Four Mile Uranium Mine, Australia

Australia has the largest supply of proven uranium reserves globally and in 2015 was the third largest producer of uranium[1]. The Four Mile mine is the most recent Australian uranium mine to begin operation and uses in situ leaching (ISL)  to recover mineral uranium[2]. The Adnyamathanha people, the local indigenous tribe, were not fairly represented or considered when the Four Mile was being discussed and they experience a resource curse in which they are subject to a disproportionate quantity of hazards and are excluded from the benefits of uranium extraction.

Introduction:

The context of uranium in Australia is important to understand:

  • Australia is the third largest producer of uranium globally[3]
    • Linked to powerful global economies
  • Australia has the largest quantity of uranium reserves globally[4]
  • Australia does not produce any nuclear energy[5]
  • Uranium reserves in Australia are often located on indigenous peoples lands[6]
  • The majority of Australian uranium reserves are located in South Australia[7]

Australia’s abundant uranium resources and the increasing demand for uranium due to environmental factors[8] makes South Australia a resource frontier as new processes, methods and actors are drawn to the area in order to produce more uranium and meet increasing demand[9].

Marginalization:

Environmental injustice can be explained by three lenses: economic, sociopolitical and racial[10].  An economic perspective would say injustice occurs due to attempts to maximize profits, the sociopolitical perspective states that governments and companies often seek the path of least resistance and a racial perspective describes injustice as characteristic of historical patterns of systematic racism[11].  The injustice experienced by the Adyamathanha people can be understood as a combination of each of these perspectives.

Native Land Title:

Native title land refers to land which is inhabited or may be used by natives according to the Native Title (South Australia) Act of 1994[12]. Mining operations must reach an agreement with native peoples or receive a declaration from the State that the land is not subject to native title before beginning mining operations[13].  This process presents an opportunity for large corporations to bully local indigenous populations in order to sign agreements which allow for mining operations to commence[14].

In December of 2011 a native title mining agreement was reached with the local people allowing for the creation of Four Mile Mine[15].  The Australian Government claims that they are strict with environmental and safety requirements and protect the interests of local native populations through their mining rules and regulations[16] but local Adnyamathanha people have expressed concern over the inability of the Native Title to adequately protect indigenous interests[17].  Adnyamathanha community members have tried to fight against the bias in the Native Title but have not been successful due to limited resources and a lack of understanding of the legal system[18].

Figure 2: Map of “Australia’s uranium deposits with significant resources”

Addictive Economies:

The process of resource extraction such as uranium mining can be described as an “addictive economy,” a term coined by William Freudenburg[19].  When answering the question of do local communities benefit from resource extraction, Freudenburg concluded that in the short term they are likely to benefit but in the long-term they tend to be worse off[20]. This theory directly relates to the experience of the Adnyamathanha who describe feeling taken advantage of and ignored with the development of mining operations[21]. The Adnyamathanha are provided with a limited number of unskilled labor jobs and fear being left behind to deal with environmental degradation after extraction is complete[22].  The short term nature of uranium mining highlights the for profit motivations of mining corporations at the expense of the local indigenous population.

Environmental Degradation:

Pollution of heavy metals is common with uranium mining which has negative effects on the aquatic environment as well as the altering of the regions physical geography[23].   Extractive processes also involve physically altering the geography of the region which many indigenous populations depend on[24]. The mining companies are often able to get indigenous peoples to sign agreements through bribes and the promise of royalty payments which can divide the community[25].

 

Figure 3: How uranium mining pollutes land and water (Nuclear News, 2013)

Spirituality and Land:

The Adnyamathanha people tend to view land and water differently than the majority of white Australians. Mrs. Marsh stated “People say that Akurra the giant spiritual snake made these waterways and lives in the natural springs, and Mt Gee represents the head of the Adnyamathanha Spiritual Creator; these places are now being drilled, polluted, and destroyed by exploration and; others say the land is like a church to them’”[26]. The Adnyamathanha have a sacred relationship with the land and the water in a way that white Australians do not understand.  This separation creates marginalization from resource extraction and environmental pollution as indigenous populations depend on the land for their livelihood.

Figure 4: Adnyamathanha Cultural Performance (Thompson, 2015)

Resource Curse:

The Adnyamathanha people are experiencing a resource curse due to their proximity to uranium reserves.  This is due to the lack of access to extraction of the resource and power relations specifically lack of power within the local community.  Beyond not having access to any energy produced by local uranium, the Adnyamathanha people are often promised money and jobs associated with the mining process but these jobs are very limited and money is only given to select members of the community in order to gain approval[27].  The Adnyamathanha people have reported experiencing corruption within their community due to these bribes[28].  Uranium mining operations are also short term as companies come to extract the resource and leave as soon as the uranium is exhausted, leaving the local community in poor economic and environmental standing for years to come[29].  The Adnyamathanha people are bullied in the mining agreement process, do not have access to jobs and must deal with the health impacts of the mine[30].

