BHP's Uranium Fiefdom


BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam uranium and copper mine is a state within a state. It operates under a unique set of laws enshrined in the amended Roxby Downs Indenture Act. That would be unobjectionable except that the Indenture Act allows Olympic Dam wide-ranging exemptions from environmental laws, water management laws and Aboriginal Heritage laws — and for good measure it curtails the application of the Freedom of Information Act.

Hundreds of Australians are protesting the mine this weekend. Their overarching concern might be expressed as what sociologists call "political blockage" — official avenues of grievance resolution are closed so people take matters into their own hands.

SA Liberal Party industry spokesperson Martin Hamilton-Smith — no friend of anyone who will be converging on the mine site later this week — said "every word of the [Indenture] agreement favours BHP, not South Australians." It beggars belief that the SA Labor government would agree to such one-sided terms; and it beggars belief that Mr Hamilton-Smith and his Liberal colleagues waved it through Parliament with no amendments.

The only politician to insist on some scrutiny of the amended Indenture Act was Greens MLA Mark Parnell, who was was accused of holding the state’s economy to ransom. Yet the transcripts of his late-night Parliamentary questioning of the Labor government ought to be required reading (see here and here). Time and time again the government spokesperson said that BHP wanted such-and-such a provision in the Indenture Act, and the government simply agreed without further consideration or consultation.

For example, Parnell asked why the Indenture Act retains exemptions from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. The government spokesperson replied, "BHP were satisfied with the current arrangements and insisted on the continuation of these arrangements, and the government did not consult further than that."

In a scathing assessment of the Olympic Dam royalties regime enshrined in the Indenture Act, journalist Paul Cleary wrote in The Australian on 21 October that the regime "has robbed the state’s citizens and all Australians of the opportunity to share in the profits of what will become the world’s biggest mine." He added that the agreement "will unfortunately stand as a sad and enduring indictment of the weakness of our state governments when it comes to negotiating with powerful mining multinationals."

Olympic Dam’s state within a state has autocratic tendencies. When a mine worker provided the media with photos of multiple leaks in the tailings dams in 2009, BHP’s response was to threaten "disciplinary action" against any workers caught taking photos. The SA government was conspicuously silent. Have the leaks of toxic tailings liquid been fixed? Who knows. It would be naive to believe anything BHP or the state government has to say on the subject.

In 2010, another worker was sufficiently concerned about occupational health issues at Olympic Dam that he leaked information to the media. The leaked documents show that BHP uses manipulated averages and distorted sampling to ensure its official figures of worker radiation exposure slip under the maximum exposure levels set by government.

The risks will escalate with plans for a massive expansion of the mine. The BHP whistleblower said. "Assertions of safety of workers made by BHP are not credible because they rely on assumptions rather than, for example, blood sampling and, crucially, an assumption that all workers wear a respirator when exposed to highly radioactive polonium dust in the smelter."

Mining consultants Advanced Geomechanics noted in a 2004 report that radioactive slurry was deposited "partially off" a lined area of a storage pond at Olympic Dam, contributing to greater seepage and rising ground water levels; that there is no agreed, accurate formula to determine the rate of evaporation of tailings and how much leaks into the ground; and that cells within a tailings pond covered an area more than three times greater than recommended, requiring "urgent remedial measures".

Serious concerns such as these, often raised by mine workers, have been afforded inadequate attention by BHP and the SA government, and there is little opportunity for any of us to investigate the matter independently.

But we do know that the management of radioactive tailings has been an ongoing headache for decades and that the rate of production is set to go through the roof — from 10 million tonnes annually to 68 million tonnes. And we do know that BHP has responded to worker concerns about tailings mismanagement with intimidation instead of information.

Leaks in the tailings retention system at Olympic Dam.

I’ll be at the Olympic Dam convergence for two main reasons. Firstly, out of solidarity with Traditional Owners who are ignored by BHP, ignored by the state and federal governments, and sometimes ignored even by their own people. BHP generously supports Reconcilitation Australia yet holds on tenaciously to its exemptions from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act — that sort of hypocrisy and cant needs to be exposed.

And secondly, I’ll be there because the domestic problems with Australia’s uranium industry are compounded by serious international problems.

Australia has uranium export agreements with nuclear weapons states that have no intention of meeting their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty disarmament obligations; countries with a history of secret nuclear weapons research; countries that refuse to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; countries blocking progress on the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; undemocratic, and secretive states with appalling human rights records.

Both major parties now support the abandonment of previous policies banning uranium exports to countries that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The federal government is planning to allow uranium sales to a Middle Eastern dictatorship — the United Arab Emirates. The last time Australia went down that path was in late 1978 when the Fraser government was negotiating with the Shah of Iran — a few short months before his overthrow during the Iranian Revolution.

All of these uranium export agreements are accompanied by safeguards inspection regimes that are at best modest, sometimes tokenistic (e.g. China) and sometimes all but non-existent (e.g. Russia).

Those converging on the mine later this week reflect broader public concerns about uranium mining. Opinion polls are roughly divided on the topic; typically, polls find that a majority of Australians want existing uranium mines to be allowed to run their course but a majority want a ban on new uranium mines. A 2006 Newspoll found even a majority of Coalition voters wanted a ban on new uranium mines, as did more than three-quarters of Labor voters.

Recent polls indicate that two-thirds of Australians oppose uranium sales to nuclear weapons states and two-thirds oppose the plan to sell uranium to India — a country which has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is engaged in a nuclear arms race with Pakistan and China. These are not fringe concerns.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.