Can a uranium mine be rehabilitated to the environmental standards of a national park and World Heritage site?
That’s the challenge faced by the controversial Ranger uranium mine inside Kakadu National Park.
Kakadu has been a national park since the 1970s, but the Ranger mine, while surrounded by Kakadu, has never formally been part of the park. This classification is in the interests of resource extraction, and has failed to recognise or protect the area’s cultural and environmental values.
Kakadu National Park encompasses a precious natural heritage. It protects valuable ecosystems of outstanding value, diversity and beauty, and contains the world’s richest breeding grounds for migratory tropical water birds.
Recent diggings and studies have documented at least 65,000 years of continuous human habitation at a site on the land of the Mirarr people – this is currently the oldest occupation site in Australia.
How was the mine developed?
The boundaries of Kakadu National Park were conveniently drawn around the Ranger mine site through a series of political and administrative negotiations following the Fox Inquiry, which gave a cautious green light for the Ranger operation.
Now, as the mining stops and the repair begins, mining companies and government regulators are being tested on their environmental commitment, and capacity to make meaningful change.
But rehabilitating what is essentially a toxic waste dump is no easy task.
And the inadequacy of the Energy Resources of Australia’s Mine Closure Plan – the key document guiding the rehabilitation – shows they are failing this test so far.
Problems with the Mine Closure Plan
Our new research report – jointly conducted by Sydney Environment Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation – examines the Mine Closure Plan and finds it is seriously wanting in key areas.
These include significant data deficiencies regarding management of mine tailings (mine residue), land stability, and modelling of toxic contaminants likely to flow off site into Kakadu National Park.
The Mine Closure Plan is almost completely silent on crucial governance questions, such as the Ranger mine’s opaque regulatory processes and rehabilitation, and current and future financing – especially in relation to future site monitoring and mitigation works.
After the price collapse following the Fukushima nuclear crisis, times in the uranium trade have been tough. Coupled with a mandated end to commercial operations by early 2021, Rio Tinto has accepted the era of mining has now been replaced by the need for rehabilitation.
But the challenge for Energy Resources of Australia and Rio Tinto, who own and operate the mine, is not simply to scrape rocks into holes and plant trees. It is to ensure radioactive and contaminated mine tailings are:
physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years [and that] any contaminants arising from the tailings will not result in any detrimental environmental impacts for at least 10,000 years.
These are time-scales of epic proportions, yet the Mine Closure Plan says little to assure the public this can be achieved.
In fact, Energy Resources of Australia concedes it won’t actually be possible to monitor and measure this over the next 10,000 years, so a model will be required instead. But this model has not been publicly released.
Rehabilitation success is determined by the mining company
And this speaks to a broader problem with the whole process: the success of the rehabilitation will be judged by criteria created by the mining company.
It is naive to assume a mining company is best placed to propose their own rehabilitation criteria, given their corporate imperative to reduce rehabilitation costs and future liabilities.
And the stakes here are very high. The rehabilitation of Ranger will be a closely-watched and long-judged test of the credibility, competence and commitment of the regulators and the mining companies.
The Supervising Scientist Branch – a federal agency charged with tracking and advising, but not regulating, the Ranger operation – also made an assessment that should be ringing alarm bells:
[The company’s current plan] does not yet provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the current plan for rehabilitation of the Ranger mine site will achieve the required ERs [Environmental Requirements].
The Supervising Scientist Branch’s disturbing initial analysis is a red flag demanding an effective response.
The Conversation reached out to Energy Resources of Australia for a response to this story. A spokesperson told The Conversation the company is committed to the “full rehabilitation” of the Ranger Project Area:
Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) has committed to update the Closure Plan and submit for approval on an annual basis. Updates to the Closure Plan will be made publicly available.
As noted by ERA at the time of release of the Ranger Mine Closure Plan, there are some aspects of closure planning that will be further developed and refined as a result of ongoing studies and consultation. These will be reflected in future updates to the Closure Plan.
