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Office of the Supervising Scientist

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 16 Oct 2012

Supplemantary Budget Estimates - 16 October 2012 - Environment and Communications Committee

Senator LUDLAM: Welcome back, Mr Hughes. There have been a number of recent incidents at the Ranger site which have involved errors in water infrastructure and hose attachments at the project. You would be aware, obviously, that there was legal action against ERA in 2005 with respect to process water being hooked up to the drinking water circuit and miners in Kakadu showering in and drinking uranium laced water. Can you tell us about these more recent incidents involving errors in water infrastructure and hose attachments at the project and also about designated contaminated vehicles being in the wrong place in the Ranger project area?

Mr Hughes: I cannot give you specific details of the incidents. All the incidents you are talking about were categorised as minor incidents. There were no actual events of contamination of the water as a result of some incorrectly placed fittings on potable water hoses. Those things were picked up before there was any cross contamination of water.

Senator LUDLAM: Were they reported to you by the company?

Mr Hughes: They were. They were reported to the mine site technical committee members, which includes us.

Senator LUDLAM: ERA in 2005 was the only NT minor ever convicted of being in breach of their operational requirements. I am sure you would agree it was a pretty serious breach which saw those workers contaminated in that way. How is it still possible that these kinds of thing can occur-even with the remediation efforts the company made after that incident in 2005?

Mr Hughes: With all the precautionary efforts that are made, there is still room for human error.

Senator LUDLAM: Indeed. The latest incident, as I think you are pointing out, did not involve the process water system. But can you clarify whether audits, which included measures to militate against connection of incompatible systems, should have safeguarded this incident? How can we prevent this kind of thing happening in future?

Mr Hughes: The problem is that you cannot continually audit every part of the site all the time. These fittings can be attached to hoses in a few minutes and there is nothing you can do about that.

Senator LUDLAM: There is nothing you can do about it?

Mr Hughes: Presumably the precautions that have been taken have worked because there have been no further contamination incidents.

Senator LUDLAM: On a related matter, it is now approaching a decade since a dedicated Senate report into the adequacy of regulation at Ranger was produced by whatever the environment committee was called then. Can you tell us the implementation status of all those recommendations which were made relating specifically to Ranger in that report-I think around 2003?

Mr Hughes: I would not be able to give you the details of that. The Senate committee report was tabled, there was a government response to it and I do not know that there was any instruction to take action as a result.

Senator LUDLAM: That is interesting. There were a suite of recommendations identifying the pattern of underperformance and non-compliance relating to the uranium industry and to your knowledge no action was required to be taken as a result of those recommendations-certainly none that have crossed your desk?

Mr Hughes: I think a large number of the recommendations that were made as a result report have been covered off because it was logical to undertake that work.

Senator LUDLAM: Logical, okay. Can I ask you to take notice any specifics you can provide, listed by recommendation, that your office is involved with or has been involved with since that report was tabled? For some context, it is my belief that that report has been almost entirely disregarded, that those recommendations have not been taken up at all by anybody. If you have a different view, could you provide us-I will put this to the minister in a moment because I recognise some of these are not in your domain-with any evidence at all from the OSS's point of view that any of those recommendations have been taken up?

Mr Hughes: Did you have any specific recommendations that you would like to discuss?

Senator LUDLAM: All of the recommendations in that report that relate to Kakadu. It was a comprehensive piece of work.

Mr Hughes: We will need to take that on notice.

Senator LUDLAM: Understood. Good morning, Minister.

Senator Conroy: Good morning. Some of this is out of Mr Hughes's bailiwick. Concerning the 2003 recommendations of the Senate environment committee inquiry into uranium mining in Australia, can I get a reading from the environment minister, through you, as to which of those recommendations have been disregarded and which were acted upon in the nine years since the report was tabled?

Senator Conroy: I am happy to chase up to see what the government's response was and then where our government response is. I am happy to take that on notice for you, Senator Ludlam.

Senator LUDLAM: Much appreciated, thank you. Mr Hughes, can you inform us first of all whether you are aware that ERA has publicly expressed a desire to continue mining operations on the Ranger project area post the required January 2021 cessation of mining date? Are you aware that the company is intending to proceed past their licence closure date?

Mr Hughes: I am not aware of any formal statement to that effect. However, there has been a general discussion that ERA is interesting in undertaking further mining on the site beyond that date.

Senator LUDLAM: And on what basis is that awareness formed-through press reports? That is what I am referring to.

Mr Hughes: Yes.

Senator LUDLAM: But the company has not formally or informally raised that issue with the OSS?

