Ranger Uranium Mine, Australia

Located within Australia’s Northern Territory, Ranger Uranium mine is the second largest uranium producing mine in Australia and third largest in the world[1]. Operated by Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), uranium drawn from it is exported all over the world to run nuclear power facilities. Though this uranium provides a relatively clean source of electricity for these countries, environmental injustices in the Ranger Mine site have arisen due to the extreme pursuit of profits by mining companies and their disregard for environmental and indigenous well being[2].

Ranger Mine PIt (Reuters 2013)
Ranger Mine Pit (Reuters 2013)

 

Site Background and Energy Context

First opening in 1981, Ranger mine has been steadily producing processed uranium oxide ever since. This uranium is then sold as an export, bringing in around $250 million annually for ERA[3]. It is clear the mine has been a large source of income for Australia, but the way the land came to be under non-indigenous ownership was less than fair. When uranium exploration and mining was first proposed to the Mirarr people (the original landowners of the Ranger site), it was met with firm opposition[4]. However, these indigenous people were no match for the combined power of the Australian federal government and the mining industry. Thus, in 1976, the Mirarr people were strong-armed into allowing development of the mine[5]. As one researcher puts it, “Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘economic development’ and ‘the national interest’ overrode Aboriginal opposition[6].” Starting in 1981, the mining authority runs until 2021, after which all mining activities must be stopped[7]. Also in this agreement is a commitment by ERA to have the mine site rehabilitated by 2026, a task recent estimates put at around $600 million[8].

To give a sense of the energy context in which Ranger Mine exists, Australia generates 86% of its electricity from fossil fuels[9]. This is mostly due to Australia’s large reserves of coal, which fuel 73% of electricity production[10]. Currently, Australia has zero nuclear power plants, meaning they export 100% of the uranium they mine[11]. It is uranium mining’s economic benefits that keep the system going. In fact, in 2012, 20% of Australia’s entire GDP came from mining and mining services, about a quarter of which is uranium[12].

"Electricity Generation Across Australia" (Origin 2015)
“Electricity Generation Across Australia” (Origin 2015)

Current Status

While Ranger mine may have been a huge source of economic gains in the past, recent years have seen its production steadily decline. First, Ranger mine has been negatively affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which reminded the world of the destructive capabilities of nuclear power[13]. Second, Ranger mine has mined out all of its current pits; pit 3, the most recent to be dug, was mined out in 2012, and only ore refinement has occurred at Ranger since[14]. Also hurting the ERA are required royalty payments they must give to local indigenous groups, to the tune of 5.5% of gross sales revenue, along with a yearly $200,000 land rental fee.

These declines in profitability, combined with increasing costs needed to meet rehabilitation commitments, have led ERA’s parent company, Rio Tinto, to publicly state that it will not support further mining at the Ranger site[15]. With Mirarr traditional owners echoing these sentiments as well, it seems the end of the lease in 2021 will also be the end of Ranger mine[16]. However, its environmental and social impacts will surely live on long after it is no longer active, due to the lackluster way ERA and Rio Tinto have handled its operation and supervision in an effort to cut costs.

Analysis

When looking at the mining of uranium in Ranger mine and taking note of who is paying the costs and receiving the benefits, an obvious inequality emerges. In the uranium production process, the mining companies and the wealthy countries Australia supplies uranium to are the ones that profit, while the indigenous population and local environment surrounding the mine pay the price[17]. In other words, there exists an unfair distribution of the mine’s benefits and burdens. These ‘burdens’ manifest themselves in the pollution and negative health effects that Ranger mine creates. This disparity violates two of Mohai et Al’s principles of environmental justice, which classifies it an environmental injustice.

-“Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things[18].”

-“Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production[19].”

Wetlands near Ranger site (Garcia 2009)
Wetlands near Ranger site (Garcia 2009)

When searching for the true extent to which the Ranger mine has affected the surrounding area, one must realize that many sources tell only one side of the story. For example, on the ERA website page on land rehabilitation, they talk about all the money they have invested to restore the land back to its original state and their optimistic goals for the future[20]. There is no mention anywhere of the more than 150 leaks, spills, and license breaches that have occurred at the Ranger mine since its opening[21]. So, while the ERA may publicly put on a face of deep environmental concern, the real story is that, as one environmentalist puts it, “‘The Ranger mine has a long history of cutting corners with worker and environmental safety standards[22].’”

In the case of Ranger mine, a situation in which measures have been taken to ensure property rights were (somewhat) fairly laid out and compensation was provided, we still see environmental injustice. The Ranger mine ownership group consistently prioritized cost saving over the safety of the surrounding land and populations. Though discredited by mining agencies as inconclusive, one 2006 study found that cancer cases among indigenous peoples were roughly double the normal amount for those living near Ranger mine[23]. Strangely, since the mine began operation in 1981, not a single official study has been done on the possible health effects of the mine on local indigenous populations[24].

