Uranium mining, waste and Indigenous Australia

A 2006 paper by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies showed that cancer cases doubled among Aborigines near Australia’s biggest uranium mine, the Ranger mine in Kakadu National Park. During the past twenty years, the mine’s health impact on the local Indigenous community has not been investigated despite over 120 leaks of contaminated water.

Mining in Kakadu began as early as 1956. The Ranger mine, surrounded by the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park, is one of three uranium mines currently operating in Australia. Both Olympic Dam and Beverley are based in SA.

Attempts to open uranium mines on Indigenous land have invoked debate since the fifties, with the main concerns relating to damage to the environment, loss of culture and effects on health. Mining refuse and contaminated water could potentially poison the food and water supplies of Indigenous communities. Uranium also poses an environmental threat to sacred Aboriginal sites, which are tens of thousands of years old.

Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh, Professor at Griffith University, whose research centres on the interaction between corporations, governments and Indigenous communities, has noted:

Any big mining project has a visible impact on the landscape… Whereas with uranium mining I think it introduces this additional element that people are concerned about the long term impact of it on the food chain, on the waterways and so on.

Energy Resources of Australia, Ranger’s mining company, has been issued several warnings about the operation of the mine. In December 2013, a tank burst, causing more than one million litres of mud, water, sulphuric acid and radioactive liquid to spill. The waste came with such force that a nearby crane was moved a metre. The radioactive waste flowed outside the containment area and into the mine’s stormwater and drainage system.

This is not the first incident during the Ranger mine’s 30 years of operation. In early 2004, twenty-eight workers drank and showered in water containing 400 times the legal limit of uranium.

Despite accidents and encroachment on Indigenous land, uranium mining continues. Australia possesses 31 percent of the world’s uranium, and is the world’s third largest producer behind Kazakhstan and Canada. Uranium mining accounts for a workforce of 1200, generating $21 million in royalties annually and contributing over $42 million worth of taxes.

While it could be said that the Indigenous community is benefitting from uranium resources through jobs and native title compensation, Jillian Marsh, academic, activist and custodian of Adnyamathanha lands of the Northern Flinders Ranges in SA believes that it is the traditional land owners’ ‘cultural and spiritual connection to the land’ that makes Aboriginal communities ‘fundamentally opposed to the mining of uranium on their country’.

Marsh explains the Indigenous understanding of uranium: ‘We understand the toxicity of uranium from a spiritual and cultural point of view that is not recognised in Western science.’

Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh notes the disparity of the benefits of uranium mining, arguing that in the 1980s the Ranger mine was

successful in terms of managing the revenues. It built up some economic assets. It had a very equal approach to distributing benefits. It put a lot of money in improving people’s lives in terms of education and health.

This ended in the 1990s because of the uranium price collapse.

Power to execute land rights differs depending on whether Indigenous people are classified as Traditional Owners and whether they possess native title rights under the Australian Native Title legislation. Traditional Owners with native title are able to negotiate for compensation with mining companies who are either exploring or mining on Indigenous land. Marsh explains, ‘The legal framework says that you can only negotiate compensation, you cannot veto a mining operation or an exploration.’

Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory can also access rights under land rights legislation. The Northern Territory Land Rights Act allows for Indigenous communities to refuse mining operations on their land for a period of five years. After this, companies can reapproach communities. Professor Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh says that whether or not Indigenous communities possess the power to veto ‘profoundly effects their bargaining position.’

The strain of never-ending negotiations places pressure on Indigenous communities to grant mining companies land rights.

‘And the same thing happens under native title legislation,’ Marsh says. ‘The mining companies approach people with native title rights, they know that people don’t have the right to veto… So they just wear people down.’

Undergoing negotiations with mining companies is also a threat to local health.

It impacts on people’s health in a way that is not fully understood and certainly not recognised within the government regulatory process.

Engaging in negotiations is not a choice for Indigenous communities.

If you don’t agree to negotiate with a mining company they have the right to take you to the ERD Court and they can have your native title claim exempted from their process.

The Aboriginal Heritage Legislation also allows Indigenous communities rights. But the legislation doesn’t give the right to negotiate or to prevent mining, it only gives the right for Aboriginal people to be consulted. The consultation process rests entirely with the minister of Aboriginal Affairs so if it’s deemed necessary they can exclude Aboriginal people from the process.

The legal process severely disadvantages Indigenous communities. Marsh says:

There is a very similar pattern of oppression worldwide. Mining companies tak[e] a predatory approach to the way that they engage with traditional owners and Indigenous people… It has also been described as economic assimilation … It is a very politicised process and it’s designed to exclude Aboriginal people.

Uranium mining is a continuing issue for Indigenous communities. The Mirarr, traditional landowners of the North-East of Kakadu National Park, believe that they bear the responsibility of what happens on their land and thus they bear the emotional responsibility if the uranium is used, say, in making nuclear weapons. In 2011, following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Yvonne Margarula of the Mirrar wrote to the UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon to convey her sorrow. She wrote, ‘It is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands. This makes us feel very sad.’

Uranium mining, it seems, is here to stay, with the state Liberal governments lifting the ban in Queensland in 2012 and Western Australia in 2008.

The lack of respect for Indigenous cultures in regard to uranium mining has become abundantly clear. In July this year, Bob Hawke said at the Garma festival that the prospect of using traditional land for nuclear waste storage would, ‘eliminate these disgraceful gaps in well-being and lifetime opportunities… I have no hesitation whatsoever in putting the situation in very specific terms because I believe I have the answer.’

For Marsh, however, uranium mining ‘is about buying vulnerable people off. It’s about wooing them with money so that a portion of the community will go for that money … effectively silenc[ing] the people out there who are concerned that our cultural heritage, our spiritual lands and our human rights are not being respected or recognised.’

Katerina Bryant

Katerina Bryant is a writer based in South Australia. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Griffith Review and Island Magazine, amongst others. She has also recently been anthologised in the collection 'Balancing Acts: Women in Sport' (Brow Books 2018).

More by Katerina Bryant ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays