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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Supervising Scientist Annual Report 2000-01

Environment Australia, 2001
ISSN 1441-9335

1. Introduction

1.1 Role and functions of the Supervising Scientist

The primary role of the Supervising Scientist is to ensure, through research, assessment and the provision of technical advice, that the environment of the Alligator Rivers Region is protected from the effects of uranium mining to the very high standard required by the Commonwealth Government and the Australian people.

In summary, the functions of the Supervising Scientist, as specified in the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act 1978, are to:

The Supervising Scientist is part of Environment Australia. The Division of the Supervising Scientist consists of the Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist (eriss) and the Office of the Supervising Scientist (oss). To assist the Supervising Scientist in performing his role, oss carries out supervision, audit and policy functions, whilst eriss conducts research into the impact of uranium mining on the environment and people of the Alligator Rivers Region. eriss also conducts research on the ecology and conservation of tropical wetlands, and is a partner in the National Centre for Tropical Wetland Research (nctwr).

During the year the Supervising Scientist continued to ensure that the environment of the Alligator Rivers Region remained protected to a very high standard from the potential impacts of uranium mining.

1.2 Performance summary

The Supervising Scientist set objectives during 2000-01 to ensure that the functions listed in the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act 1978 were successfully fulfilled. Performance against each of those objectives is summarised below.

To assess the potential and actual effects of uranium mining on the environment and human health, and determine methods to minimise or avoid those effects

At Ranger mine, an environmental monitoring programme to assess the impact arising from the mine on Magela Creek and other streams was implemented. Advice on a revised site-specific trigger value for uranium in Magela Creek derived from recent and past uranium toxicity data for local species was completed. Landform evolution modelling technology was refined for designing and assessing the future rehabilitation works at Ranger uranium mine.

An environmental monitoring programme was developed that will be used to detect and assess potential mining impact at Jabiluka using baseline information collected on water quality and biota of Jabiluka streams.

A monitoring and research programme on sediment movement in the Ngarradj (Swift Creek) catchment was carried out. The aim of the programme was to develop advice on construction of the waste rock dump at Jabiluka so that water quality standards in Ngarradj are maintained.

Advice was provided to Parks Australia North and local Aboriginal people on radiological safety of the upper South Alligator River valley using radiometric surveys and measurements of radionuclides in freshwater mussels. Information from this work will also be used for planning the remediation of old uranium tailings dumps and minesites in the area. Technical advice was also provided to Parks Australia North on stabilisation works of an area of exposed tailings material undertaken in November 2000. Inspection of the stabilised area after the 2000-01 Wet season confirmed that the stabilisation works had been successful in preventing any significant dispersal of tailings material.

Advice on rehabilitation at the former Nabarlek uranium minesite was further developed through research. An erosion assessment was completed and a desktop hydrological analysis was planned for 2001-02 to complete this work and provide advice to regulators.

To ensure that management systems are implemented on uranium minesites in the Alligator Rivers Region that protect the environment and human health from potential effects

The mechanisms applied by the Supervising Scientist, in consultation with key stakeholders, succeeded in ensuring that there were no significant environmental impacts on Kakadu National Park as a result of uranium mining activities in the region during the year.

Substantial progress was made in implementing the recommendations of the final report of the Independent Science Panel of the International Council of Science Unions and the Supervising Scientist report Investigation of tailings water leak at the Ranger uranium mine (SSR 153). In particular, the supervisory and assessment regime applied by the Supervising Scientist to Ranger and Jabiluka was changed significantly. In January 2001 the Environmental Performance Review (EPR) system was replaced by a new environmental audit regime. The new audit regime complies with ISO 14001 and is a more rigorous and detailed assessment than the system it replaces. However, as Nabarlek is in the rehabilitation phase, the EPR system will continue to be used. In addition, monthly site inspections of Ranger and Jabiluka were introduced.

