The long-awaited $300 million rehabilitation of the abandoned Rum Jungle uranium mine in the Top End is being jeopardised by the Northern Territory Department of Resources and the Government should find another agency to run the project, Aboriginal traditional owners have warned.
The traditional owners for the mine site, about 105 kilometres south of Darwin, said they were losing faith in the department over its surprise decision to significantly downgrade the position of the senior mining scientist who’d been overseeing the rehabilitation project for the past six years.
The staffing decision comes at a critical time for the Rum Jungle project because key agreements still need to be reached for the full rehabilitation to go ahead.
“We trusted in our association with the mines branch, who seemed to be very accommodating, but now they’ve reshuffled the card deck and the people that we felt comfortable with and progressing with are now moved,” said Kathy Mills, a senior Kungarakan traditional owner.
“We had a lot of faith and hope; I still have hope but I am running short of trust now.”
Acid and metals leaching into river for almost 50 years
Rum Jungle — one of Australia’s oldest uranium mines — was set up in the 1950s with the support of the Commonwealth to supply uranium to the weapons programs of the US and British governments.
The mine closed 47 years ago but it was never properly rehabilitated and acid and metals have been leaching into parts of the nearby Finniss River ever since.
In 2009, the Federal Government began funding the NT Government to draw up a design for the full rehabilitation of the mine.
For six years that work has been led by the NT Government’s principal mining scientist Tania Laurencont.
But Kungarakan traditional owner Helen Bishop said Ms Laurencont would soon be leaving the project because the NT Resources Department was downgrading the senior scientist role to one with a significantly reduced pay grade.
“What would possess them to say, after six or so years, that this senior scientist position should now be downgraded and that we won’t be included in such a decision?” she said.
Ms Bishop questioned if the department, which is under pressure to cut costs, was downgrading the position to make its own savings from the federal funding for Rum Jungle’s rehabilitation.
“I really would like to know because I’m filling in gaps and I don’t like doing that, it would be better for all around if they [the Resources Department] were being transparent with us,” Ms Bishop said.
Rehabilitation efforts will stall, traditional owners warn
The traditional owners, who will soon be required to approve the design for the Rum Jungle rehabilitation, said they had come to trust Ms Laurencont, who had built up knowledge of their sacred sites in the area.
In a letter to NT Resources Minister Ken Vowles in February, the committee representing the traditional owners warned the staff change would delay rehabilitation.
“The committee is very concerned that progress into the Rehabilitation Project… will be stalled due to departmental changes, and effectively means we have to start the process all over again with the next person appointed,” the letter states.
Mr Vowles referred questions to the department, which said it would not comment on employment arrangements for any staff.
In its statement, the department said negotiations with traditional owners were continuing.
“Critical to the success of the remediation of the Rum Jungle mine site is both the final design solution, and the participation of traditional owners,” the department said.
But Ms Bishop said she had begun investigating whether the rehabilitation project could instead be run by the NT’s Environmental Protection Authority.
Breakdown in trust comes at critical time for land claim
The breakdown in trust between traditional owners and the Department of Resources comes at a critical time for the Rum Jungle project.
Not only do traditional owners need to sign off on the design for the clean-up, but the Federal Government is also yet to agree to fund the next stage — the full rehabilitation — which is expected to cost at least $300 million.
The NT Department of Resources has previously said that failing to rehabilitate the mine would risk more drainage of acid and metals.
Traditional owners have been calling for the rehabilitation of the site not just to protect the environment but also so the land can eventually be handed back to them to finalise their Finniss River land claim.
In the early 1980s, the Rum Jungle site could not be handed back to traditional owners as part of the successful claim in case they became liable for the then notorious environmental problems.