On 11 September 2003 the Senior Traditional Owner of the Mirrar people, Ms Yvonne Margarula, informed the World Heritage Centre of the commencement of backfilling operations at the Jabiluka Mineral Lease. She indicated that this positive development had been publicly welcomed by the Mirrar Traditional Owners.
IUCN reiterated the previously stated position of the IUCN Council that the desired outcome at Jabiluka should be the removal of the stockpile of ore at the site and subsequent rehabilitation of the mine site to a condition appropriate for inclusion within the Kakadu National Park World Heritage property.
On 6 February 2004, the State Party provided an update of the state of conservation of Kakadu National Park. The report noted that detailed discussions have taken place between Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and key stakeholders including the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC), concerning the future of the proposed Jabiluka mine site. One of the main outcomes of this discussion was a commitment by ERA to the GAC that no mining would take place at Jabiluka without the agreement of the Mirrar people. In addition the ERA committed itself to the long-term care and maintenance of the Jabiluka Mine site although this agreement cannot be finalised until it has been approved by the full council of the Northern Land Council (NLC) which is expected to meet in April 2004. On 23 April 2004 the Northern Land Council endorsed the long-term care agreement for the Jabiluka mine site. It must now be approved by the Indigenous Affairs Minister before it comes into force.
The State Party report addresses a number of areas:
(a) Consultation with the Mirrar Traditional Owners on cultural heritage management planning for Mirrar land at Jabiluka: The report noted that cultural heritage management planning needs to continue in a time frame that meets the need of the Mirrar Community. The report further noted that issues relating to the protection and management of cultural heritage of the Jabiluka site have been subsumed within the discussions between Traditional Owners and the ERA.
(b) Alligator Rivers Region Technical Committee (ARRTC) continuing monitoring and review of water management and other environmental issues at Jabiluka and Ranger: The report noted that ARRTC was reconstituted with seven independent members and six stakeholder representatives; the decision to reconstitute the ARRTC resulted from the recommendation of the Independent Science Panel, following its review of the Jabiluka project on behalf of the World Heritage Committee. The report noted that the primary aim of ARRTC is to ensure science of an appropriately high standard is used in the research and assessment procedures underpinning the protection of the environment of the Alligator Rivers region from any potential impacts of uranium mining. IUCN noted that ARRTC has continued to review all monitoring and assessment programs being undertaken by the Supervising Scientist, the Northern Territory Government and ERA.
(c) ARRTC NGO Representation: The report revealed that the Australian Government continues to support the appointment of an environmental NGO representative to ARRTC. It made reference to the fact that the Commonwealth Minister of the Environment and Heritage had requested on two occasions that the National Environmental Consultative Forum provide him with more than one nomination. The report noted that following the requests from the Minister, the NECF provided the name of only one nominee and further noted that, at its February 2002 meeting, the ARRTC decided not to recommend the nominee. IUCN noted that the World Heritage Committee has on several occasions asked the State Party to ensure that there is NGO representation on ARRTC. The State Party does not report any progress in this matter. There appears to be a continuing impasse between the Minister and the National Environmental Consultative Forum over who should serve in this capacity.
(d) Compliance with ISO14001: The report noted that ERA, the operator of the Ranger and Jabiluka projects, has achieved certification under ISO 14001. The report noted ERA has developed an environmental management system that complies with international standards. IUCN also noted its disappointment with the failure to appoint an environmental NGO representative to the ARRTC, in line with its recommendation to the 25th Session of the Committee. IUCN considered this reasonable request should be addressed as a priority.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN received additional information in relation to Kakadu National Park after the State Party had submitted its report. Newspaper reports and media releases from the Australian Government's Supervising Scientist, the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation and the mining company ERA received at the end of March 2004 reported that the Ranger mine was shut down on 24 March 2004 because of concerns for worker safety following the discovery that drinking water had been contaminated by process water used by the Ranger mine operations. A letter dated 8 April 2004 from the Australian Conservation Foundation referred to the spillage of an estimated 150,000 litres of contaminated water with uranium levels of about 110 ppm (parts per million) (reportedly 5.5 times the maximum Australian drinking water standard) into the feeder creek system of Kakadu's wetlands.