Also arising from the ISP report recommendations, the membership of the Alligator Rivers Region Technical Committee (ARRTC) was revised. Seven new members were nominated independently by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies. The revised ARRTC will aim to ensure that the quality of the science used in the research into, and assessment of, the environmental impact of uranium mining activities is of a very high standard.

Applications submitted by mining companies, within the region, for approval under Northern Territory legislation were scrutinised by the Office of the Supervising Scientist (oss). The Minesite Technical Committees considered issues of significance in relation to environmental protection, particularly the implementation of the recommendations of the Supervising Scientist report on the tailings water leak at Ranger and the development of explanatory material under the Commonwealth Ranger Environmental Requirements (Appendix 1).

A research grant was awarded to the Australian Centre for Mining Environmental Research (ACMER). The two-year project seeks to verify that Ecosystem Function Analysis can be used on rehabilitated minesites to assist in interpreting whether a self-sustaining system is evolving, using Nabarlek as one of the test sites.

Active exploration areas in the Alligator Rivers Region were inspected during the 2000 Dry season. Environmental management at these sites was satisfactory and continued to improve.

To provide advice, based on research and monitoring, to key stakeholders on the ecology and conservation of tropical wetlands

A fish survey of Aboriginal owned wetlands in the Djelk area (around Maningrida) was completed. Emphasis was placed on consultation and collaboration at local community level.

Standard approaches to wetland inventory, assessment and monitoring were further developed. Wetland inventory protocols were drafted for submission to the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel. A protocol for inventory of Asian wetlands was drafted and tested at a workshop in Japan and will be further revised.

Routine procedures for monitoring wetland change over northern Australia included completion of a GIS-based analysis of existing wetland data for northern Australia and Kakadu.

As part of a larger assessment of environmental flow requirements for the Daly River basin, an inventory and risk assessment of water dependent ecosystems was undertaken and a final report drafted.

A wetland risk assessment case study report for the Ramsar Convention was completed. Case studies on cane toads and mimosa were written and published by the Convention on Biological Diversity and submitted to the Ramsar Scientific and Technical Review Panel for information. Following completion of the risk assessment of cane toad impact in Kakadu National Park, a communications programme was developed with Parks Australia North.

Research opportunities for the National Centre for Tropical Wetland Research were identified and developed. Research projects were secured that cover the Daly basin and Ramsar climate change assessments. Training programmes were provided in Vietnam for weed control. The Centre organised the 39th annual congress of the Australian Society for Limnology and assisted the Australian Wetland Forum with development of a strategy to stop and reverse the loss of Australian wetlands.

To foster an understanding of the activities of the Supervising Scientist Division amongst stakeholders, particularly the Aboriginal community in the region, and develop a sound working relationship with those stakeholders

The employment and training plan for local Aboriginal people was implemented and involved sampling programmes on their own land. Information on eriss research and assessment activities and findings were disseminated through new project communications strategies, stakeholder feedback and evaluation, and a bi-monthly newsletter for Aboriginal associations. Regular meetings and discussions were held with Aboriginal associations rather than relying on written materials alone. Cross-cultural awareness training was made available to all Supervising Scientist staff.

The Supervising Scientist website was completed, and forms part of the Environment Australia website, with up-to-date information on activities. Two meetings of the Alligator Rivers Region Advisory Committee and one meeting of the Alligator Rivers Region Technical Committee were held.

To provide the Minister and Environment Australia with advice as needed to assist in decision making

High quality advice continued to be provided in a timely manner to the Minister and the Department including briefs and monthly reports on the activities of the Supervising Scientist and provision of other advice as required.

The existing Riverworks Tasmania projects were completed and funding of a new programme was approved for implementation in 2001-02 through the Natural Heritage Trust.

