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Australia's notoriously bad record at rehabilitation looms as uranium mine closes

Rio Tinto faces its nuclear test in Kakadu uranium mine

By Rebecca Lawrence and Dave Sweeney

In the 1950s uranium mining began in the Alligator Rivers and Kakadu regions in the Top End of the Northern Territory. Since then, the Kakadu uranium story has generated heartache and headlines but it is set to soon come to an end with the closure of the Ranger uranium mine in early January 2021. The story is now moving from one of contest over the impacts of mining to one of concern around the adequacy of rehabilitation.

Australia has a notorious record when it comes to mine rehabilitation. Many mines are simply abandoned, and those that are rehabilitated often fail, which means complex and on-going monitoring and management is usually required. In many cases, mining companies and their shareholders are long-gone and it is usually Indigenous communities who are forced to live with toxic legacies and left to fight for governments to finance the clean-up with tax-payer money.

Two former Rio Tinto uranium operations at Mary Kathleen in western Queensland and Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory remain inadequately rehabilitated and a continuing source of environmental damage. These failed rehabilitation efforts and the pattern of cost shifting from a private company to the public purse must not be replicated at Ranger.

The Mary Kathleen uranium mine, now closed, is one that has failed to be adequately cleaned up and continues to cause environmental damage. (Photo: “File:Mary Kathleen Mine 5.jpg” by Carole Mackinney/public domain.)

Yet, there are alarming signs we may be headed that way. Significant and crucial knowledge gaps remain around the closure and rehabilitation of the Ranger mine. Despite the looming closure date, mine operator Energy Resources Australia (ERA) is still unable to answer many key questions. For example, ERA has still not completed modelling of the pathways and volumes of toxic contaminants expected to move off site and into Kakadu National Park.

Another key omission in the mine closure plan is the absence of any substantive social impact research. There is no attention paid to how Aboriginal people have been impacted by uranium mining in Kakadu, or any assessment of how they may be impacted by the mine closure. This omission constitutes a profound social injustice and is demonstrably inconsistent with both international best practise and contemporary community expectation.

ERA is part of the global Rio Tinto group. Rio, who own 86% of ERA, has been called out for its destruction of ancient Aboriginal heritage and sites at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of West Australia. As the main shareholder in ERA at Ranger, there is a real risk that Rio will also fail at Ranger if they don’t get the rehabilitation right and put in place secure financing for perpetual care and maintenance of the Ranger site post-closure. There is a requirement that the company must isolate large volumes of radioactive mining tailings for 10,000 years, but how can that be done without any funds earmarked for monitoring or post-closure management?

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