The story of Rum Jungle: a Cold War-era uranium mine that’s spewed acid into the environment for decades


Gavin Mudd, Author provided

Gavin Mudd, RMIT UniversityBuried in last week’s budget was money for rehabilitating the Rum Jungle uranium mine near Darwin. The exact sum was not disclosed.

Rum Jungle used to be a household name. It was Australia’s first large-scale uranium mine and supplied the US and British nuclear weapons programs during the Cold War.

Today, the mine is better known for extensively polluting the Finniss River after it closed in 1971. Despite a major rehabilitation project by the Commonwealth in the 1980s, the damage to the local environment is ongoing.

I first visited Rum Jungle in 2004, and it was a colourful mess, to say the least. Over later years, I saw it worsen. Instead of a river bed, there were salt crusts containing heavy metals and radioactive material. Pools of water were rich reds and aqua greens — hallmarks of water pollution. Healthy aquatic species were nowhere to be found, like an ecological desert.

The government’s second rehabilitation attempt is significant, as it recognises mine rehabilitation isn’t always successful, even if it appears so at first.

Rum Jungle serves as a warning: rehabilitation shouldn’t be an afterthought, but carefully planned, invested in and monitored for many, many years. Otherwise, as we’ve seen, it’ll be left up to future taxpayers to fix.

The quick and dirty history

Rum Jungle produced uranium from 1954 to 1971, roughly one-third of which was exported for nuclear weapons. The rest was stockpiled, and then eventually sold in 1994 to the US.

A sign for Rum Jungle rehabilitation on a fence
Rehabilitation of Rum Jungle began in the 1980s.
Mick Stanic/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The mine was owned by the federal government, but was operated under contract by a former subsidiary of Rio Tinto. Back then, there were no meaningful environmental regulations in place for mining, especially for a military project.

The waste rock and tailings (processed ore) at Rum Jungle contains significant amounts of iron sulfide, called “pyrite”. When mining exposes the pyrite to water and oxygen, a chemical reaction occurs generating so-called “acidic mine drainage”. This drainage is rich in acid, salts, heavy metals and radioactive material (radionuclides), such as copper, zinc and uranium.

Acid drainage seeping from waste rock, plus acidic liquid waste from the process plant, caused fish and macroinvertebrates (bugs, worms, crustaceans) to die out, and riverbank vegetation to decline. By the time the mine closed in 1971, the region was a well-known ecological wasteland.

Once an ecosystem, now a wasteland.
Gavin Mudd, Author provided

When mines close, the modern approach is to rehabilitate them to an acceptable condition, with the aim of minimal ongoing environmental damage. But after working in environmental engineering across Australia for 26 years, I’ve seen few mines completely rehabilitated — let alone successfully.

Many Australian mines have major problems with acid mine drainage. This includes legacy mines from historical, unregulated times (Mount Morgan, Captains Flat, Mount Lyell) and modern mines built under stricter environmental requirements (Mount Todd, Redbank, McArthur River).

This is why Rum Jungle is so important: it was one of the very few mines once thought to have been rehabilitated successfully.

Salts litter the bed of the Finniss River.
Gavin Mudd, Author provided

So what went wrong?

From 1983 to 1986, the government spent some A$18.6 million (about $55.5 million in 2020 value) to reduce acid drainage and restore the Finniss River ecology. Specially engineered soil covers were placed over the waste rock to reduce water and oxygen getting into the pyrite.

The engineering project was widely promoted as successful through conferences and academic studies, with water quality monitoring showing that the metals polluting the Finniss had substantially subsided. But this lasted only for a decade.




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By the late 1990s, it became clear the engineered soil covers weren’t working effectively anymore.

First, the design was insufficient to reduce infiltration of water during the wet season (thicker covers should have been used). Second, the covers weren’t built to design in parts (they were thinner and with the wrong type of soils).

The first reason is understandable, we’d never done this before. But the second is not acceptable, as the thinner covers and wrong soils made it easier for water and oxygen to get into the waste rock and generate more polluting acid mine drainage.

The iron-tainted red hues of the Finniss River near the waste rock dumps leaking acid mine drainage.
Gavin Mudd, Author provided
The copper-tainted green hues of the Finniss River near the waste rock dumps leaking acid mine drainage.
Gavin Mudd, Author provided

The stakes are higher

There are literally thousands of recent and still-operating mines around Australia, where acid mine drainage remains a minor or extreme risk. Other, now closed, acid drainage sites have taken decades to bring under control, such as Brukunga in South Australia, Captain’s Flat in NSW, and Agricola in Queensland.

We got it wrong with Rum Jungle, which generated less than 20 million tonnes of mine waste. Modern mines, such as Mount Whaleback in the Pilbara, now involve billions of tonnes — and we have dozens of them. Getting even a small part of modern mine rehabilitation wrong could, at worst, mean billions of tonnes of mine waste polluting for centuries.

So what’s the alternative? Let’s take the former Woodcutters lead-zinc mine, which operated from 1985 to 1999, as an example.

Given its acid drainage risks, the mine’s rehabilitation involved placing reactive waste into the open pit, rather than using soil covers. “Backfilling” such wastes into pits makes good sense, as the pyrite is deeper and not exposed to oxygen, substantially reducing acid drainage risks.

Backfilling isn’t commonly used because it’s widely perceived in the industry as expensive. Clearly, we need to better assess rehabilitation costs and benefits to justify long-term options, steering clear of short-term, lowest-cost approaches.

The Woodcutters experience shows such thinking can be done to improve the chances for successfully restoring the environment.

