The complex task of remediating four decades of imposed uranium operations in a World Heritage region is continuing inside Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory. Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), majority owned by mining giant Rio Tinto, has recently released the second version of its Mine Closure Plan (MCP) outlining how it intends to rehabilitate the Ranger project, Australia's longest running uranium mine.
Despite their clear opposition Ranger was imposed on the lands of the Mirarr Aboriginal people in the 1970s. In the decades since the mine has been a source of contamination, controversy and contest.
Under the terms of the mining license all mining and mineral processing at Ranger is required to end by January 2021. Mining ended earlier this decade and ERA is now processing stockpiled ore and increasingly turning its mind to the massive challenges involved in restoring the heavily impacted site. ERA is required to clean up Ranger to a standard where "the rehabilitated area could be incorporated into the Kakadu National Park".
Given that Kakadu is Australia's largest national park and is World Heritage listed for both its cultural and natural values and importance this is a very high bar and there are real concerns over how this will happen and whether it is even possible.
The general direction of the MCP is positive but, as ever, the devil is in the detail – or in this case, the lack of it. While outlining a broad rehabilitation pathway the MCP continues to defer detailed analysis and approaches to future iterations of the document over coming years. This approach is partly understandable as the works will evolve with experience and there are legitimate areas of uncertainty, but such an approach also allows considerable scope for future works to be driven primarily by corporate imperatives rather than defined environmental objectives.
The first MCP was released last year and reviewed in Unfinished Business (www.acf.org.au/reports), a joint report by national environment group the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and Sydney University's Sydney Environment Institute.
The report highlighted a need for increased scrutiny, broader stakeholder engagement and transparency to facilitate the best possible closure and rehabilitation outcomes at Ranger. These issues remain as unfinished business in the current version of the MCP.
A further uncertainty surrounding rehabilitation efforts at Ranger is ERA's financial capacity. In February 2019, a new ERA feasibility study significantly increased the estimated rehabilitation costs at Ranger to around A$925 million (US$633 million). ERA has assets of around $A425 million, or less than half the amount currently understood to be needed for the clean-up. This clear funding shortfall has been described by the Mirarr as 'a source of significant concern to the Traditional Owners' – an understated view shared by other stakeholders.
ERA has recently moved to provide some assurance over the finances needed for clean up by launching a renounceable share offer. It is planned that over three million new shares will be issued, with existing shareholders being offered the first purchase option. At the time of the launch Rio Tinto's head of energy and minerals, Bold Baatar, stated "we take mine closure very seriously and are ensuring that ERA is able to fund the closure and rehabilitation of the Ranger Project Area". Rio has committed take up its full entitlement and underwrite the initiative.
The new share issue will both increase Rio's stake in ERA and raise an expected A$476 million to aid in funding rehabilitation. The initiative is being currently being challenged by Singapore-based ERA minority shareholder Richard Magides and his Zentree Investments group who, unlike Rio Tinto, are keen to continue operations at Ranger. The Mirarr Traditional Owners have spoken of the urgent need to secure a funding solution and both they and ACF have welcomed the share move as an important step in providing certainty and capacity for the complex rehabilitation and closure effort.
The challenge posed in attempting to clean up a contaminated site in a tropical landscape is profound. This is exacerbated by the Aboriginal cultural significance and global recognition and awareness of Kakadu. Veteran resource journalist Matt Stevens recently wrote in the Australian Financial Review that Rio "wants to make Ranger the gold standard of mining rehab" and described Ranger as "the most important clean-up in Australian mining history".
In a single sentence he expressed the intent and the determination that has long driven the Aboriginal and environmental positioning around this work: 'this job has to be done right'.
Rio Tinto does seem committed to repairing decades of damage at Ranger. But trust is a finite commodity and must be built, demonstrated and delivered. The Ranger rehabilitation effort remains unfinished business and Rio Tinto remains the focus of global attention and scrutiny.