The smoke has finally started to settle over Australia's largest national park. For a week in mid-October, World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park burnt following the escape of a 'controlled' fire lit by the uranium mining company Energy Resources of Australia (majority owned by Rio Tinto) against the advice of the Northern Territory fire service. This was the second year in a row a 'controlled' burn lit by ERA turned into an uncontrolled wildfire.
In a case of good luck rather than good management, no one was seriously injured but, as the flames die down and the damage assessment and questions start up, more of ERA's shrinking credibility has literally gone up in smoke.
While the full extent of the damage is not yet known, the fire burned over 200 square kilometres, causing significant environmental damage and threatening ancient and important Aboriginal art and cultural sites.
The Kakadu environment is a living landscape − dynamic, peopled and inter-connected as was seen in the comments of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation which represents the regions Traditional Owners, the Mirarr people. ERA's failure to contain this fire demonstrates that nature does not discriminate between a uranium mining lease and a world heritage-listed national park. This is one continuous landscape and this situation has huge implications for the future rehabilitation of the mine site.
Rehabilitation is increasingly the main game at ERA's embattled Ranger mine. The mine has a finite operational window, with mining and mineral processing required to end in January 2021 to be followed by a mandated rehabilitation period during which the site needs to be repaired to a standard suitable for inclusion in the surrounding national park.
Following the fire the Mirarr Traditional Owners formally conveyed their continuing opposition to ERA's attempts to extend operations at Ranger past the 2021 date.
Recent years have seen ERA focussed on plans for a new underground mining operation at Ranger, the so-called Ranger 3 Deeps (R3D) project. For many stakeholders and industry observers ERA's pursuit of the project in the context of a depressed commodity price, an under-performing operation and a narrowing window for operations made scant sense.
In June, ERA's parent company Rio Tinto agreed, pulling the plug on R3D plans and instead offering to fund ERA's extensive, outstanding and soon to be called in rehabilitation costs on the proviso that ERA undertake no further mining at Ranger. In the words of a senior Rio Tinto source Ranger's future lies not in mining but rather in "remediation, remediation, remediation."
And the remediation challenge is profound. The impact of 30 years of mining has seen massive impact and the creation of multiple long term contamination plumes and pathways.
There have been over 200 hundred leaks, spills and incidents at the Ranger mine and there are severe and unresolved problems with the management of contaminated water and mine wastes. The mine plant is at the end of its design life and equipment and infrastructure is aging and failing.
This was starkly highlighted in December 2013 when a major leach tank failed spilling over one million litres of radioactive and acidic slurry. A subsequent site review commissioned by ERA confirmed the long held concerns of many stakeholders that the aging and failing plant is at full stretch. The review also raised serious questions about the adequacy of both infrastructure and management systems at Ranger, finding that the mine had 35 other failed or at risk pieces of critical plant infrastructure or equipment with the potential for major human safety or environmental impacts in operation at the time of the tank collapse.
Whether the threat is from wildfire, leaking tailings dams or toxic mud, in too many ways and over too many years ERA's operations have damaged and threatened Kakadu.
The freefall in the price of uranium since the Fukushima nuclear disaster − a continuing crisis directly fuelled by Australian uranium − has seen the uranium sector losing market share, share value and money. Since Fukushima ERA has posted years of consecutive losses that now total more than A$1 billion. The company is cutting costs and corners and posing an increasing danger to Kakadu.
The history of uranium mining in Kakadu has been one of broken pipes and broken promises. Sustained Aboriginal, environmental and wider community opposition and resistance has seen the development of Jabiluka halted and the threat of mining at nearby Koongarra averted. Kakadu's remaining radioactive running sore is the under-performing Ranger mine and it is time the wound is dressed. ERA has failed and it is now time for Rio Tinto to give effect to its corporate responsibility rhetoric and to commence a considered and comprehensive Ranger exit strategy.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has committed to an inquiry into the fire. This is welcome but any inquiry needs to be open and transparent, not simply another yellowcake whitewash.
Also welcome is the Northern Land Council's call that the federal government reinstate traditional Indigenous fire management practises across Kakadu. This would reduce the chances of damaging late dry season burns and massive greenhouse gas emissions and potentially open the door to future post mining income streams through measured carbon farming and abatement.
Kakadu has been burnt but it is ERA who should be in the firing line. The company lacks the commitment, capacity and competence to conduct such a dangerous trade in such a special place and the recent fire is further proof that it is time to close the chapter on uranium mining in Kakadu.