By Louise Moody
ADELAIDE -- On November 14, Mines and Energy South Australia (MESA) announced that it had government approval to trial uranium mining in Beverley in the far north of South Australia. There was no public consultation, and related documents were released only after approval had been given.
Very few people realise that the state government has been pushing through a mine that will produce uranium as well as radioactive and toxic waste. And the rest of the country remains blindfolded to the fact that yet another uranium mine may receive Commonwealth endorsement within the next few months.
The Liberal state government and the mining company, Heathgate Resources, continue to work in secrecy, allowing the production of yellowcake to take place without an environmental impact statement.
South Australia is well on its way to becoming the nuclear state. It possesses the Olympic Dam mine at Roxby Downs, which has received approval to expand three-fold. It has an ugly past with Radium Hill, Maralinga and confirmed leaks from Roxby.
So it is not surprising the government wishes to keep its latest nuclear endeavours quiet. MESA claims that concerns over the mine's environmental, social and health impacts are "not for the public domain", and information is withheld for commercial confidentiality.
The Beverley uranium deposit is situated 520 km north of Adelaide, near the Gammon Ranges, east of Roxby Downs. It is surrounded by sparse hard trees and shrubs in a low rainfall area. This is one of the driest regions in Australia. The ore body was discovered in 1969 and is small, with a grade of 0.27%.
Heathgate, a subsidiary of US nuclear giant General Atomics, purchased the site in 1990. The mine site is on the land of the Adnyamathanha people, who know the site for its "poisonous ground".
There are four native title claims over the area. Two of the claimants have not opposed the trials, and the others do not agree with the mining proposal. There are also those in the community who have not made a claim, but are strongly against the Beverley mine going ahead.
Because the deposit is small, a mining method known as "in-situ leaching" or "solution mining" is used. This involves the injection of an acid leaching agent into the uranium ore body, dissolving it. The resultant uranium-bearing liquid is then pumped to the surface.
The method can be employed at a low financial cost, but involves many environmental and health dangers. There is a risk of the leaching liquid escaping the uranium deposit and contaminating surrounding aquifers. In 1982, the South Australian government refused to give mining approval to Beverley after the draft EIS received overwhelming criticism.
At a recent meeting between the Adnyamathanha community and environmentalists, Charles Foldenaeur, Heathgate's Beverley project manager, dropped in uninvited. He admitted that although the company would have "monitoring" points, he could not guarantee that the liquid would stay within the mining zone.
Heathgate cannot predict the movement of the liquid, because it does not know where there might be faults or changes in the underground structure.
In-situ leaching has caused disasters overseas. In situations like Beverley, town water supplies have been contaminated with a toxic mixture of uranium, heavy metals and chemicals.
In the Czechoslovakian site of Straz pod Ralsken, 28.7 million cubic metres of contaminated liquid contained in the leaching zone of 5.74 square km have spread horizontally and vertically. Now 28 square km and 235 cubic million metres of ground water are poisoned and threatening water supplies.
In Beverley, water is scarce. Any contamination would have a devastating effect on plant and animal life, as well as on surrounding communities. It is not possible to restore contaminated ground water to its original condition.
In Bulgaria, 10% of the surface area used to inject 2.5 million tonnes of sulphuric acid is poisoned with solution spills.
Indigenous groups internationally are opposing new in-situ leaching uranium mines, such as the Navajo people at Crownpoint, New Mexico, in the US. They have learned through contaminated land and community divisions that these projects threaten their country and the well-being of their people. The Navajo people have suffered sickness, particularly cancer, which they associate with the mining activity.
In a shock decision, the South Australian government has approved the dumping of mining waste into a local aquifer. Up to 16 million litres of radioactive, chemical and heavy metal waste will be left on site.
The SA minister for mines has validated this plan by claiming that this aquifer has no current economic use. This disposal method threatens to pollute the Great Artesian Basin underlying the aquifer. The matter is of obvious national concern.
With a federal election probable in the next six months, the Beverley uranium mine is being fast-tracked. Heathgate's EIS is expected in the next few months, although uranium is already being produced. The mine is expected to start full-scale production in as little as four months.
This will mean that the ALP's election promise of allowing no new uranium mines may be useless. Beverley is the government's dirty secret, locked away from public scrutiny.
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