Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett and Northern Territory Chief Minister Paul Henderson launched Alice Springs as a solar city on 10 March, a $37 million project with $12.3 million in Federal funding.
But the region could soon become renowned for its uranium mines, with 18 land reserves opened to exploration for minerals in the NT in 2006. Two of the largest deposits, Angela and Pamela, situated only 25 kilometres from Alice Springs, are already the subject of controversy. The stakes are high for environmentalists, politicians and mining companies alike.
The Angela and Pamela sites were the subject of a court case in 2007 after Perth businessman Norm McCleary pegged a last minute stake on the land. Exploration rights were granted to Cameco and Paladin in February. "If the Angela and Pamela prospects live up to their potential, their value could run to the billions, creating years of economic benefit for Central Australia," Chief Minister Paul Henderson said when announcing the exploration rights.
But the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory (ECNT) says the small size of the deposits mean that any local economic benefits would be short-term and minimal. "The mine would be relatively small, with a fairly short life. If, as seems likely, the deposits are developed as an ISL [in situ leach]mine, employment opportunities would be even fewer than for a conventional mine," says the ECNT’s Emma King.
Cameco is the world’s largest single uranium producer, responsible for around 21 per cent of world production. It was formed in 1988 after a merger between Eldorado and Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation. Eldorado ran Canada’s notorious Rabbit Lake mine, which is still being used by Cameco to process ore from other mines. In November 1989, a faulty valve on a pipeline carrying runoff from this mine burst, sending around two million litres of radioactive and heavy metal-bearing fluids into Collins Creek and flowing into Wollaston Lake. Saskatchewan MP at the time Ray Funk, called the incident a "total breakdown of the nuclear regulatory system."
Paladin is a West Australian company, also listed in Canada, which has interests in several deposits in South and Western Australia and the Kayelekera deposit in Malawi. Paladin also has a history of financial insecurity — just this week its shares slumped by 30 cents, wiping $184 million off its market value.
In Alice last week Cameco/Paladin held meetings with the Arid Lands Environment Centre and Central Land Council (CLC) an initial attempt to get consent from traditional owners (TOs) and environmentalists. CLC chaired a briefing meeting on site on Thursday 10 April with some of the TOs of the area.
Local activist, Mitch, attended this meeting. "Ninety per cent of people at that meeting were dead set against the mining and the exploration," she said, with TOs identifying concerns about contamination of water, wind and soil, and the impact on local plants and animals. "They were concerned for themselves but also worried about the wider community as well," says Mitch. When questioned, the company stated they would not be employing any Aboriginal people in the exploration process.
Without sovereignty claims on the land, there are few barriers to the company simply beginning work without the consent of TOs. This has already happened at a smaller deposit only 50km from Alice Springs at Orange Creek, where Scimitar Resources has already begun exploratory drilling without any consultation process.
The ALP has made assurances that an independent inquiry will be held before any mining of Angela and Pamela goes ahead. But the timing of such an inquiry would probably coincide with a required EPA — the NT finally established an Environment Protection Authority on 5 March this year, and there are concerns that a parallel process may not have the weight of an inquiry held before drilling takes place.
Overseas, Cameco is also attempting to expand its operations. In Nebraska, USA, the company is asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), for permission to use another 2.4 billion gallons of water over the 4.7 billion they currently use (per year) from the High Plains aquifer, the largest aquifer in America. There have been allegations of water contamination resulting in health issues at Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota. Studies like this one by the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, have found higher than normal levels of uranium and radon but failed to identify any public health risk.
Even without identifying toxicity risks the enormous amount of water used by mining could have detrimental effects on water availability in Australia’s most arid region.
"The Angela and Pamela uranium deposits are within Alice Springs’ water catchment boundaries," said Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Adele Pedder. "Mining and milling uranium consumes huge amounts of water. To mine in this area could cause significant water quality and quantity problems for Alice Springs residents."
The area has also been marked as of biodiversity and conservation significance by the Draft Northern Territory Parks and Conservation Masterplan.
Locals are also concerned about cultural impacts on their community, specifically that the mine will disrupt the annual motorcycle race held in June each year. "We’re aware that the Finke track goes right over the eastern end of our exploration licence and it’s near where the uranium comes to the surface," Cameco regional director Jennifer Parks told the ABC.
The new mayor of Alice Springs, Damien Ryan, is also vice president of the Finke Desert Race, which he calls "the single biggest community event in the town. Our event goes across a corner of the exploration licence," he confirmed. Ryan says exploration won’t affect the race this year, but "it will cause a problem in the future if the mine goes ahead."
As Mayor, Ryan says the proposed mine "is a pressing issue for the whole town." However, it is hard to tell which side of the fence the Council will fall on. The newly elected Council is yet to discuss the issue, having only just been convened, but Ryan says that "it will be one of our first items of business… it will be a very big decision for the Town Council as to which way they go."
Initial opinions appear to be divided, if not openly hostile. With very little information available as yet — Cameco wasn’t returning my calls this week — the company has an enormous public relations battle ahead if it wishes to convince locals that the mine is in their interests. The Arid Lands Environment Centre has scheduled a public meeting in Alice Springs on 7 May ahead of the deadline for public submissions on 25 May.
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