Mr Hughes: No.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay, so you are just aware through press reports. Does the OSS have a view on the issue of continuation of mining past the closure date?

Mr Hughes: No.

Senator LUDLAM: Can you describe for us the process required for any extension to the current lease arrangements? Can use to us through procedurally what will be involved?

Mr Hughes: The lease at Ranger is an authority issued under section 41 of the Atomic Energy Act, which is administered the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. They would be better able to answer that question.

Senator LUDLAM: I think they are listed to appear before us for a period of only about 15 minutes, so my chances of being able to ask them that question are minimal, unfortunately. Would your office have any role in approving a lease extension or would your role kick in after it had been signed off?

Mr Hughes: Our opinion on matters pertaining to environmental management and protection would probably be sought by the parties involved in making decisions on any proposed lease extensions.

Senator LUDLAM: You would be part of the government's process in informing a decision?

Mr Hughes: I would imagine so.

Senator LUDLAM: You would be part of the government's process in informing a decision?

Mr Hughes: I would imagine so.

Senator LUDLAM: But it is your view that the Atomic Energy Act would need to be amended in order for mining to continue on that lease?

Mr Hughes: I did not say that; I said that there are provisions, I understand, in section 41 of the Atomic Energy Act that stipulate the way you would go about extending the authority.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. But you are not aware of whether or not the parliament would need to be involved in any fashion in-

Mr Hughes: No, I am not aware of that.

Senator LUDLAM: What would any extension of operations-which, I think we can safely assume, would have to involve the opening of an underground mine to feed the mill that is there-mean for the mine closure and rehabilitation plan?

Mr Hughes: The plan would have to be adapted in order to cover the eventualities of underground mining.

Senator LUDLAM: That is all?

Mr Hughes: Yes.

Senator LUDLAM: Could you tell us what, from your point of view, the status of ERA's planned shipment of uranium oxide to Russia is? Has the first shipment occurred and, if it has not, when it is expected?

Mr Hughes: That is not something that falls within my purview normally, and are not able to answer the question.

Senator LUDLAM: Can you just give us an update, then, of the discussions regarding the potential extension of the role of the OSS to cover uranium mining operations nationally? I think I peg this one at you every time I see you. Can you just give us an update?

Mr Hughes: I do not have an update on that. There may be people elsewhere in the department who can update on progress with that.

Senator LUDLAM: Minister, on notice: could the environment minister provide us an update as to the current status of discussions regarding the potential extension of Mr Hughes's role and that of his office to cover uranium mining operations nationally?

Senator Conroy: I will take that on notice and see what the minister would like to add.

Senator LUDLAM: Much appreciated.

CHAIR: This would be a good time to move to other senators who are seeking the call.

Senator ABETZ: Senator Ludlam referred to a 2005 incident and then continued to say that these types of incidents are still occurring. Have there been any other prosecutions since 2005?

Mr Hughes: Not to my knowledge.

Senator ABETZ: Have there been any other incidents since 2005 that could be described as being of the same seriousness as that which ended up in court in 2005?

Mr Hughes: I would not categorise any incidents that have been reported to us as being of a similar degree of seriousness.

Senator ABETZ: So would you agree with me that it is not necessarily representing the situation to suggest that events similar to the 2005 incident, if I can describe it as such, are still occurring? We have now had seven years without such an incident occurring.

Mr Hughes: There has certainly been no recurrence of incidents of that magnitude.

Senator ABETZ: No. Thank you. Who discovered the most recent minor incident-if I might describe it as such-in relation to the hose connections and tap connections?

Mr Hughes: I believe that it was an operator at Ranger, and they stopped work immediately.

Senator ABETZ: So Ranger itself recognised the issue and dealt with it, and, as a result-on your evidence-no contamination took place.

Mr Hughes: That is correct.

Senator ABETZ: Have any further monitoring bores been installed, to your knowledge?

Mr Hughes: Yes. You may recall that there was a report, known as the Weaver report, which was a study undertaken by URS in the vicinity of the Ranger tailings dam a couple of years ago now. All the bores that were recommended in that URS report have now been installed, and Ranger is now monitoring 101 bores in the vicinity of the tailings dam on a quarterly basis.

Senator ABETZ: So there are 101 bores. They committed to doing that last year, and I just want to check up to make sure that all those extra bores have been installed.

Mr Hughes: That is correct.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you. Now, do you believe that ERA is following the correct regulatory approvals for the Ranger 3 Deeps Exploration Decline Project?