ERA is committed to rehabilitate the Ranger Project Area in accordance with the Environmental Requirements as set out in relevant regulations. The final close out of rehabilitation can only occur when the Commonwealth Minister, on advice of the Supervising Scientist and Traditional Owner representatives, is satisfied that the Environmental Requirements have been met.
Australia has a long history of substandard mine closure and rehabilitation in both the uranium and wider mining sector.
There is a real need to see a better approach at Ranger, and the first step in that journey is by increasing the scrutiny, accountability and transparency surrounding this essential clean up work.
This article was updated at 12.25pm, May 7, to include a response from Energy Resources of Australia.
An outbreak of coral bleaching has been reported over the summer in Gang Gurak Barlu National Park on the Cobourg Peninsula, 60km northeast of Darwin, homeland of several clans of the Iwaidja-speaking Aboriginal people of Western Arnhem Land.
As no formal monitoring or assessment program is in place for these reefs, it’s impossible to gauge the full severity and extent of the bleaching. However, this video from Black Point on the Cobourg Peninsula contrasts the healthy reef in 2015 and the bleached reef in 2018.
The Northern Territory has unique marine ecosystems which are largely untouched and sit in waters receiving flow from untamed rivers. There are extensive coral reefs with abundant breeding turtle populations, saltwater crocodiles and sharks.
In January this year, the water temperature between the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea reached what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls Alert Level 2 – its highest alert for the risk of bleaching and subsequent coral death.
This is an indication of the duration and intensity of a warming event, measured in “degree heating weeks” – the number of degrees above the average summer maximum temperature, multiplied by the number of weeks. Alert Level 2 indicates at least eight degree heating weeks.
Increases in sea surface temperature cause mass bleaching events. The bleached corals have lost most of the single-celled algae, called zooxanthellae, that live and photosynthesise inside the coral cells and provide the corals with most of their energy.
Bleaching patterns tell a story
The bleaching patterns of these three events were tightly correlated with degree heating weeks within geographic areas, with the 1998 and 2002 events having prominent effects in the southern areas.
In 2016 the highest degree heating weeks were recorded on the northern stretches of the Great Barrier Reef, where the most severe bleaching occurred. Southern areas experienced temperatures close to average, partly due to cooler water from Cyclone Winston.
In 2017 the Great Barrier Reef experienced another bleaching event that affected northern and central areas. This event was particularly disturbing, as it followed 2016 and, unlike 1998, 2002 and 2016, it was not an El Niño year.
It is vital that reefs have time to recover between bleaching events if they are to avoid becoming degraded. For corals that survive being bleached, full recovery takes time. Reproductive output can be reduced for extended periods, resulting in less successful recruitment.
This, often combined with the increased competition from algae and soft corals, means that replacement of corals that do not survive bleaching events can be slow. Even fast-growing corals require 10-15 years to return to their prebleaching size.
Recent analysis has shown that the intervals between bleaching events across the globe have decreased substantially since the 1980s. The median period between bleaching events is now six years. One reason for this is that temperatures in La Niña conditions (when we expect lower temperatures) are now higher than those of El Niño conditions in the 1980s.
This is further evidence that if we continue on our current path of rapidly increasing emissions, it is increasingly likely that bleaching events will occur annually later this century, as predicted by coral scientists last century.
Resilience of reefs
The 2016 bleaching event demonstrated that areas with good water quality and controlled fishing were not protected from bleaching during this temperature anomaly. However, local conditions can be vitally important for recovery in previously bleached areas and to maintain healthy populations prior to bleaching events.
Unfortunately, climate change is not only causing higher temperatures but also increased intensity of storm and cyclone damage, sea level rise and ocean acidification. So we need resilient reefs to cope with these additional challenges.
We can increase the resilience of reefs by improving water quality. We can do this by reducing sediment and nitrogen and phosphorus input and other toxins such as coal dust, herbicides and pesticides, alongside regulating fishing pressure and protecting as many areas as possible.
New management approaches urgently needed
The beautiful reefs of the Northern Territory and the Great Barrier Reef need to be protected. If we wish to enjoy Australia’s reefs in future decades, it is vital that we change our management priorities.
