Supervising Scientist Division

Supervising Scientist Annual Report 2002 - 2003: Introduction

Supervising Scientist, Darwin, 2003
ISBN 0 642 24383 2
ISSN 0 158-4030

1 - Introduction

1.1 Role and Functions of the Supervising Scientist

The Supervising Scientist is a statutory office under the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act 1978 (the EPARR Act) and the occupant of the office is the head of the Supervising Scientist Division within the Department of the Environment and Heritage.

The Supervising Scientist Division consists of the Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist (eriss) and the Office of the Supervising Scientist (oss).

eriss conducts environmental monitoring and research into the impact of uranium mining on the environment and people of the Alligator Rivers Region of the Northern Territory. 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).

oss carries out supervision, audit and policy functions in relation to uranium mining in the Alligator Rivers Region.

In summary, the functions of the Supervising Scientist, as specified in the EPARR Act, are to:

1.2 Performance Summary

Performance information for the Supervising Scientist is provided against sub-outputs contained within the Department of the Environment and Heritage's 2002-03 Portfolio Budget Statements (PBS).

The activities of the Supervising Scientist fall within Outcome 1, which is:

The environment, especially those aspects that are matters of national environmental significance, is protected and conserved.

Outcome 1 is divided into nine separate Outputs. The Supervising Scientist reports against sub-activities within the Industry (Output 1.6) and Inland Waters (Output 1.7) outputs.

1.2.1 Performance Summary for Output 1.6 - Industry

Supervision and Research on the Environmental Impact of Uranium Mining in the Alligator Rivers Region
Extent to which environmental research on the effects of uranium mining provides the Supervising Scientist with the information required to undertake his role. The research conducted by eriss provides the Supervising Scientist with the scientific and technical information needed for him to fulfil his role.

Ecotoxicological assessments of magnesium sulphate, aluminium and uranium for local aquatic organisms were either completed or commenced.

Environmental monitoring programmes were implemented at Ranger and Jabiluka to assess potential impacts of the mine sites. Information from the monitoring programmes indicated that ecosystems downstream of mining activities were protected from the potential deleterious impacts of uranium mining.

Research on baseline stream sediment movement in Swift Creek (Ngarradj) neared completion. Work on the erosion and hydrology of the Nabarlek minesite was carried out to assess the status of rehabilitation of the mine.

A radon and meteorological measurement network has been set up and data were obtained from locations in the Ranger/Jabiluka region.

Research activities are described in Section 3 of this Annual Report.
Extent to which local standards for air and water quality and radiation levels are met. Local standards for air and water quality at the Ranger and Jabiluka sites were met during 2002-03. There were no recorded exceedances of any radiation limits or site-specific water quality limits at either site resulting from operational activities.

Further information on monitoring programme outcomes is included in Sections 2 and 3 of this Annual Report.
Extent to which routine minesite inspections and environmental audits are completed in accordance with the requirements of the ISO 14000 series of standards and are supported by an environmental monitoring programme. Routine inspections of minesites were carried out with representatives of the Northern Territory Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development (DBIRD) and the Northern Land Council (NLC). The Annual Environmental Audit and Mid Term Review were completed in accordance with the requirements of the ISO 14000 series of standards. The Supervising Scientist Environmental Monitoring Programme provided data that supported these audit processes.

Detailed information on these inspections can be found in Section 2 of this Annual Report.
Number of reports including peer reviewed articles and presentations on standards, practices and procedures developed to protect the environment and people from the effects of uranium mining. A total of 34 reports (including peer reviewed articles and presentations) on standards, practices and procedures developed to protect the environment and people from the effects of uranium mining were prepared during 2002-03.

Appendix 1 of this Annual Report contains a full list of articles and presentations in 2002-03.
Number of reports including peer reviewed articles and presentations on measures developed for the rehabilitation of the environment following uranium mining activities. A total of 11 reports (including peer reviewed articles and presentations) on measures developed for the rehabilitation of the environment following uranium mining activities were prepared during 2002-03.

Appendix 1 of this Annual Report contains a full list of articles and presentations in 2002-03.

1.2.2 Performance Summary Output 1.7 - Inland Waters

Wetland Ecology and Conservation
Extent to which threats to tropical wetlands are identified and assessed. In collaboration with Parks Australia North staff an ecological risk assessment of key invasive species on Kakadu wetlands was commenced. Mimosa, paragrass and salvinia on the Magela floodplain were mapped using a GIS, and a prototype cost-of-control model developed for mimosa. As part of a collaborative project with Northern Territory University (Key Centre for Tropical Wildlife Management), PAN staff and Traditional Land Owners, the development of a Strategic Management Plan for exotic feral animals was commenced. In particular, the development of Decision Support Tools for the management of feral pig damage in different wetland habitats is underway.
Extent to which eriss contributes to requirements of international agreements and national policies on the wise use of wetlands and methods of assessment. During 2002-03, technical guidance was provided for international agreements and assessments, such as the Ramsar Convention's Scientific and Technical Review Panel, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and Wetlands International projects.

