WA uranium debate undermines ‘green tape’ propaganda

Jim Green

The tumultuous and complex relationship between WA and the rest of Australia has flared up over the Federal Government’s involvement in environmental assessment through the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Some industry groups claim the assessment process involves duplication and is inefficient and that the Federal Government’s powers under the EPBC Act should be curtailed.

The EPBC Act is a creature of the Howard Government. Howard could be accused of many things, but wrapping up industry in ‘green tape’ isn’t one of them.

One of the environmental assessments at the centre of this quarrel is Toro Energy’s proposal for WA’s first uranium mine, at Wiluna in the Goldfields. The Wiluna proposal gained State environmental approval in October 2012. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke has requested more information before he makes his decision. This includes information on water supply and mine closure rehabilitation plans.

Toro Energy was permitted by the State Government to submit a ‘Swiss Cheese’ application − full of holes. The company has not completed a credible environmental study into the water consumption for the life of the mine. It has no credible modelling for the long-term, safe storage of radioactive mine waste. It has not completed studies of a new and possibly endemic plant species despite a recommendation to complete those studies by the WA Department of Environment and Conservation.

And to list just one of a number of other data gaps, Toro Energy has failed to carry out studies on the interaction between the groundwater and surface water of the lake system where it intends to dump radioactive mine waste. Any further approval of this proposal without more information would be dangerously deficient.

The vital issue of safeguards and WMD proliferation risks associated with uranium exports doesn’t get a look in at state or federal levels of assessment. That issue is supposedly handled by the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office (ASNO), a federal government agency with a track record of unprofessional, deceitful behaviour. For example, in 2008 ASNO told parliament’s treaties committee that “strict” safeguards would “ensure” peaceful use of Australian uranium in Russia and failed to inform the committee that not a single safeguards inspection had taken place in Russia since 2001.

If we want an example of why its important to get the detail right, we need look no further than Wiluna itself. Uranium exploration in the region in the 1980s left a legacy of pollution and contamination. Radiation levels more than 100 times normal background readings have been recorded despite the area being ‘cleaned’ a decade ago. A radiation warning sign was found lying on the ground, face down, along with rusting barrels.

Nationally, the uranium industry has been plagued with leaks, spills, illegal dumping of waste, secrecy and accidents. A 2003 report into uranium mining by the Federal Senate References and Legislation Committee found “a pattern of under-performance and non-compliance” and concluded “that short-term considerations have been given greater weight than the potential for permanent damage to the environment”.

In WA, a similar set of words around non-compliance were used to describe WA mining regulations in the 2011 Auditor General’s report into ‘Ensuring Compliance with Conditions on Mining’. The report states that there are “serious weaknesses in the monitoring of compliance with environmental conditions.” The Auditor General concluded: “We cannot give assurance that agencies are adequately aware of non-compliance or if environmental conditions are delivering the desired outcomes.”

That from the Auditor-General and still the WA Government not only accepts but approves a Swiss Cheese application from Toro Energy. Rather than attacking the federal government for seeking further information which is conspicuously absent in Toro Energy’s ‘Swiss Cheese’ mine application, the WA Government should investigate and address problems with and limitations of the state’s environmental assessment process.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.