Mr Hughes: ERA followed the correct approval methods. There was a decision made that it was not a controlled action, and then the proposal was assessed by the mine site technical committee, which is the appropriate fashion of doing that.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you. In your view, is the environment surrounding the Ranger project area continuing to be protected against any detrimental impacts from mining?

Mr Hughes: Yes, and I have said that in my annual report each year.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Ludlam?

Senator LUDLAM: How much more time do we have?

CHAIR: We have what was set down in the schedule. We go to 10 o'clock.

Senator LUDLAM: There is no chance we can bring the heritage folk back, is there?

CHAIR: No.

Senator LUDLAM: Just checking.

Senator ABETZ: I can ask some more questions.

CHAIR: I thought I was doing Senator Ludlam a favour.

Senator ABETZ: Oh, you are. But I am not necessarily in that game!

CHAIR: You were cooperative, Senator Abetz; I was surprised!

Senator LUDLAM: Yes; what has gone wrong here! Mr Hughes, it was confirmed recently at an ARRAC meeting that ERA had received federal approval for an extension to operations at the Ranger 3 Deeps project. Now, you are not the approving authority, so I am not putting these questions to you in that capacity. But I am interested to know whether, in granting this approval, you or your officers raised concerns with or made a public submission to the regulator about the Ranger 3 Deeps expansion.

Mr Hughes: To date, the only approval that has occurred to do with the Ranger 3 Deeps is for the exploration decline.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes-and did you have input into that decision-making?

Mr Hughes: Yes, we provided input into the regulatory process.

Senator LUDLAM: Did you have a view as to whether that should have been considered a controlled action or not?

Mr Hughes: That is not my role.

Senator LUDLAM: But, presumably, if you thought it should have been a controlled action, you would have put that view?

Mr Hughes: That is right.

Senator LUDLAM: So it could have been your role; but, in this instance, you thought it was not appropriate that it be considered a controlled action?

Mr Hughes: We actually provided comment on the environmental protection aspects of the proposal.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay, but that is not at all an answer to the question I put to you. Can you provide us with an update, then, of that activity. Has the exploration decline begun construction?

Mr Hughes: The box cut, which is the part of the decline through the weathered zone down to a depth of, I think, 20 or 30 metres, is under construction. It commenced, I think, at the beginning of May. By the end of this month, that will be completed, and the actual tunnelling will commence at that stage.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. So the box cut is just the entry, as it were, to the tunnel-the surface site works?

Mr Hughes: That is right, yes.

Senator LUDLAM: Do you know how long the company intends to take to complete the decline? It is intended to be completed before the wet season?

Mr Hughes: The decline completed before the wet season? No, it will not be.

Senator LUDLAM: How long is that intended to take?

Mr Hughes: The decline will take into next year.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. Do you have people on site observing and acting as a watchdog on those works on the surface?

Mr Hughes: Periodically. We do not watch it constantly but we have routine periodic inspections that we conduct of the site, and usually, when there are officers on the site doing those routine periodic inspections, they look at the progress being made on any major activities on the site.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. In the event that the company intersect mineralised ore on the way down-I think you have told us in the past they are not expecting to, but if they do-are they required to notify you or your office immediately?

Mr Hughes: They are required to stockpile mineralised ore separately-

Senator LUDLAM: Again, that was not the question I put to you. Are they required to notify you immediately if they do intersect mineralised ore?

Mr Hughes: No.
Senator LUDLAM: They are not. Okay. So how would you find out if they were stockpiling mineralised ore?

Mr Hughes: They will notify us.

Senator LUDLAM: They will? Are they required to-or, just as an act of courtesy, you would expect them to?

Mr Hughes: I would expect, as an act of courtesy, that they would advise that they had had to take on the contingency of stockpiling ore separately.

Senator LUDLAM: I have asked you a couple of times about the process for uploading real-time water quality monitoring data to the web, either from your office or by the company reporting those results directly. Can you just give us an update of where that is up to?

Mr Hughes: Nothing has really changed since last year, because there is no water in the stream during the dry season. So, since we last met, there has been no additional flow. When the wet season commences and flow commences in the stream, we will be running our routine monitoring program as usual. While we talk about realtime monitoring, there is a need for us to validate the material, as I have mentioned before, so we will be placing our updates on the website, usually a week in arrears.

Senator LUDLAM: Will that give us five-minute sample data? I understand why you would want to clean the data or whatever it is that you need to do between collecting it and publishing it, but on what period of time will the reporting actually be?

Mr Hughes: It is, for all intents and purposes, continuous, because there is a continuous trace, if you like, plotted on the graph to represent that.

CHAIR: That concludes the time allocated for the Office of Supervising Scientist. Thanks for your attendance.

 

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