Muckaty Traditional Owners fighting Ferguson's dump

Molly Wishart

Chain Reaction #115, August 2012, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/115

Four Muckaty Traditional Owners − Penny Phillips, Jeannie Sambo, Kylie Sambo and Delvine Spiteri − visited Melbourne on June 25 to attend a Federal Court hearing concerning the nomination of Muckaty, 120 kms north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, for a national nuclear waste dump.

Legal proceedings against the federal government and the Northern Land Council began in June 2010 and a trial is anticipated in the first half of 2013. A small group of Traditional Owners support the dump proposal, in return for a financial package, but most are opposed and are challenging the right of the government to establish the dump at Muckaty without their consent.

Legislation pushed through Parliament by federal resources minister Martin Ferguson − the National Radioactive Waste Management Act − allows for the imposition of a dump without consultation with or consent from Traditional Owners. In a previous Federal Court hearing, lawyers for the Commonwealth argued that the Muckaty nomination was valid even if the wrong Traditional Owners were consulted.

The most pressing issue for the government is the return of spent nuclear fuel reprocessed waste from France and Scotland in coming years. The government is aware that its Muckaty plan is unravelling and has moved to firm up an alternative plan − interim storage of the reprocessing waste at the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor site south of Sydney, from where the spent fuel originated. Plans are in train to increase storage capacity at Lucas Heights.

Trade unions and emergency services

Some of Australia's most powerful unions have pledged support for the campaign. The Maritime Union of Australia's Victorian Secretary, Kevin Bracken, attended a media event with Traditional Owners after the June 25 court hearing, and Traditional Owners briefed MUA members the following day. In Darwin, the MUA is organising a protest at Stokes Hill Wharf on July 12, marking seven years since the NT was first targeted for a nuclear waste dump. The MUA is sending delegates from around the country to attend this event.

In May, the Australian Council of Trade Unions Congress passed a resolution expressing disappointment that the Muckaty site will continue to be pursued under the National Radioactive Waste Management Act and affirming that the ACTU "stands in solidarity with Traditional Owners and communities resisting Federal Government plans for a radioactive waste dump and commits to supporting trade unions refusing to cooperate with implementation of the policy."

The ACTU Congress resolution further states that "the recent application by ANSTO for reprocessed spent fuel waste to return to the Lucas Heights facility in Sydney and acknowledges this as an opportunity to review radioactive waste management in Australia by conducting an independent and comprehensive public commission into all aspects radioactive waste transport, storage and management in Australia."

United Voice secretary Matthew Gardiner, whose union represents firefighters in the NT, raised the alarm about the NT's emergency response capacity at a public meeting in Darwin in June which was attended by 100 people. Referring to a recent train accident on the Edith River, he said: "If we had one container of nuclear waste on that train when it derailed, we would have had to use virtually every single firefighter in the NT."

He said the reason why nearly the entire firefighting force would be needed was due to the protective suits and equipment worn when dealing with incidents involving chemical, biological and radiological materials: "You can only work for a maximum of half an hour at a time before the heat stress gets so much you have to be replaced."

The NT government said in a Senate Inquiry submission in 2010 that: "There is very limited capacity within the Northern Territory hospital network outside of Darwin to respond to any radioactive waste incident or accident." The NT government also said that the Port of Darwin "does not have the resource capacity (expertise or equipment) to respond to a radioactive incident."

Tennant Creek protest

At a protest in Tennant Creek in late May, people spoke about the anger, despair and sadness which had dominated their lives since the nomination of Muckaty, with many vowing to establish a blockade if the government goes ahead with its plan.

Muckaty Traditional Owner Ronald Morrison said: "I will not let anyone bring the dump to our land." Labor member for the NT electorate of Barkly, Gerry McCarthy, said he was prepared to "move onto country and sit down" with Traditional Owners if the federal Labor government attempts to begin construction.

Traditional Owner Dianne Stokes told the protest rally: "We have continually said we don't want the waste to come to our land, even though [the Government and the NLC] haven't got ears for listening to us. But I want my voice to be heard, to let people know I'm fighting for my grandfather's country."

Elizabeth O'Shea from the Maurice Blackburn law firm, which is representing Traditional Owners in the Federal Court challenge, told the rally that the Northern Land Council (NLC) had never properly told people what they were planning.

"In court recently, the Commonwealth said it doesn't matter if the NLC finds that Joe Bloggs from Darwin owns the land," she said. "If the NLC says it has done its job properly the Commonwealth can rely on that and build the dump there anyway. That is an appalling argument in my view, it's not what Native Title law is about, it's not what Aboriginal Land Rights is about."

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