Conclusion and Recommendations: 

It is clear that the Adnyamathanha people have experienced marginalization due to uranium mining.  The marginalization stems from many economic, sociopolitical and racial factors:

  1. Lack of political power
  2. History of racism/marginalization
  3. Inability of government programs to protect local interests
  4. Corporate bullying
  5. Different views of the environment between the Adnyamathanha and political/corporate interests
  6. Lack of economic opportunity
  7. Environmental degradation
  8. Corruption within the community

Moving forward there needs to be changes in Australian Native Land policy to ensure that indigenous populations such as the Adnyamathanha receive the proper representation, protection and opportunity.  If nuclear electricity is to begin in Australia, the indigenous populations need to be the first to have access to the electricity produced from uranium mined on their land.  There needs to be regulations that ensure mining companies are responsible for cleaning up the mining sites and returning them to conditions that are greater or equal to their original condition.  Australia should also provide indigenous populations with educational opportunities that allow them to obtain mining jobs that go beyond unskilled labor.

 

References:

[1] World Nuclear. (2016). Australia’s Uranium.  Retrieved from http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f/australia.aspx

[2] World Nuclear. (2016).

[3] Commonwealth of Australia. (2006). Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy- Opportunities for Australia. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Uranium Mining, processing and Nuclear Energy Review.  Retrieved from  http://www.ansto.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/38975/Umpner_report_2006.pdf on 3/1/16

[4] Commonwealth of Australia. (2006).

[5] World Nuclear. (2016).

[6] Geoscience Australia. (2013). Mineral Resources, Uranium.  Retrieved from http://www.ga.gov.au/scientific-topics/minerals/mineral-resources/uranium  on 3/23/16

[7] Geoscience Australia. (2013).

[8] Hansen, J., Caldeira, K., Emanuel, K., and Wigley, T. (2013). Top Climate change scientists letter to policy influencers.  CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/03/world/nuclear-energy-climate-change-scientists-letter/ on 3/23/13.

[9] Watts, M. (2012). A tale of two gulfs: Life, death, and dispossession along two oil frontiers. American Quarterly 64(3): 437-467.

[10] Mohai, P., Pellow, D., Roberts, J.T. (2009). “Environmental Justice.” Annual Review of Environment and Resource, 34, 405-430.

[11] Mohai et al. (2009).

[12] Government of South Australia. (2016). Department of State Development.  Retrieved from http://www.minerals.statedevelopment.sa.gov.au/land_access/native_title_and_aboriginal_land on 3/16/16

[13] Government of South Australia. (2016).

[14] Doman, M. (2008). Mining plan has SA Aborigines worried. ABC News. Retrieved from  http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2008/s2286645.htm  on 3/1/16

[15] World Nuclear News. (2011).  Adjournment bodes well for Four Mile.  Retrieved from http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/ENF-Adjournment_bodes_well_for_Four_Mile-0612117.html on 3/19/16

[16] Australian Government. (2016). Resources: Uranium. Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. Retrieved from http://www.industry.gov.au/resource/Mining/AustralianMineralCommodities/Uranium/Pages/default.aspx on 3/1/16

[17] Flinders News. (2009). Uranium mine risks to great: Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner.  Retrieved From http://treatyrepublic.net/content/uranium-mine-risks-too-great-adnyamathanha-traditional-owner on 3/5/16

[18] Green, J. (2012). Beverly Uranium mine owner has shocking record.  Retrieved from https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/51858 on 3/9/16

[19] Perdue, R.T. and Pavela, G. (2012). Addictive economies and coal dependency: Methods of extraction and socioeconomic outcomes in West Virginia, 1997-2009. Organization & Environment 25: 368-384.

[20] Perdue and Pavela. (2012).

[21] Flinders News. (2009).

[22] Flinders News. (2009).

[23] Noller, B.N. (1991). Non-radiological contaminants from uranium mining and milling at Ranger, Jabiru, Northern Territory, Australia. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment,19(1): 383-400. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00401327 on 3/3/16

[24] Flinders News. (2009).

[25] Green. (2012).

[26] Flinders News. (2009).

[27] Flinders News. (2009).

[28] Green. (2012).

[29] Flinders News. (2009).

[30] Flinders News. (2009).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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