To ensure that the Supervising Scientist Division operates in accordance with Environment Australia and the Australian Public Service guidelines and requirements on financial, facilities and human resource management

The Supervising Scientist Division was managed in accordance with Environment Australia corporate requirements and its work programmes were consistent with the Environment Australia vision and values. The Supervising Scientist worked with other areas of Environment Australia to achieve corporate objectives.
The Supervising Scientist Division actively participated in Environment Australia human resource, financial and information management initiatives including the implementation of the Investors in People programme, the Performance Development Scheme, market testing of corporate services, and redevelopment of the Environment Australia website.

The Office of the Supervising Scientist, Parks Australia North (Darwin) and most of the staff of eriss are to relocate to a single Environment Australia facility in Darwin in 2002. The site for the new facility has been selected in an area adjacent to the Darwin International Airport. A Heads of Agreement was signed by Environment Australia and Darwin International Airport on 11 May 2001 to provide a suitable facility that will be leased by the Commonwealth for a ten year period.

1.3 The Alligator Rivers Region and its uranium deposits

The Alligator Rivers Region is centred about 220 km east of Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia (see fig 1.1). Comprising an area of about 28 000 sq km, it includes the catchments of the West Alligator, South Alligator and East Alligator Rivers, extending into Arnhem Land and south into the Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases. The World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park is wholly enclosed within the Alligator Rivers Region.

There are four mineral leases within the Alligator Rivers Region that pre-date the proclamation of Kakadu National Park: Ranger, Jabiluka, Koongarra and Nabarlek. Ranger is currently the only operational uranium mine in the region. Jabiluka is in the early development stage and mining of the orebody has not commenced. Koongarra is a significant uranium deposit but permission to develop a mine has not yet been sought. Mining at Nabarlek took place in the Dry season of 1979 and milling of the ore continued until 1988. The mine was decommissioned in 1995-96 and the performance of the rehabilitation and revegetation programme continues to be monitored prior to final close-out. There are also a number of former uranium mines in the South Alligator River valley that date back to mining and milling activities in the 1950s and 1960s. These mines were subject to a hazard reduction programme in the early 1990s and the need for further rehabilitation is the subject of negotiations between Parks Australia North and the Jawoyn Traditional Owners.

Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) operates the Ranger mine, which is 8 km east of the township of Jabiru. The mine lies within the 78 sq km Ranger Project Area and is adjacent to Magela Creek, a tributary of the East Alligator River. The Ranger Project Area is surrounded by, but does not form part of, Kakadu National Park. The Park has been inscribed on the World Heritage List. Ranger is an open cut mine and commercial production of uranium concentrate has been under way since 1981. Orebody No. 1 was exhausted in December 1994 and excavation of orebody No. 3 began in May 1997.

Jabiluka is 20 km north of Ranger and, unlike the other deposits, lies beneath a cover of cliff-forming sandstone. It is in the East Alligator River catchment, adjacent to Ngarradj (Swift Creek), which drains north to the Magela floodplain. It is also in a mine lease area not included in, but surrounded by, Kakadu National Park. The Commonwealth Government completed its assessment of ERA's Environmental Impact Statement, which provided for milling of Jabiluka ore at Ranger, on 22 August 1997. Since Traditional Owners have not agreed to the milling of Jabiluka ore at Ranger, ERA subsequently submitted a Public Environment Report (PER) based on a proposal to construct a new mill on the Jabiluka lease. The PER was accepted subject to a number of conditions. Construction of the portal, decline and ancillary facilities, elements common to both proposals, commenced on 15 June 1998 after the required approvals from the Commonwealth and Northern Territory Governments were granted. Stage 1 of the main decline was completed in June 1999. Development of Jabiluka ceased in September 1999 and the site has been in an environmental management and standby phase since then.

The Koongarra deposit is about 25 km south-west of Ranger, in the South Alligator River catchment. An Act providing for a change of the boundaries of the project (and thus the area of excision from Kakadu National Park) was passed in 1981 but was never proclaimed. The Koongarra deposit is owned by Cogema Ltd.

Figure 1 The Alligator Rivers Region

Figure 1 The Alligator Rivers Region