State and federal governments need to give these areas the priority they deserve through marine parks and ranger programs, and regulation of potentially harmful activities. Water quality needs to be funded in a serious manner. Industrial developments, such as port expansions, need to be evaluated with protection of reefs as a primary concern.
Reducing emissions dramatically is crucial to slowing all the climate change effects on reefs. Australia can lead by example by rapidly moving away from fossil fuels and opening no new coal mines.
Closing Uluru to climbers empowers Indigenous people to teach visitors about their culture on their own terms, which is more sustainable for tourism in the long run.
Uluru is a drawcard for international and domestic tourists, and is visited by over 250,000 people per year. A substantial number of these choose to climb the rock. On busy days, the number can be in the hundreds. This is despite being asked by the traditional owners, the Anangu people, to respect their wishes, culture and law and not climb Uluru.
The Anangu people actually offer visitors a range of eco-cultural tourism activities that focus on sharing Indigenous culture, knowledge and traditions, which don’t involve planting feet on a sacred place. These activities including nature walks, painting workshops, bush yarns and bush food experiences.
This decision to close the rock to climbers comes after many years of conceding rights back to the Anangu, and is possibly one of the few times where Indigenous values have truly been prioritised over other interests.
Giving power back to Uluru’s traditional owners
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, declared in 1950, was handed back to the Anangu on October 26, 1985. While the agreement required the park to be leased to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Services under a co-management arrangement, the handover was a symbolic high point for land rights.
In practice, however, aspects of the park’s operations were contrary to the traditional owners’ approach to conservation and management. For instance, park management models stated the need to place:
… emphasis on developing acceptable patterns of use of the physical environment and not on recognition of social and spiritual values of land to Indigenous people.
In 2010, the park’s management plan proposed to close the rock if the proportion of visitors who wished to climb Uluru was below 20%. An independent analysis of track counter data and visitor statistics undertaken by the Griffith Institute for Tourism over a four year period revealed that in almost all circumstances (and even with allowance for track counter inaccuracy) the proportion was under 20%.
Finally on November 1, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management, consisting of eight traditional owners and four government officials, voted unanimously to close Uluru (Ayers Rock) to climbers. The local tourism industry supported the decision.
Indigenous tourism on the rise
Increasingly, visitors around the world are seeking such opportunities to experience various aspects of Indigenous culture. Not surprisingly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are realising the sociocultural and economic opportunities of tourism and have now become an integral part of the Australian tourism industry.
But for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, getting involved in the tourism industry comes with its own set of problems. They have been tasked with juggling their heritage, customs, culture and traditions with government initiatives that prioritise economic over socio-cultural development. For example, as Quandamooka Dreaming “targets big dollars from tourism” in SE Queensland, the traditional owners are successfully balancing their socio-economic aspirations with cultural lores by determining that some sacred sites will remain accessible only to elders and initiated Indigenous Quandamooka people. But other sites will be open to eco-tourists.
However, too often, tourism development is associated with issues of commercialisation, lack of authenticity and exploitation of culture.
Empowering Indigenous Australians
Given the considerable pressure tourism places on local resources and places, the involvement of local communities and different groups within them is now considered critical for achieving sustainable tourism.
A recent report concludes that participation and empowerment of local communities are success factors to managing tourism growth. It’s the local community that looks after the destination, and it can make or break a tourist’s experience. The report finds developing tourism without input from the local people has often led to conflict.
Closing Uluru for climbing should be seen as a shining example of sustainable tourism being a vehicle for the preservation, maintenance and ongoing development of culture, traditions and knowledge.
And when reconciliation principles are practised not preached, traditional custodians of the land are afforded due respect. This then leads them to share their 60,000 year old knowledge of the management of the land we are privileged to utilise as tourism destinations.
Michelle Whitford, Associate Professor of Indigenous Tourism, Griffith University and Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board of management has announced that tourists will be banned from climbing Uluru from 2019. The climb has always been discouraged by the park’s Traditional Owners (the Anangu people) but a number of tourists continued to climb the rock on a daily basis. Below, in English and Indigenous language, Sammy Wilson, chairman of the park board, explains why his people have decided to ban the climb outright.