The ERA and parent company Rio Tinto are further displaying their lack of accountability for the Ranger mine’s environmental effects by refusing to accept full responsibility for the rehabilitation of the mine’s lands. The CEO of Rio Tinto has argued that cleanup is clearly an issue for ERA, as they are the active owners of the mine[25], but ERA has said that they may not have the means to fully fund rehabilitation, and thus will rely on Rio Tinto[26]. When the mine was producing at full capacity and cleanup costs were far on the horizon, these companies were more than happy to reap the benefits the mine provided. Now, when it has come time to pay the costs, they are doing everything they can to distance themselves from them. Until the companies take measures to seriously address the long term rehabilitation of Ranger mine land, it is the surrounding environment and people that will suffer the consequences[27].

The inherent danger of nuclear power, while it may seem out of the picture for the mining ownership, is not lost on the indigenous populations. Many of these people, who have a cultural and spiritual connection to their land, feel responsible for the effects that the resources drawn from it cause, even after they have been transported to other parts of the world[28]. The Mirarr people realize an important truth, that in nuclear power, the story does not end when uranium is exported, the danger it possesses while being used and once it is discarded as waste make the end of the uranium chain the most unsustainable.

Mine warning sign (Garcia 2009)
Mine warning sign (Garcia 2009)

Moving Forwards

Thus, while the mining authority for Ranger mine will expire in 2021 and all mining activities will be halted, there is still much that remains uncertain. ERA and Rio Tinto have literally dug themselves into a huge hole with Ranger mine, and face hundreds of millions of dollars in costs and a relatively short time window to fulfill their obligation to clean and rehabilitate the mining site[29]. The end of the Ranger mine can be attributed to the job done to hold the mining ownership accountable for its practices. ERA was forced to internalize many of the externalities associated with the mining and eventually pull out of the mining site. One can only hope it is not too late for the land and for the people to recover and rehabilitate.

References

[1] Mining-technology.com. (2013, November 4). The ten biggest uranium mines in the world. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from http://www.mining-technology.com/features/feature-the-10-biggest-uranium-mines-in-the-world/

[2] Murdoch, L. (2009, March 13). Polluted water leaking into Kakadu from uranium mine. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved February 28, 2016, from http://www.smh.com.au/national/polluted-water-leaking-into-kakadu-from-uranium-mine-20090312-8whw.html

[3] World Nuclear Association. (2016b, January). Australia’s Uranium Mines. Retrieved February 28, 2016, from http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f/appendices/australia-s-uranium-mines.aspx

[4] Gundejeihmi Aboriginal Corporation. (n.d.). Uranium Mining. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from http://www.mirarr.net/uranium-mining

[5] Gundejeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (n.d.)

[6] Banerjee, S. (2000). Whose land is it anyways? National interest, indigenous stakeholders, and colonial discourses. Organization and Environment, 13(1), 3-38.

[7] World Nuclear Association (2016b)

[8] Hagemann, B. (2014). Rio tinto called to account for ERA rehab funding at ranger uranium mine. Australian Mining, Retrieved ON DATE from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1530873041?accountid=10207

[9] Origin. (2015, January 22). Energy in Australia. Retrieved March 2, 2016, from https://www.originenergy.com.au/blog/about-energy/energy-in-australia.html

[10] Origin (2015)

[11] World Nuclear Association (2016a)

[12] World Nuclear Association (2016a)

[13] World Nuclear Association (2016a)

[14] World Nuclear Association (2016b)

[15] Macdonald-Smith, A. (2016, January 12). Energy Resources of Australia nears decision on future of Ranger uranium mine. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved February 28, 2016, from http://www.smh.com.au/business/energy/energy-resources-of-australia-nears-decision-on-future-of-ranger-uranium-mine-20160111-gm3tsq.html

[16] Macdonald-Smith (2016)

[17] World Nuclear Association (2016a)

[18] Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J. T. (2009). Environmental Justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 405-430. Retrieved April 27, 2016.

[19] Mohai et al (2009)

[20] Energy Resources of Australia. (2015, May). Progressive rehabilitation [Ranger mine rehabilitation factsheet]. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from http://www.energyres.com.au/documents/Progressive_rehabilitation_fact_sheet_May_2015(1).pdf

[21] Davidson, H. (2015, April 14). Concerns raised about uranium mine being able to afford clean-up in Kakadu. The Guardian. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/14/concerns-raised-about-uranium-mine-being-able-to-afford-clean-up-in-kakadu

[22] Murdoch (2009)

[23] Bryant, K. (2014, September 15). Uranium mining, waste and Indigenous Australia. Retrieved February 29, 2016, from https://overland.org.au/2014/09/uranium-mining-waste-and-indigenous-australia/

[24] Bryant (2014)

[25] Hagemann (2014)

[26] Davidson (2015)

[27] Murdoch (2009)

[28] Bryant (2014)

[29] Davidson (2015)

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