The Saturday Paper

Health: The legacy of the Ranger uranium mine.

New analysis of the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park casts doubt on government claims it is not linked to high rates of cancer and stillbirth in nearby Indigenous communitie­s.

- Max Opray

Carved out of the pristine surroundin­gs of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, the Ranger uranium mine has long been a site of deep controvers­y.

The mine may have been decommissi­oned in January, but concerns remain about its legacy, as the Mirarr traditiona­l owners suffer through a mysterious health crisis.

The stillbirth rate among Aboriginal people living near the mine is more than twice as high as among Indigenous Australian­s elsewhere in the Top End, and rates of cancer are almost 50 per cent higher.

A six-year Northern Territory investigat­ion into the issue failed to identify the cause, noting only that risk factors relating to diet, smoking and alcohol consumptio­n were higher in the local population than in other Aboriginal population­s.

The investigat­ion was conducted by staff at the Population and Digital Health Branch of the Northern Territory Department of Health and overseen by an independen­t reviewer in cancer, epidemiolo­gist professor Bruce Armstrong.

The report, published in November 2020, concluded ionising radiation from uranium mining was unlikely to be linked but did not categorica­lly rule it out.

However, a Flinders University Centre for Remote Health analysis of the government investigat­ion, published in the Medical

Journal of Australia this month, found that the parameters of the inquiry were too narrow.

“Cancer is a complex condition,” Dr Rosalie Schultz, author of the analysis, tells The Saturday Paper. “A study like this can’t find a definitive cause.”

The Alice Springs GP was concerned that the main outtake of the report was that Aboriginal people should smoke and drink less.

“Statistica­lly, it didn’t look like smoking and drinking caused the excess cancer rate,” she says. “It’s almost like blaming people rather than looking into the reasons – why is it people are smoking and drinking more in that area in particular, for instance?”

With more than 200 documented leaks, spills and other incidents associated with the mine, Schultz argues the impact of Ranger was multifacet­ed, including social consequenc­es not considered by the investigat­ion.

“Things like destructio­n of waterbirds and creeks, the worry of that when you get your food and livelihood from the land,” she says.

A senate estimates committee heard in 2009 that 100,000 litres of contaminat­ed water a day was leaking from the mine’s tailings dam into rock fissures beneath Kakadu.

In another breach in 2004, dozens of mine employees were found to have showered in and consumed water containing 400 times the legal limit of uranium.

In response to the release of the Territory government report, Reuben Cooper, chair of the Red Lily Health Board Aboriginal Corporatio­n, welcomed messages “to encourage reduction in smoking and alcohol consumptio­n” but said the findings offered an incomplete picture.

“This investigat­ion does not discuss the reasons for higher rates of smoking and alcohol consumptio­n in the Gunbalanya– Kakadu region,” he said, “which could include factors such as cultural dislocatio­n, stress and royalty payments. Nor does it discuss the potential social impacts that the uranium mining industry has had on the population in the region.”

Schultz’s analysis expands further on these points, noting how unevenly distribute­d royalty money can increase inequality and the ways in which locals were deprived of a sense of agency and authority.

“The inquiry didn’t look at other knowledge, such as the Dreaming stories about sickness country,” Schultz says.

Centuries before Western science understood the dangers of radioactiv­e substances, Aboriginal people were avoiding the uranium-rich sites near Kakadu, which were considered inappropri­ate places to camp.

The Dreaming stories of the Jawoyn people warn against disturbing stones or drinking water in what they called “sickness country” south of Ranger, beneath which Bula the creator is said to lie dormant.

In and around the Ranger site itself, the Dreaming stories of the Mirarr warn of sacred sites that are dangerous to disturb.

Asked about Schultz’s concerns regarding the scope of the inquiry, NT Health agreed that further investigat­ion would be of benefit. “Considerat­ion of broader social impacts of the mine, inclusive of Aboriginal consultati­on, may provide complement­ary informatio­n,” a spokespers­on told The Saturday Paper.

“While detailed social inquiry was not funded or included in the scope of the initial investigat­ion, NT Health would welcome future research into the social impacts of mining activities.”

The spokespers­on added that there was insufficie­nt data available to quantify lifestyle risk factors related to alcohol consumptio­n, diet and smoking.

With no data available about individual exposure to ionising radiation, the report authors concluded this was unlikely to have been a contributi­ng factor based on measuremen­t of environmen­tal radiation levels, consumptio­n of bush tucker, and airborne exposure to radon gas.

Justin O’brien, chief executive of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporatio­n, which represents the Mirarr people, says the “shocking paucity of data” extends to all aspects of the health and social impacts of the mine. “It’s a very limited data set, so no wonder the findings are inconclusi­ve,” he says.

Ranger’s operators were warned the impacts should be monitored from the early days of the mine, which started operation in 1980. A 1984 report by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

Studies made recommenda­tions including for the continued monitoring of the social impact of uranium mining in the region.

“It is plain from North and South American evidence that impact on Indigenous communitie­s – on their health, culture, and social wellbeing, is really visible after 20 years, not the initial five years,” the report read. “There is clearly a case for monitoring the social impact of uranium mining wherever it occurs in Australia.”

The recommenda­tions were accepted at the time by the federal government but never implemente­d.

With the mine decommissi­oned in January this year, O’brien is concerned about whether operators Energy Resources of Australia, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, will properly rehabilita­te the Ranger site, warning that radioactiv­e waste from uranium mining can remain hazardous for tens of thousands of years.

“This is just the first chapter of the legacy of this mine, and the world is watching Rio Tinto,” he says. “The mining company has been given five years to complete all the rehabilita­tion work – this is patently insufficie­nt.”

The federal government requires that all rehabilita­tion be complete by 2026, with monitoring to follow. The government expects the site to reach a state whereby it could potentiall­y be incorporat­ed into Kakadu National Park.

O’brien hopes to see further investigat­ion of the impacts of the mine but this time with a different lens.

“If you’re only talking about cancer through the Western scientific model, it alienates a lot of Aboriginal people who worry it might attract cancer to them if they even talk about it,” he says. “We need to explore what it’s meant for the local lifestyle, for the town. Let’s have the conversati­on on Aboriginal terms, on Aboriginal turf.”

For Schultz’s part, the monitoring of Ranger failed even in the context of

Western science. “They didn’t do what was recommende­d to consider local perspectiv­es and concerns,” she says. “It was a top-down epidemiolo­gical approach, where if you can exclude ionising radiation, the mine is off the hook. It feels like the science is taking a narrower approach now – we used to have researcher­s embedded in communitie­s. Forty years later … we just look at five data points and that’s it.”

 ?? Via Getty Images Christian Vaisse / Gamma-rapho ?? The Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.
Via Getty Images Christian Vaisse / Gamma-rapho The Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

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