THE Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board has announced tourists will be banned from climbing Uluru, an activity long considered disrespectful by the region’s traditional owners.
Anangu have always held this place of Law. Other people have found it hard to understand what this means; they can’t see it. But for Anangu it is indisputable. So this climb issue has been widely discussed, including by many who have long since passed away. More recently people have come together to focus on it again and it was decided to take it to a broader group of Anangu. They declared it should be closed. This is a sacred place restricted by law.
It’s not just at board meetings that we discussed this but it’s been talked about over many a camp fire, out hunting, waiting for the kangaroo to cook, they’ve always talked about it.
The climb is a men’s sacred area. The men have closed it. It has cultural significance that includes certain restrictions and so this is as much as we can say. If you ask, you know they can’t tell you, except to say it has been closed for cultural reasons.
What does this mean? You know it can be hard to understand – what is cultural law? Which one are you talking about? It exists; both historically and today. Tjukurpa includes everything: the trees; grasses; landforms; hills; rocks and all.
You have to think in these terms; to understand that country has meaning that needs to be respected. If you walk around here you will learn this and understand. If you climb you won’t be able to. What are you learning? This is why Tjukurpa exists. We can’t control everything you do but if you walk around here you will start to understand us.
Some people, in tourism and government for example, might have been saying we need to keep it open but it’s not their law that lies in this land. It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland. We want you to come, hear us and learn. We’ve been thinking about this for a very long time.
We work on the principle of mutual obligation, of working together, but this requires understanding and acceptance of the climb closure because of the sacred nature of this place. If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don’t enter or climb it, I respect it. It is the same here for Anangu. We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity.
On tour with us, tourists talk about it. They often ask why people are still climbing and I always reply, ‘things might change…’ They ask, ‘why don’t they close it?’ I feel for them and usually say that change is coming. Some people come wanting to climb and perhaps do so before coming on tour with us. They then wish they hadn’t and want to know why it hasn’t already been closed. But it’s about teaching people to understand and come to their own realisation about it. We’re always having these conversations with tourists.
And now that the majority of people have come to understand us, if you don’t mind, we will close it! After much discussion, we’ve decided it’s time.
Visitors needn’t be worrying there will be nothing for them with the climb closed because there is so much else besides that in the culture here. It’s not just inside the park and if we have the right support to take tourists outside it will benefit everyone. People might say there is no one living on the homelands but they hold good potential for tourists. We want support from the government to hear what we need and help us. We have a lot to offer in this country. There are so many other smaller places that still have cultural significance that we can share publicly. So instead of tourists feeling disappointed in what they can do here they can experience the homelands with Anangu and really enjoy the fact that they learnt so much more about culture.
Whitefellas see the land in economic terms where Anangu see it as Tjukurpa. If the Tjukurpa is gone so is everything. We want to hold on to our culture. If we don’t it could disappear completely in another 50 or 100 years. We have to be strong to avoid this. The government needs to respect what we are saying about our culture in the same way it expects us to abide by its laws. It doesn’t work with money. Money is transient, it comes and goes like the wind. In Anangu culture Tjukurpa is ever lasting.
Years ago, Anangu went to work on the stations. They were working for station managers who wanted to mark the boundaries of their properties at a time when Anangu were living in the bush. Anangu were the ones who built the fences as boundaries to accord with whitefella law, to protect animal stock. It was Anangu labour that created the very thing that excluded them from their own land. This was impossible to fathom for us! Why have we built these fences that lock us out? I was the one that did it! I built a fence for that person who doesn’t want anything to do with me and now I’m on the outside. This is just one example of our situation today.
You might also think of it in terms of what would happen if I started making and selling coca cola here without a license. The coca cola company would probably not allow it and I’d have to close it in order to avoid being taken to court. This is something similar for Anangu.
