Wednesday, July 22, 2009

ACF calls for public to oppose Olympic Dam uranium expansion

The Australian Conservation Environment is calling on Australians to challenge BHP Billiton’s (BHPB) uranium expansion plan at Olympic Dam by making public submissions in the next two weeks. The proposal will represent another difficult decision on uranium mining for Environment Minister Peter Garrett. Having approved the new Four Mile mine last week, it will be his job to make the final decision on BPHB’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. The ACF says Australia should not become the uranium quarry to the global nuclear industry. “Our uranium exports fuel unacceptable nuclear risks and unresolved nuclear waste management around the globe,” says its statement calling for public submissions.

The ACF call is supported by local indigenous groups who have labelled the expansion “environmental genocide”. Rebecca Wingfield is a Kokatha custodian and an international human rights campaigner for Aboriginal people. She is also a traditional owner of the land around the Olympic Dam site. Wingfield disputes the claim of the SA government and BHPB that there is no scientific research proving the environmental harm of uranium mining. She also referred to the Manila Declaration signed by Indigenous organisations from 35 countries which says that mining exploitation without consent has led to “the worst forms of environmental degradation, human rights violations and land dispossession and is contributing to climate change.”

Unsurprisingly BHPB don’t quite see it that way. Their Olympic Dam is already a massive copper, uranium, gold and silver mine situated south of Lake Eyre in remote northern South Australia, about five hour s drive north of Adelaide. According to the Draft EIS for the expansion project, Olympic Dam is the world’s largest known uranium deposit and world' fourth largest reserve of copper. The massive 11 year expansion project involves the creation of a new open pit mine, an upgrade of the smelter and new concentrator and hydrometallurgical plants to process the additional ore. There would also be a desalination plant at Whyalla, a new rail network, a new airport, a new port at Darwin, a new barge landing facility at Port Augusta, and 270kms of additional electricity transmission lines also from Port Augusta.

The company town 14km from the mine will also be expanded. Roxby Downs was established in 1988 by Western Mining Corporation to service the uranium mine. BHPB bought out the mine in 2005 and with it the town. According to the 2006 census 4,054 now live there with continued growth expected. It is a young population – only 150 are over 55 and the town’s cemetery is empty. The residential population is supplemented by a fly-in/ fly-out workforce which brings the population up to 5,000. The local council claims that theirs is the most affluent postcode in the state: in 2006, the median individual weekly income was $1,103, more than double the national average.

But not everyone there seems very interested in the plans BHPB have for the town. The blog Stories from a Communist Lemon Factory reported that at the end of May the company held an EIS information session at the Roxby Downs leisure centre. However hardly anyone from the community attended. But the town won’t escape the development. The expansion will double the workforce to 8,000 and the new arrivals will need homes, shops, schools and other infrastructure.

Pro-development South Australian Premier Mike Rann also says the mining expansion will have big flow-on effects for the Roxby Downs community. “From the childcare to the local school, to a big increase in the size of the police station, particularly to do with the construction camp that will be part of the process of shifting a million tonnes of rock a day,” he said. The South Australian government is keen for the plan to go ahead. Rann has already given a go-ahead for a $10 million police station for an extra 30 officers to be operational by September.

The ACF does not dispute the economic growth the new project brings to Roxby but says that uranium is not the only option. ACF Nuclear Free Campaigner David Noonan says that the mine should expand with copper. “Setting out a path for Olympic Dam to process all its copper products in South Australia, instead of processing a bulk radioactive copper concentrate in China, would boost local jobs and be much better for the global environment,” he said. Noonan says the risks associated with uranium mining are too great. He says the EIS must explain how BHPB will manage the expanded mine’s bulk radioactive tailings waste for the 10,000 years they remain a radiological hazard. The writer behind the Communist Lemon Factory had similar concerns. “I have to wonder if Olympic Dam will become the next Woomera, forever haunted by its relationship with radiation,” she said.

Public submissions on the EIS must be in by Friday 7 August.

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