ISP of ICSU Report No. 3, September 2000


Independent Science Panel of International Council of Science Union
Report no 3
September 2000

About the report

In October 1998 the World Heritage Committee (WHC) mission to the Kakadu Park World Heritage site expressed concern over the possible impacts of a proposed scheme to mine uranium at a lease site within the Park Boundaries at Jabiluka (JMA) on the natural and cultural values of the World Heritage site. At the request of the WHC, the Australian Supervising Scientist (SS) reported to the Committee on the scientific concerns raised. The WHC obtained the support of the International Council of Science (ICSU) to form an Independent Science Panel (ISP) to review this SS report.

The ISP concluded that the SS report had reduced the scientific uncertainties but that issues remained which needed additional analysis or clarification. The ISP made 17 principal recommendations but noted that its insights had been limited by lack of time and the need for both a site visit and further information.

In July 1999 the WHC requested ICSU to continue the work of the ISP in co-operation with the SS and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in an attempt to resolve the remaining scientific issues.

A crucial element in this ISP/ICSU activity was a visit to the Kakadu area by representatives of the ISP and IUCN in July 2000, including on site discussions with the SS and representatives of the mining company, the traditional owners and other groups. Prior to this visit other relevant issues had been drawn to the attention of the ISP, including the interim water management scheme at the Jabiluka site, a leakage of tailings water at Ranger mine lease (also lying within the Park Boundaries), and reported leaks of contaminated water from old mines in the Park. The relevance of these issues to Jabiluka was considered in the discussions during the visit and is described in this report.

Following the site visit the ISP and IUCN prepared separate reports of their assessments. These are presented here under one cover, with the IUCN assessment as Annex 4 of the ISP report.

There are many points of agreement between the two documents and the four recommendations by IUCN are referred to in the ISP report.

Published papers provided by the SS and others, discussions during the visit and observations on site enabled the ISP to gain a much more detailed insight than formerly into the possible impacts of the proposed mining on the natural values of the World Heritage Park. The ISP found that 10 of their original recommendations had been met. The remaining 7 required further consideration and this is addressed in detail in the report.

Although the ISP considers that the SS has identified and quantified all the principal risks to the natural values of the Kakadu World Heritage site that can presently be perceived to result from the JMA proposal, and has shown these to be very small or negligible, the ISP and IUCN consider that there is still need for a more comprehensive risk assessment of both the freshwater and the terrestrial ecosystem at a landscape - catchment scale. This is because the region is subject to major seasonal or long-term changes unrelated to those which might arise from mining activity.

Comprehensive monitoring programmes with accompanying analyses are therefore needed to distinguish between impacts from these differing causes and unforeseen problems arising from mining. Hopefully such data collection, monitoring and analysis could run for several years before mining starts due to the present delay at Jabiluka but if this is not possible ISP programme could run in parallel with an operating JMA. The ISP recommends that any risk analysis, whether concerned with the presently approved scheme or some future proposal, be undertaken on the basis of a mine life which may extend to 60 years. The ISP would also wish the Australian authorities to offer a strong statement of intent to provide comprehensive monitoring of the site and adjacent Park areas well beyond the time at which the mining company's obligations cease.

This delay in proceeding with the mining activity at Jabiluka has enabled new designs, which may further improve environmental aspects of the system, to be considered. This is welcomed by the ISP provided there are full discussions on these with stakeholder groups, particularly the traditional owners, a rigorous environmental assessment and independent review.

Arising from the leakage incident at Ranger and the consequent recommendations from the SS for improvements to the existing monitoring and review systems there is a clear need to strengthen and extend the on-site monitoring responsibilities of the SS at Jabiluka. The ISP found the staff of the Office of the Supervising Scientist and those undertaking research at eriss to be of high quality and to have good working relationships with the Park management, however the Office is under resourced. Additional commitment in terms of further protecting the natural values of Kakadu would change management procedures and require extra staff.

The present review arrangements lack transparency and an independent perspective. The ISP also perceived that the traditional owners feel excluded from the decision making process. There is a pressing need for an Independent Science Advisory Committee to regularly review activity at the Jabiluka site in the context of protecting the natural values of the Kakadu World Heritage site.

Recommendations for its membership and Terms of Reference are given in the report.