SEI Publications: Kakadu World Heritage Site Under Threat From Uranium Mine

A new report released today by the Sydney Environment Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation has found mining giant Rio Tinto’s plan for rehabilitating the Ranger uranium mine severely lacking.

The Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. Image by Dominic O’Brien.

The closure of the Ranger uranium mine, which has been in operation since the 1980’s, was announced last year, however, Rebecca Lawrence and Dave Sweeney, co-authors of ‘Unfinished Business: Rehabilitating The Ranger Uranium Mine’ say that this is only the beginning.

Lawrence (SEI) and Sweeney (ACF) have launched an extensive investigation into the plan put forward by mine operator Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and parent company Rio Tinto to rehabilitate the site to the same standard as the surrounding Kakadu National Park, dual-listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

The challenge of rehabilitation is more than just filling in the mine and planting trees. For long term health, the environment must be cleared of hazards like radioactive slurry or toxic tailings (a waste material from finely ground ore). In a monsoon driven environment, like Kakadu, preventing the dissemination of these toxins further into the ecosystem is even more crucial.

The report, which can be downloaded in full here, identifies significant data deficiencies, a lack of clarity around regulatory and governance frameworks and uncertainty over the adequacy of current and future financing – especially in relation to future monitoring and mitigation works for the controversial mine site.

“For the rehabilitation process to even have a chance at success, the existing opaque and complex regulatory regime needs an urgent overhaul,” Dr Lawrence said. Sweeney adds that “at its London AGM last month, Rio again committed to making sure ERA has the financial resources to deliver its rehabilitation obligations, however the financial mechanism to do so remains undisclosed. The community and environment of Kakadu need certainty and a comprehensive clean up. This work is a key test of the commitment and capacity of Northern Territory and Commonwealth regulators as well as the mining companies.”

The report, which is further outlined in the Conversation article ‘The uranium mine in the heart of Kakadu needs a better clean up plan’, makes recommendations to improve the chances of a successful clean-up at Ranger, calling for increased transparency, public release of key project documents, a better alignment of research and operations and open review processes for key decision points.

The full report, co-published by the Sydney Environment Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation is available to access here.

Rebecca Lawrence is an SEI research affiliate and a Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University. She is Chief Investigator for a major research project funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development on the impacts of mining on local and Indigenous communities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Australia. Rebecca is also funded by the Norwegian Research Council for a project concerned with the integration of Indigenous knowledge systems into environmental decision making.