Uranium Miners Turning Water Into Liquid Waste

Jim Green
Article published in The Advertiser (SA), July 25 2009

World Water Day on March 22 encouraged widespread reflection on worsening water depletion and pollution problems around the world. As the driest state in the driest continent, South Australia is the canary in the coal mine. But while many South Australians are pulling their weight by reducing water consumption and installing rainwater tanks, some industries are pulling in the opposite direction.

The uranium mining industry is perhaps the most egregious example. The daily extraction of about 35 million litres of Great Artesian Basin water for the Olympic Dam uranium/copper mine has adversely affected a number of precious Mound Springs - unique habitats which support rare and delicate micro flora and fauna, some species of which are unique to a particular Mound Spring.

BHP Billiton pays nothing for its massive water take for the Olympic Dam mine despite recording a $17.7 billion profit in 2007-08. That arrangement is enshrined in the Roxby Downs Indenture Act 1982 - as anachronistic a piece of legislation as you're ever likely to see.

In February 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard wrote to state Premiers seeking their agreement "to establish proper entitlements, metering, pricing and reporting arrangements for water extracted from the Great Artesian Basin." Asked whether his proposed new arrangements would apply to Olympic Dam, Mr Howard said: "Everybody's got to make a contribution to solving this problem." But within days, he voiced support for BHP Billiton's "right" to free water from the Artesian Basin. In other words, everyone except BHP Billiton has to make a contribution to solving this problem.

As The Advertiser noted in a November 2005 Editorial, it is “essential … to safeguard the artesian basin water supplies”. To that end, most users are subject to the Great Artesian Basin Management Plan. But BHP Billiton is a law unto itself - its Olympic Dam mine is not subject to the Management Plan and also enjoys exemptions from the SA Natural Resources Act 2004 and the Environment Protection Act 1993.

Another problem at Olympic Dam concerns the liquid tailings dams which are constantly expanding as water is turned into liquid waste. In 2005 it was revealed that over 100 bird deaths were recorded in a four-day period - the birds had drunk liquid tailings waste from the mine. Ongoing seepage from tailings dams are a further concern. Last Monday (March 23), photos taken by an Olympic Dam mine worker were released clearly showing radioactive tailings liquid leaking  from the so-called rock 'armoury' of a tailings dam. The leaks were ongoing for at least eight months and probably amounted to several million litres, but were not publicly reported at all. Serious questions must be raised as to BHP Billiton's capacity to safely manage radioactive tailings if, as planned, tailings production increases seven-fold to 70 million tonnes annually and water consumption increases to over 150 million litres daily (over 100,000 litres every minute).

BHP Billiton proposes continuing with its water take from the Artesian Basin and also building a desalination plant in the Upper Spencer Gulf to provide an additional 120 million litres daily. The proposed desalination plant has raised concerns over its impacts on marine species and fishing industries – in particular from the discharge of brine. The Upper Spencer Gulf is a low flushing fragile marine environment unsuited to siting a desalination plant and BHP Billiton’s preferred site at Port Bonython is the breeding ground of the Charismatic Giant Australian Cuttle Fish.

In-situ leach (ISL) uranium mining is used at the Beverley uranium mine and is the mining method proposed for use at other SA mines including Oban, Beverley Four Mile and Honeymoon. ISL involves pumping acid into an aquifer, dissolving the uranium ore and other heavy metals and pumping the solution back to the surface. After separating the uranium, liquid radioactive waste – containing radioactive particles, heavy metals and acid – is simply dumped in groundwater. From being inert and immobile in the ore body, the radionuclides and heavy metals are now bioavailable and mobile in the aquifer.

Proponents of ISL mining claim that 'attenuation' will occur over time - that the groundwater will return to its pre-mining state. However there is considerable scientific uncertainty about the future of ISL-polluted groundwater and uncertainty about the timeframe for attenuation if it does occur. A 2003 Senate References and Legislation Committee report recommended banning the discharge of radioactive liquid mine waste to groundwater. The Rann Government responded by commissioning a study which had all the hallmarks of a whitewash yet still acknowledged that attenuation is "not proven" and could only cite a period of "several years to decades" for it to occur. Yet the companies proposing to use ISL mining at Beverley Four Mile want to absolve themselves of any future responsibility for the site just seven years after they have finished mining. The future of ISL mining is plain to see - short-lived mines leaving South Australians with a lasting legacy of polluted aquifers.

The Australian Nuclear Free Alliance - which brings together Aboriginal custodians with representatives from environmental, medical and public health groups - is calling on the Rann Government to initiate an independent public inquiry into the impacts of uranium mining on SA's water resources. This inquiry ought to take place in the 12 months leading up to next year's state election. It would provide political parties with an opportunity to demonstrate their resolve to properly regulate the state's dwindling water resources and to address the contradiction between corporate water profligacy and the responsible attitude and actions of ordinary South Australians.

Dr Jim Green is Friends of the Earth's national nuclear campaigner and a member of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance's national committee.