A long time ago they brought one of the boulders from the Devil’s Marbles to Alice Springs. From the time they brought it down Anangu kept trying to tell people it shouldn’t have been brought here. They talked about it for so long that many people had passed away in the meantime before their concerns were understood and it was returned. People had finally understood the Anangu perspective.
That’s the same as here. We’ve talked about it for so long and now we’re able to close the climb. It’s about protection through combining two systems, the government and Anangu. Anangu have a governing system but the whitefella government has been acting in a way that breaches our laws. Please don’t break our law, we need to be united and respect both.
Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation, as if someone is holding a gun to our heads to keep it open. Please don’t hold us to ransom…. This decision is for both Anangu and non-Anangu together to feel proud about; to realise, of course it’s the right thing to close the ‘playground’.
The land has law and culture. We welcome tourists here. Closing the climb is not something to feel upset about but a cause for celebration.
Let’s come together; let’s close it together.
In Pitjantjatjara language
Anangungku iriti kanyiningi ngura Tjukurpa tjara panya. Tjinguru kulipai, ‘ai,ai, ah, nyaa nyangatja? What is Tjukurpa?’ Putu nyangangi panya. Palu Tjukurpa pala palula ngarinyi Ananguku. Ka palunya kulira wangka katiningi tjutangku. Kutjupa tjuta not with us panya. Kuwari wangka katiningi, wangka katiningi munuya kaputura piruku wangkanyi ka wiya, Anangu tjutangka piruku wangkara wangkara kati. Uwa ngalya katingu Anangu tjuta kutu. Ka Anangu tjutangku wangkangu palya, patila. Ngura miil-miilpa.
Not only the board meeting kutjuya wangkapai, meeting time kutju but meeting out in the campfire, waru kutjara. Waru kutjaraya malu paulpai tjana wangkapaitu still.
Uwa Tjukurpa wati tjutaku uwa… wati tjutangku patini, that’s it, Tjukurpa palatja patini.
Only Tjukurpa kutju, uwa Tjukurpa tjarala patini, miil-miilpa. If you ask some people, kutjupa tjapini ka, you know they can’t tell you, palu tjinguru patini, Tjukurpa.
Nyaa palatja, nyaa panya? You know sometimes it’s hard to understand panya: Tjukurpa nyaa? Which one? Ngarinyi tjukurpa, iriti tjinguru ngarinyi, Tjukurpa and he’s still there today. You know Tjukurpa is everything, its punu, grass or the land or hill, rock or what.
Palula tjanala kulintjaku, uwa kulinma nyuntu: ‘Uwa ngura Tjukurpa tjara’. Respect ngura, the country. You walk around, you’ll learn, understand. Tatini nyuntu munu putu kulini, nyaa nyuntu? What you learning? Pala palutawara; Tjukurpa. Ka we can’t tell you what you’re doing but when you walk around you understand. Kulini.
Some might be… you know, tourism, government-ngka, ‘no, leave it open, leave it’ Why? palumpa tjukurpa wiya nyangakutu. This is a very important place nyangatja panya. Not inka-inka, not to come and see the Disney land. Wiya come and learn about this place.
Rawangkula kulilkatira kulilkatira everywhere.
Ngapartji ngapartjila tjunu, to work together, but they gotta kulinma panya. Munta-uwa, tjana patini nyangatja, ngura miil-miilpa. Uwa. If I go some sort of country tjinguru ngura miil-miilpa, some place in the world they got miil-miilpa, I don’t climb panya, I respect that place. Pala purunypa nyangatja Ananguku panya. Ka tourist nganana stop-amilantja wiya; tourist welcome palu these things, nyangatja nyanga, panya.
Uwa, tour-ngkala ankupai. Visitors-ngku kulu kulu wangkapai, you know sometimes we was working with tourism panya, tourist-angka and, ‘why these people climbing? Kana, ‘Something is coming’. I always talk panya. Ka, ‘why don’t they close it?’ Ka uwa its coming always, ngaltu tourist tjuta, visitors. Some people, ‘I want to climb’ sometimes visitors climb Uluru munu ngalya pitjala on tour, why I climb? Alatji, why don’t they close it. Ka wiya, it’s coming now you know, nintintjaku, visitors kulintjaku munta-uwa. Uwa minga tjutangka wangkapai, always.
