Uranium mine expansion to unleash radioactive dust storms across Australia

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Environment correspondent Sandi Keane takes an in-depth look at the troubling implications of the Olympic Dam uranium mine expansion before asking: “Is Occupy Roxby Downs a possibility?”

These are the two take-home messages that will haunt you after watching David Bradbury’s new shocker, Wake Up. Filmmaker, Bradbury, is lauded by critics for his superbly made documentaries.  With five AFI awards, two Academy Award nominations and countless international film festival prizes under his belt, the horrific consequences of BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam expansion is told in chilling, graphic detail. Invest 12 minutes of your children’s future and watch it.

It is likely that October 11 will be judged a more significant date on the environment calendar than October 12, the day the Federal Government’s carbon tax (Clean Energy Bill) passed through the lower house. For different reasons. The 12th will be hailed as a red letter day for the planet, the 11th an environmental cock-up of monumental proportions, whose toxic legacy will take decades to unfold — just like Chernobyl did and Fukushima will. A blight on our health for thousands of years to come.

Both delivered by the same government within the space of 2 days.

The Federal Government’s crucial environmental approval of the expansion of BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam uranium mine at Roxby Downs was cynically announced on the eve of the historic Clean Energy Bill’s vote in the lower house — with good reason. To bury it. Last week’s reported sighting of Premier, Mike Rann, in Canberra at the Federal government’s tax summit, signalled a fast-track decision by the Environment Minister was in the wings. A week later, Premier Mike Rann signed the agreement with BHP just days before departing politics on 20thOctober.

Rushed isn’t the word for this disgraceful lack of process. For what? So Premier Rann can have his name on a piece of paper and a plaque at the site? Or be catapaulted into the lucrative world of the “pale, male and stale” brigade of political retirees on multinational mining boards?

Here’s a quick primer to help get your head around the monster that is about to be unleashed:

  • Olympic Dam will be the largest uranium mine in the world.

    • No longer an underground mine, it will be an open-cut mine 4km long by 3km wide by 1km deep.

      • The tailings are radioactive and carcinogenic.

        • These tailings will be dumped in a gigantic slag heap the size of a mountain range, above ground, instead of safely cocooned underground as they are at the moment.

          • Around 70 million tonnes of finely pulverised tailings will be dumped on open ground every year — this is the equivalent of filling the Melbourne Cricket Ground up to the top of the goalposts four times a week, every week for the next one hundred years.

            • The dump will eventually cover an area of 44 sq. km and soar 150 metres high.  Westpac House in Adelaide is 130m, Angel Place in Sydney 152m, Crown Tower in Melbourne 152m and Brisbane Square 151m.

            • This mountain range of radioactive and carcinogenic tailings is a ticking time bomb just waiting for the next dust storm.

              Remember those dust storms that swept across the east coast of Australia just two years ago? Just imagine the dust storms of the future, this time carrying deadly radioactive particles.

              Dust storms are frequent in Australia’s centre. Here are a couple of photos taken last week at Coober Pedy, just 200 km from Olympic Dam:

              Coober Pedy, 28 September 2011

              Another photo of Coober Pedy on 28 September 2011

              Environment Minister Tony Burke has hastily approved the expansion under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and claimed the conditions placed on the Olympic Dam expansion will be “world’s best practice”.

              This is untrue.

              Environmental conditions at the Ranger uranium mine in the NT are far tougher. Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) is required to backfill the mining waste in the hole, cap it and revegetate it.

              Whereas BHP’s responsibility ends 10 years after the mine is closed, ERA’s licence demands that the radioactive tailings be physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years.

              This was to address the public health impacts of having tens of millions of tonnes of carcinogenic powder blowing around thecountryside.

              Adelaide is 550km south of Olympic Dam, Melbourne 1,00okm and Sydney 1,650km — as the wind blows.

              BHP’s radioactive tailings will supposedly be capped with a “crust” of harmless pulverized rock.  But not for the life of the mine, which will be about 30 years. Even then, being open to the elements, it will eventually break down.

              Until then, for the next 30 years, radioactive dust will be free to blow around the countryside. Leached radioactivity will leak into underground water. The massive cost to our health, environment and economy will be ours, not BHP’s. That’s how it works in the nuclear world. No private corporation can afford the cost of nuclear clean ups. Just ask Tepco.

              BHP are building a desalination plant in the Spencer Gulf, but it's feared that the salinity will impact on the prawn industry and the spawning ground of the Giant Cuttlefish.

              In spite of the desalination plant, the SA government has agreed to continue giving BHP access to 42 million litres daily from the Great Artesian Basin — water it doesn’t require.  The basin is already under serious threat. Levels are failing and there are renewed calls for Federal control of the world’s largest natural water basin.

              How has it come to this?

              Twenty years ago, the SA Liberal Government passed what was then highly controversial legislation to give BHP unfettered access to our resources. Under the Roxby Downs Indenture Ratification Act 1982, BHP was given legal authority to override important state legislation, including the:

              • Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988

              • Development Act 1993

              • Environmental Protection Act 1993

              • Freedom of Information Act 1991

              • Mining Act 1971

              • Natural Resources Act 2004 (including the Water Resources Act 1997)

              • Future state governments have lacked the political will to repeal the Act but it is currently the subject of negotiations between the SA Government and BHP Billiton. We expect amendments will be introduced into parliament extending the operation of the Act. The latest news is that an extra week of parliamentary sittings could be scheduled to pass this legislation by Christmas. The Greens are likely to try again for much tougher amendments, though they have not succeeded so far. Today they called for a Parliamentary Inquiry to allow BHP officials to answer questions directly from MPs for the first time.

                Despite this, it will take a miracle will turn this decision around.

                It is worth noting that BHP Billiton is now 40 per cent foreign owned.

                It is also worth noting that 70 per cent of Australian resources are now foreign owned.

                Australia is the only country in the world which has given its uranium, iron ore, bauxite, coal, gas, and other minerals and hydrocarbons away for a song to predominantly foreign investors.

                The only notable attempt to “buy back the farm” was by the Whitlam government.  The current Federal Labor Government has been crucified by the opposition for trying to return a fairer proportion of the profits from Australia’s resources to its rightful owners, the Australian people, through a modest mining tax.

                How galling it is for Australians to see a small country like Norway, with just 5 million people, use the revenue from its resources to set up a national fund that guarantees a revenue stream long after its non-renewable resources have gone.

                To echo Bradbury’s words, we need to wake up. It’s too late to stop environmental approval by the Federal Government, but there is still time to lobby the SA government to repeal this lawless Act or at least, mine the gold, copper and silver but leave the uranium in the ground. Such is the advice of Monash University’s Dr Gavin Mudd, who has come up with a peer-reviewed model which excludes uranium, is safer and also uses less water and energy.

                [Read Dr. Mudd’s report here.]

                BHP Billiton's board will make a final decision on whether to proceed by Easter next year. Some shareholders have become active bloggers in the hope that their views will be counted.

                “Occupy Roxby Downs”—a possibility?

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