Plans for cleaning up the site of the Ranger uranium mine, which closes in January – and incorporating it into Australia’s largest national park, Kakadu – are being hampered by an unrealistic five-year rehabilitation time frame, uncertainty over funding and fears about a tailings dam leaking toxic contaminants into the surrounding national park.

These are some of the issues raised in a new report, Closing Ranger, protecting Kakadu, released by the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Mineral Policy Institute and the Environment Centre NT.

The report reviews the 2020 Ranger Mine Closure Plan and finds the objective that a rehabilitated Ranger site be incorporated into Kakadu National Park is being hindered by:

  • An unrealistic mandated time frame that requires rehabilitation being complete by 2026
  • Data deficiencies and technical issues, particularly around groundwater and tailings management
  • A proposal to leave the floor of the tailings dam in situ, risking contaminants entering Kakadu

Co-author Dr Rebecca Lawrence from the University of Sydney said uncertainty about the adequacy of rehabilitation financing – especially for site monitoring and mitigation works – is problematic.

“Rio Tinto has been called out for its failure to act responsibly at Juukan Gorge; as the main shareholder in the Ranger operation there is a risk Rio will fail at Kakadu if it does not get this rehabilitation right and secure financing for perpetual care and maintenance of the site.

“There is a requirement to isolate mining tailings for 10,000 years, but how can that be done without any funds earmarked for monitoring or post-closure management?”

In January 2021, following four decades of contested uranium mining and milling, operations at the Ranger uranium mine will end, leaving a heavily impacted site that requires extensive rehabilitation.

Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation said long after the mining companies have packed up and gone, managing the waste would remain a huge challenge.

“The community and environment of Kakadu need certainty and a comprehensive clean up,” he said.

“This work is a key test of the commitment and capacity of Rio Tinto, as well as the Northern Territory and federal governments.”

The report makes several recommendations, including that the closure period be extended through an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act and that the federal government fund an independent process to assess, monitor and manage the impacts of closure on Aboriginal people in the region.

The report notes the cultural legacy of Indigenous occupation and tens of thousands of years’ ownership of the Mirarr people, whose cultural values are integral to the cultural values of the World Heritage fragile ecosystem.

Closing Ranger, protecting Kakadu was written by Rebecca Lawrence, a research affiliate with the Sydney Environment Institute, Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation, Mia Pepper from the Mineral Policy Institute, Associate Professor Gavin Mudd from RMIT University’s Department of Environmental Engineering, Kirsty Howey, Co-Director of the Environment Centre NT, and ECNT’s Justin Tutty.

Read the full report.

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