Getting it right

The federal government funded major environmental studies of the Rum Jungle mine from 2009, including an environmental impact statement in 2020, before the commitment in this year’s federal budget.




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The plan this time includes backfilling waste rock into the open pits, and engineering much more sophisticated soil covers. It will need to be monitored for decades.

And the cost of it? Well, that was kept confidential in the budget due to sensitive commercial negotiations.

But based on my experiences, I reckon they’d be lucky to get any change from half a billion dollars. Let’s hope we get it right this time.The Conversation

Gavin Mudd, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The uranium mine in the heart of Kakadu needs a better clean up plan


Rebecca Lawrence, Macquarie University

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.

But our new research report found the document guiding its rehabilitation is deficient, and urgent changes are needed for the heavily impacted mine site to be cleaned up well.

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.




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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.

Likewise, Ranger was excluded from the requirements of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act that would have otherwise given the Mirarr people the right to say no to the mine.

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.




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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.




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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.

Kakadu is home to more than 280 different types of birds, such as the white bellied sea eagle.
Shutterstock

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.




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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.The Conversation

Rebecca Lawrence, Affiliate, Sydney Environment Institute; Honorary Associate, Macquarie University, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s not worth wiping out a species for the Yeelirrie uranium mine


File 20190426 61877 ax136m.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Western Australian outback may look bare at first glance, but it’s teeming with wildlife, often beneath the surface.
Shutterstock

Gavin Mudd, RMIT University

One day before calling the election, the government approved the controversial Yeelirrie uranium mine in the remote wilderness of Western Australia, about 500km north of Kalgoorlie.

The Tjiwarl Traditional Owners have fought any uranium mining on their land for the last 40 years, and the decision by the government wasn’t made public until the day before Anzac Day.

This region is home to several of Australia’s deposits of uranium and not only holds cultural significance as part of the Seven Sisters Dreaming Songline, but also environmental significance.




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If the mine goes ahead, groundwater levels would drop by 50cm and wouldn’t fully recover for 200 years. And 2,422 hectares of native vegetation would be cleared.

I visited the site 16 years ago and, like the rest of the Western Australian outback, there’s a wonderful paradox where the land appears barren, but is, in fact, rich with biodiversity.

The former pilot open cut at Yeelirrie, February 2003 – unrehabilitated from the early 1980s.
Photo G M Mudd

Native animals living in underground water, called stygofauna, are one such example of remarkable Australian fauna that aren’t obvious at first glance. These animals are under threat of extinction if the Yeelirrie uranium mine goes ahead.

Stygofauna are ecologically fragile

Most stygofauna are very tiny invertebrates, making up species of crustaceans, worms, snails and diving beetles. Some species are well adapted to underground life – they are typically blind, pale white and with long appendages to help them find their way in total darkness.

Yeelirrie stygofauna.
Photograph by Giulia Perina, Subterranean Ecology Pty Ltd

In 2016, the Western Australian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advised against building the Yeelirrie uranium mine because it would threaten the stygofauna species there, despite the proposed management strategies of Cameco Australia, the mine owner.

Stygofauna are extremely local, having evolved in the site they’re found in. This means individual species aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

EPA chairman Tom Hatton said:

Despite the proponent’s well-considered management strategies, based on current scientific understanding, the EPA concluded that there was too great a chance of a loss of species that are restricted to the impact area.

Yeelirrie has a rich stygofauna habitat, with 73 difference species recorded.

A species of stygofauna in Yeelirrie.
Photograph by Giulia Perina, Subterranean Ecology Pty Ltd

And to get to the uranium deposit, the miners need to dig through the groundwater, a little like pulling the plug in the middle of the bathtub. Stygofauna have adapted to living at different levels of the water, so pulling out the plug could dry out important parts of their habitat.

Stygofauna are also susceptible to any changes in the chemistry of the groundwater. We simply do not know with confidence what mining will do to the groundwater chemistry at Yeelirrie in the long term. Various wastes will be backfilled into former pits, causing uncertainty for the welfare of surrounding stygofauna.




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The approval conditions suggest that the mine should not be allowed to cause extinction – but if this does happen, nothing can be done to reverse it. And there would be no penalty to Cameco either – which has said it can’t guarantee such a condition can be met.

So are the economic benefits worth wiping out a species?

Short answer: no. But let’s, for a moment, ignore these subterranean animals and look at whether the mine would be beneficial.

Yeelirrie is one of Australia’s largest uranium deposits – and yet it has a low grade of 0.15% (as uranium oxide). This refers to the amount of uranium found in rock. For comparison, the average grade of uranium mines globally is normally 0.1 to 0.4% of uranium oxide (with some higher and others lower).

And Cameco’s Cigar Lake and McArthur River mines in Canada have typically been 15-20% of uranium oxide. Despite such rich ore, McArthur River was uneconomic and closed indefinitely in early 2018.

What’s more, the future of nuclear power is not bright. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, the number of nuclear reactors under construction around the world is at its lowest point in a decade, as renewable energy increases. The amount of nuclear electricity produced each year is flat. And nuclear’s share of global electricity is constantly falling behind renewables.




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But, in any case, we don’t yet know enough about these stygofauna to warrant their extinction. They could, for instance, have untold benefits to medical science, or perhaps have wider environmental and cultural significance.

And, ethically, what right do we have to wipe out a species? They have evolved and survived just like us. At the end of the day, there are much safer, cheaper, more ethical and cleaner ways to generate electricity to boil a kettle.The Conversation

Gavin Mudd, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.