Further information can be found in Section 6 of this Annual Report.
Extent to which managers and users of tropical wetlands are provided with information and expertise to enable the wise use of wetlands through sustainable practices. Information and expertise on the wise use of tropical wetlands was made available to managers and users through a range of publications, presentations at conferences and seminars, and through the Supervising Scientist's website, www.deh.gov.au/ssd.

Appendix 1 of this Annual Report contains a full list of articles and presentations in 2002-03.
Number of reports, including peer reviewed articles and presentations, on techniques developed for mapping wetlands distribution and monitoring change (including that caused by climate change and sea level rise). A total of 26 reports (including peer reviewed articles and presentations) on techniques developed for mapping wetlands distribution and monitoring change (including that caused by climate change and sea level rise) were prepared during 2002-03.

Appendix 1 of this Annual Report contains a full list of articles and presentations in 2002-03.

1.3 The Alligator Rivers Region and its Uranium Deposits

The Alligator Rivers Region is approximately 220 km east of Darwin (see Figure 1.1). Encompassing an area of about 28 000 km², it includes the catchments of the West Alligator, South Alligator and East Alligator Rivers, extending into west Arnhem Land. 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. These are Ranger, Jabiluka, Koongarra and Nabarlek. Ranger is currently the only operational uranium mine in the region. Development work at Jabiluka ceased in 1999 and the site is currently in care and maintenance pending a decision relating to long-term options. Koongarra is a significant uranium deposit but permission to develop a mine has not yet been sought. Nabarlek was operational in the 1970s and 1980s but has now been decommissioned.

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.

1.3.1 Nabarlek

Nabarlek is located approximately 280 km east of Darwin. Queensland Mines Ltd (QML) undertook mining at Nabarlek during 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.

Figure 1.1: Alligator Rivers Region

Figure 1.1: Alligator Rivers Region

1.3.2 Ranger

Energy Resources of Australia Ltd (ERA) operates the Ranger mine, which is 8 km east of the township of Jabiru. The mine lies within the 78 km² 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.

Ranger is an open cut mine and commercial production of uranium concentrate (U3O8) has been under way since 1981. Orebody No. 1 was exhausted in December 1994 and excavation of orebody No. 3 began in May 1997.

Planning has commenced for eventual decommissioning and rehabilitation of the site.

1.3.3 Jabiluka

The Jabiluka mineral lease abuts the northern boundary of the Ranger Project Area with the Jabiluka minesite some 20 km north of the Ranger minesite. It is owned by ERA.

Unlike the other deposits, the Jabiluka orebody 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 surrounded by, but not included in, 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 that time.

Discussions between ERA, the Commonwealth and Northern Territory Governments, the Northern Land Council and the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation (representing the area's Traditional Owners, the Mirrar people) took place during 2002-03 with the broad goal of establishing a more passive long-term management system.

1.3.4 Koongarra

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 has not been proclaimed. The Koongarra deposit is owned by Cogema Australia Ltd.

1.4 Senate Inquiry into the Environmental Regulation of Uranium Mining

On 20 June 2002 the Senate referred to its Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee the matter of the environmental regulation of uranium mining to the Committee for inquiry and report. The Committee's report was originally due for tabling on 5 December 2002, but this date has been extended twice by the Senate. As of 30 June 2003, the report was due to be tabled on 19 August 2003.

The terms of reference for the inquiry were:

The Supervising Scientist made four submissions to the inquiry. The first submission provided a comprehensive response to the Inquiry's Terms of Reference.

Three subsequent submissions were made in order to clarify certain issues raised either when the Committee took evidence or in other written submissions.

The initial submission of August 2002 provided background information on and descriptions of:

Appendices to the initial submission were:

The Committee visited the Northern Territory and took evidence in Darwin on 30 September 2003 and in Jabiru on 1 October 2003. Staff of the Supervising Scientist gave evidence at the Darwin hearing.

The Committee also took evidence in Adelaide on 4 October 2003 and Canberra on 18, 22 and 24 October 2003. The Committee took evidence from Professor Barry Hart, Chairperson of ARRTC, via telephone on 24 October 2002.