NORTHERN TERRITORY: The operators of the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory have unveiled a new water processing machine they say will give it a future beyond 2021.
But not everyone’s happy.
Mining has been completed at the site, which is located within – but is not a part of – the world heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, 260km southeast of Darwin.
It’s operated by Energy Resources Australia (ERA), which is owned by Rio Tinto.
The $220 million brine concentrator unveiled on Thursday will improve the mine’s ability to treat water and to progressively rehabilitate the site by 2026, when it must be of a standard to be reintegrated to Kakadu.
Traditional owners and environmental groups want to see ERA exit in 2021.
But if a second project currently in exploration turns out to be feasible, the brine concentrator may help them stay on if the relevant parties can be convinced it’s possible to mine in an environmentally safe way.
ERA’s chief executive Rob Atkinson says it’s too early to talk about future negotiations with stakeholders and the local community.
But he notes that previous attempts to treat water to a high standard were either too small for requirements or unsuccessful.
“This is the first time in ERA’s history producing very clean water at the quality we need,” he says.
“Without the brine concentrator I don’t believe we would have a future here at all.”
The brine concentrator took five years to be delivered from its conception, and has an output of 1.8 billion litres per year, or 800 Olympic pools of water free of radioactive contamination.
Managing water is at the heart of the mine’s considerations in the Top End, which experiences monsoonal rain for months on end every year, says operations manager Tim Eckersley.
“When you consider where we operate, the extremes of weather we experience, managing water is a critical component of operations,” he says.
In 2011, the mine had to shut down production for six months because of extensively contaminated water, says Justin O’Brien, CEO of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) which manages mining royalties on behalf of the Mirarr people, the traditional owners of the land who opposed the mine’s development in 1978.
“With billions of (contaminated) litres sitting here and an Aboriginal community six kilometres downstream, that alarmed us,” he tells AAP.
The GAC sees the brine concentrator as a positive step towards keeping the water safe and clean, as does the Australian Conservation Foundation, calling it “overdue but welcome”.
“We don’t see (the brine concentrator) as meaning it will be okay for them to now dig a new underground mine at Ranger,” spokesman Dave Sweeney says.
“It’s technically feasible (they could continue mining after 2021), yes they could probably do it, but there’s these other factors that pose the question: is it really worth it?
“Are you prepared to own the consequent problems should you decide to go there?”
Although the Ranger mine is now only processing stockpiled ore as its open pits are slowly being backfilled, exploration for a possible underground mine is underway at a neighbouring site named Ranger 3 Deeps. If feasible, mining could begin in 2015, but would only be able to operate for five years under the current lease agreement.
Chief Minister Adam Giles, who is keen to see more mining in the NT, says Ranger was one of the most heavily regulated mines in the world.
“They put a lot of investment into environmental sustainability, as well as having the cultural obligations to be able to provide support for traditional owners, as well as seeking economic advancement,” he says.
But Mr O’Brien says traditional owners of the land want ERA to stick to the 2021 deadline.
“It’s never crossed our mind that they would mine beyond 2021,” he says. “They would need to be very persuasive and bring other things to the table were we to consider a new mining (permission), which is ultimately not our decision but that of the federal government.”
Since the Fukushima disaster of 2011 the uranium market has bottomed out, with prices dropping about 50 per cent, and it’s this that the Australian Conservation Foundation hopes will convince ERA’s owners Rio Tinto not to seek an extension should Ranger 3 Deeps prove viable beyond 2021.
“The only thing ERA do is mine uranium in Kakadu; (they’re) one of Kakadu’s endangered species,” Sweeney says.
But Rio Tinto may decide to walk away from the project at its mandated deadline.
“They will be acutely aware that they will be judged long into the future on how they exit Kakadu,” Sweeney says.
“If they cut corners, costs, and leave it a mess, that will hang over them and affect market access, other stakeholders’ confidence in the company, and future projects.”
But as the wet season looms and the brine concentrator begins churning out clean water, ERA insists it is only looking to 2021.