The media releases indicated that immediately after the incident, the Government Supervising Scientist recommended the mine remain closed until he had complete confidence that there are systems in place that will not allow a similar incident to happen again and that there is no risk to the health of people and the environment. IUCN notes from the reports that the Federal Government has been considering a Senate Committee report recommending an overhaul of the regulation of uranium mines including Ranger. The Committee had found there had been more than 110 pollution incidents and numerous breaches of environmental requirements at the mine.
Following receipt of the media reports the World Heritage Centre sought a report on the incident from the Australian authorities. On 21 April 2004 information was provided by the Department of the Environment and Heritage. Their letter confirmed that on 23 March 2004 the mining company ERA identified that drinking water at the mine’s processing plant had been contaminated by process water used in the mine’s operations. Following this, ERA closed the mine, flushed the drinking water system, and advised the independent statutory mine site supervisor, the Supervising Scientist, and the Northern Territory Government regulatory authorities of the matter.
The Supervising Scientist commenced an immediate investigation, and announced on 26 March 2004 that the mine should remain closed until he was satisfied that worker health, safety and the environment would not be at risk. The Supervising Scientist’s initial investigation showed that an inappropriate connection was made between the mine’s potable and process water systems on the evening of 23 March 2004, resulting in process water entering the potable water system. This contamination was identified by ERA on the morning of 24 March 2004, following which ERA closed the mine that day.
On 26 March 2004 it also became apparent that contaminated potable water in the order of 200m3 had overflowed from a potable water tank at Jabiru East, a few hundred metres from Magela Creek. In addition to regular ongoing environmental monitoring, the Supervising Scientist undertook investigative monitoring in the vicinity of the tank, and reviewed the results of the routine creek side biological monitoring and chemical monitoring that was underway at that time in Magela Creek.
On 29 March 2004, as a result of the monitoring work, the Supervising Scientist was able to provide an assurance that the people and the environment of Kakadu National Park had not been harmed by the leak of contaminated water from the Ranger mine. The Supervising Scientist said that he was relieved to advise that the concentrations of all chemicals measured in the Magela Creek, downstream from the Ranger mine, had remained within their normal range and that no adverse effects had been observed in the animals monitored by the Supervising Scientist. The maximum concentration of uranium downstream from the mine, for example, was lower than that of the safe value for animals and plants by a factor of more than 100 and lower than the drinking water limit by a factor of about 200. As a result of the monitoring findings the Supervising Scientist was able to provide an assurance to the Traditional Owners and other Aboriginal people in the region that it was still safe to drink the waters of Magela Creek and to eat bush foods.
As indicated earlier, ERA immediately ceased operations at the mine on 24 March 2004 and entered into ongoing discussions with the Supervising Scientist and the Northern Territory Government regulatory authorities to determine an appropriate timeframe for resumption of operations. The Supervising Scientist advised the Northern Territory Government on 6 April 2004 that he considered ERA had met environmental and safety conditions for resumption of all mining and milling operations by that date.
The Australian Minister for the Environment and Heritage has asked the Supervising Scientist to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the incident. The report of this investigation is expected to be provided to him by mid-May 2004. Investigations are also being conducted by the Northern Territory Government supervising authorities and by the mining company itself.
The letter concluded by stating that the Australian Delegation to the 28th session of the World Heritage Committee would be able to provide an update on this matter and that while the incident is regrettable and further investigations are underway, it is nonetheless reassuring that initial investigations have not revealed any impact on the environment, water and bush foods remain safe to drink and eat, and there has been no significant impact on the values for which Kakadu National Park was inscribed on the World Heritage List.