Uwa kuwari nyanga kulini, kulini, everybody kulinu, munta-uwa wanyu kala patila. Wangkara wangkarala kulini, munta-uwa.
Visitors-ngku panya kulilpai, ‘ai nyangatjaya patinu ka nganana yaaltji yaaltji kuwari? Nganana wai putu kulilpai’. Wiya, Tjukurpa ngarinyitu ngura, outside. Not only this park unngu kutju palu tjukurpa nganananya help-amilalatu ngapartji ngapartji ka nganana ngapartji katinyi visitors tjuta. Some reckon nobody living in the homelands but this good story to tell to the visitors panya. Ka nganananya help-amilantjaku kulu kulu. Government gotta really sit down and help. We got good places up here.
Ngura kulunypa tjuta nyarakutu ngarinyi but he got Tjukurpa tjara. Not Tjukurpa panya nyanga side but only this side, the public story. Uwa. Uwa. Ka tourist tjinguru kulilpai, ‘ah, I done nothing in this place’ but katira nintini, sit down and talk on the homeland, uwa. Nyinara wangkara visitors kulira kulira, they’ll go happy, ‘munta-uwa I learnt a lot about Anangu’.
Money is the land whitefella see, ka Anangu see the ngura, the land is Tjukurpa. Tjukurpa wiyangka tjinguru wiya. Culture kanyintjikitjala mukuringanyi. Culture tjinguru mala, another fifty years tjinguru panya, another hundred years, culture is gone, ma-wiyaringanyi. Nyara palula we gotta be strong. Ngapartji ngapartji panya government will understand, munta-uwa, what they saying. It doesn’t work with money. Money will go away, it’s like blowing in the wind, panya. Walpangku puriny waninyi. Culture panya Ananguku culture – Tjukurpa is there ngarinyi alatjitu.
Iriti Anangu bin go and work on the stations. They work for the station manager he want his land, block of land and uwa munta-uwa nyangatja nyangatja. Anangu was camping there, putingka. Building their fence because its boundary. Boundary palyanu that’s the law, whitefella-ku law to look after cattle or sheep or whatever oh that’s the law, Anangu was building it, Anangu working and Anangu now is sitting outside, he can’t get in! malaku, ngura nyakuntjikitja. Putulta kulini, ‘ai? Why? nyaakula fence-ingka patinu? That was me! I built a fence for that bloke and that bloke don’t like me, I’m outside now. Munta nyanga purunypa, same, what I’m saying.
Tjinguru nyaa kulintjaku you know… I built a coca cola factory here. That coca cola factory might say no! Hello, close it otherwise he’ll take me to court. Pala purunypa is Ananguku panya.
Iriti they bring this rock without knowing. They bring the rock from Devil’s Marbles to Alice Springs. Palunya ngalya katingu ka Anangu tjutangku putu wangkara wangkara that tjinguru paluru iriti righta ‘wai! Why that thing from here is over here?’ Wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara, some pass away-aringu palu purunypa people understand, ‘hey we gotta take this back!’ Tjukurpa paluru tjana kulinu.
That’s the same as here, wangkara, wangkara hello, palya patinila. You know, ngura look out-amilani tjungu, still the same panya, government and Anangu. Anangu is the government too but this government, whitefella government, panparangu nguwanpa. Wiya, panparangkuntja wiya please, we gotta be tjungu. Respect.
Iritinguru Anangu nguluringanyi nguwanpa, nguluringanyi, ah! someone is watching us like with a gun: ‘Don’t close it please’… don’t point me with a gun. Pukularintjaku Anangu and piranpa, together, tjungu, uwa munta-uwa, patinu palya nyanganyi the playground.
Ngura got Tjukurpa. – vistors nyangatja welcome ngura. Tjituru tjituru wiya nyangatja – happy palyantjaku.
Wiya, come together, wiya come together patintjaku.