Queensland campaign against uranium mining

Adam Sharah

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/120

In October 2012, Queensland's Liberal-National Party (LNP) government broke a commitment made repeatedly before and after the state election by overturning the ban on uranium mining. The Newman government set up an independent Uranium Mining Implementation Committee (UMIC) to investigate and implement a plan to open a uranium industry in Queensland.

The areas most likely to be mined are Westmoreland near the NT border, Valhalla and other sites near Mt Isa, and Ben Lomond located 50kms from Townsville, though evidence exists there are plans for exploration at numerous other sites throughout Queensland.

Unless Queensland ports are opened up to uranium shipments, yellowcake will be trucked over vast distances by road-trains across Queensland to ports in the Northern Territory and South Australia. In recent submissions the UMIC confirmed North Queensland Bulk Port's capacity to manage the transportation, storage and shipping of radioactive yellowcake. If these submissions are successful radioactive yellowcake may be trucked through Queensland communities and shipped over the Great Barrier Reef via Mackay Port, Townsville Port or Abbott Point.

In a submission dated 17 December 2012, the Acting Deputy Chief Executive Officer of North Queensland Bulk Port Corporation, Gary Riches, stated: "The Port of Mackay is capable of handling the break bulk cargo typically associated with the development and maintenance of mining and associated infrastructure. The uranium industry is seen as an opportunity to utilise existing terminal capacity delivering economies of scale and improving economic activity in Central and Regional Queensland."

Barry Holden, CEO of Townsville Port, told the ABC the port was capable of resuming uranium export: "It's just another product, it's handled in containers as we understand it. If it's a legal trade in Queensland, given that we're a government-owned corporation, then I'd expect it would be handled through the port, yes indeed."

In an interview with the ABC in response to the submissions, Mark Bailey from Keep Queensland Nuclear Free stated: "The Ports have made it very clear in writing that they want to export radioactive uranium through the Port and across the Great Barrier Reef. This means radioactive yellowcake being regularly transported through the streets of either Mackay or Townsville. To protect tourism jobs, local residents and the reef we call upon the Newman government to rule out exporting uranium through the Ports. A very real risk is if there is a fiery accident involving a uranium truck, the local area could be contaminated with radioactivity."

In early 2013, Queensland graziers expressed their concerns about Queensland resuming uranium mining. Due to inadequate clean-up efforts and the lack of containment of radioactive dust, to this day the former Mary Kathleen mine located on the Selwyn Range between Concurry and Mt Isa remains a toxic legacy. In 1984, over a million litres of saline, metal and radionuclide rich water was released from Mary Kathleen's evaporation ponds during a wet season. Thirty years later, toxic waste water is still being drained via purposely-built seepage systems. At the Cameron River, due to the use of mined rocks sourced from the site for the construction of bridges, apart from weeds, plant species are unable to grow. Though it is common knowledge amongst locals that the creeks are not safe for swimming or fishing, there are no signs in place to warn of the dangers.

In December 2013, Mark Bailey and myself campaigned in Mackay, Cairns and Townsville to raise awareness about the dangers associated with uranium mining. Although Townsville's burgeoning economy is entirely reliant on mining, the community response has been encouraging. In Townsville a local action group called CAMBL − Citizens Against Mining Ben Lomond − has formed. Due to a toxic spill in Townsville in the 1980's, local residents are concerned about the transportation of uranium through a primary source of Townsville's water, the Burdekin River catchment − the second largest catchment draining into the Great Barrier Reef after the Fitzroy River catchment.

A toxic spill in the Burdekin catchment could be catastrophic for the largest living structure on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a unique ecosystem already under threat due to dredging to accommodate proposed port and shipping lane expansions. In April 2013, Tim Badman from the International Union for Conservation of Nature told the ABC that shipping yellowcake would be a "new threat to the Great Barrier Reef" and a "surprising activity to find in any natural world heritage site". Russell Reichelt from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority agrees it would be a concern.

CAMBL is using a report issued by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to boost their objection to the Ben Lomond uranium mine: "With only six months to go until uranium mine applications are lodged in Queensland, we are deeply concerned that this isn't enough time for proper peer reviewing of this new study and for any new knowledge to be applied to assessing any North Queensland uranium mines," CAMBL spokesperson Mark Harrison said. "One of the aspects from this study is that in areas with high rainfall it spreads even further. We have that here. These mining companies are going to tell us that they're going to do everything by the book, but they can't guarantee 100 per cent that this can't happen and that's the main issue."

French company Minatome undertook trial mining at Ben Lomond in the early 1980s. Federal MP Bob Katter spoke at length about Ben Lomond in Parliament on 1 November 2005. He noted that Minatome initially denied reports of a radioactive spill, but then changed its story and claimed that the spill posed no risk and did not reach the water system from which 210,000 people drank.

Katter continued the story: "For the next two or three weeks they held out with that story. Further evidence was produced in which they admitted that it had been a dangerous level. Yes, it was about 10,000 times higher than what the health agencies in Australia regarded as an acceptable level. After six weeks, we got rid of lie number two. I think it was at about week 8 or week 12 when, as a state member of parliament, I insisted upon going up to the site. Just before I went up to the site, the company admitted − remember, it was not just the company but also the agency set up by the government to protect us who were telling lies − that the spill had reached the creek which ran into the Burdekin River, which provided the drinking water for 210,000 people. We had been told three sets of lies over a period of three months."

In 2014, the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, Friends of the Earth and Keep Queensland Nuclear Free will extend the campaign to include central and far north west and central Queensland. The pro-mining right-wing political landscape, the economic apartheid and desperation experienced by remote Aboriginal communities, the geographical isolation of the proposed uranium mine sites and the sheer vastness of the areas threatened by mining exploration, combine to present a unique set of challenges for the campaign.

Many of the same Aboriginal family groups whose Traditional Lands are already mined for uranium in the NT, or are under threat due to the proposed national nuclear waste dump at Tennant Creek, have close cultural and family ties to groups in the regional towns located near the sites earmarked for uranium mining and exploration in Queensland. Providing a platform for resistance for Aboriginal groups opposed to uranium mining on their Country will require intensive and careful strategic planning and commitment and consistent funding.

Adam Sharah is an anti-nuclear campaigner with the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance.

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