for a restart] ... because it is subject to regulatory approval."

$603 million for land rehabilitation

Ms Sutton has rejected concerns ERA may not have enough money to rehabilitate the Ranger mine site.

The Australian Conservation Society says the company's own annual report says it may require an additional source of funding if its planned underground mine does not go ahead.

Ms Sutton says the company takes its environmental responsibilities seriously.

"ERA's current business plan allows for funding and you will note, in our full-year results, the provision of approximately $603 million for rehabilitation," she said.

"It is also important to note that Ranger and ERA have commenced and will continue to rehabilitate the site, and that is including the placement of material back in Pit 3."