Australian news, and some related international items

Australian Government Productivity Commission Report fails to realise the complexity of environmental problems in uranium mining

Mia Pepper, Conservation Council of Western Australia, (CCWA) 10 Dec 20, The Productivity Commission Report has been released.
The CCWA had put in a detailed submission on uranium – in response to the Minerals Council of Australia attempts to reduce federal oversight of uranium mine projects. The overall terms for the PC report was to identify best practice regulation – while removing impediments to investment. (emphasis on removing impediments to investment – sigh).
The short take home message for us: is that the Productivity Commission (PC) echoes calls, initially made through the EPBC Act Review process, that ARPANSA become the regulator for uranium mines, removing the need for EPBC approvals.
This is narrow – it suggests the only problems or issues with uranium mines are related to radiation – the issues are much more complex and need environmental regulators not just radiation expertise.
There is pressure from MCA and AMEC to remove the ‘nuclear trigger’ because they say it impacts on Rare Earths and Minerals sands assessments and approvals – this didn’t get much traction by the PC but was a segue to supporting calls that ARPANSA become the federal regulator and remove the need for the Environment Department to asses or approve uranium project.
This fits with the larger Federal government agenda to remove federal approval requirements through setting up bilateral agreements with all the states and territories to defer powers to the State governments to both assess and approve projects that trigger federal intervention – like all uranium mines do. This is coming up before the Senate – but a majority of senators are set to block this and are calling for the Federal Government to release the final EPBC review report.
The long version with extracts from the PC report: Australian government
Uranium is mentioned a number of times to define minerals and the scope of the report and to note that it is included as a ‘trigger’ in the EPBC Act (requiring federal approval) On the EPBC Act. They find that “Unnecessary delays in project commencements can be costly for proponents and the community, and typically dwarf other regulatory costs.” 
The PC report supports the weakening of the EPBC to defer “approvals” to the state governments – this would mean state governments assess and approve projects – even if they are written in the EPBC Act as requiring federal approval. There is a Bill before the Senate which seeks to do this, there was a tiny two day senate inquiry into this, and a number of independents in the Senate have promised to block this. No doubt the Federal Government will use this report to push this proposal.
Pg 16 – summary of recommendations “tighter application of the nuclear and water triggers under the EPBC Act.”
Pg. 40 – “Finding 6.3 The referral process for the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act) and the nuclear and water triggers are creating unnecessary regulatory burden.
• Over half of all projects referred under the EPBC Act do not ultimately require Commonwealth approval.
• Projects ruled out as nuclear actions in the EPBC Act explanatory memorandum are being treated as nuclear actions requiring Commonwealth environmental approval.
• The evidence that the water trigger has filled a significant regulatory gap is not compelling. The recommendation of the interim report of the second review of the EPBC Act to limit application of the water trigger should help reduce duplication.”
Pg 165. – In the section on EPBC on the nuclear Trigger – talks about the role of ARPANSA suggesting that they could be the regulator and so removing Federal oversight through the environment department is worth investigating (I disagree because ARPANSA only deal with radiation aspects and many uranium mines have other environmental issues which ARPANSA is not equipped to assess or regulate and so there is still an important role for the Environment Department – eg. the subterranean fauna at Yeelirrie, endangered species, water management, mine closure issues, Acid Metalliferous Drainage etc)
“The Nuclear Trigger: There is some confusion about when the nuclear trigger should apply. Several participants suggested that the nuclear trigger captures projects that do not warrant Commonwealth approval (MCA, sub. 11, p. 12; AMEC, sub. 31, p. 6). For example: 
  • The Carrapateena copper–gold project activated the nuclear trigger because its tailings dam will contain radioactive minerals, even though exposures will be below regulatory limits (OZ Minerals 2017, pp. 106–107; South Australian Government, sub. 25, p. 6). 
  • Rare earths and mineral sands projects (for example, the Nolans Project in the Northern Territory) are activating the nuclear trigger despite the explanatory memorandum of the EPBC Act explicitly stating that these are not nuclear actions (Parliament of Australia 1998, p. 31). However, there is some disagreement as to whether these projects should be captured — the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency noted it is unclear whether the rare earths and mineral sands exemption applies to the large-scale disposal facilities for radioactive waste for these operations, which is why the EPBC Act is applied (ARPANSA 2020, p. 12). The Environmental Defenders Office (sub. DR62, p. 30) also argued that the Nolans project could have triggered another limb of the nuclear trigger. 

It is not clear how significant a problem this is in practice for the efficiency of the environmental approval process, because projects often trigger the EPBC Act for multiple reasons. The Carrapateena and Nolans projects would both have triggered the EPBC Act due to their potential impacts on threatened species (Arafura Resources Limited and GHD 2016, pp. 2–3; Wyndham 2017, p. 1). However, when projects are classed as nuclear actions they require a whole-of-environment assessment, which may mean that the assessment addresses matters already regulated by the States and Territories (Samuel 2019, p. 19). 

The regulatory burden created by looking at nuclear actions under the EPBC Act may be unnecessary given the other regulatory arrangements that are in place. Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (cited in Hawke 2009a, p. 353) has previously submitted that: 

… there is significant overlap between the role of [the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency] and the assessment of “nuclear actions” under the EPBC Act … [The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency’s] expertise in radiation protection and nuclear safety establishes it as a competent regulatory body in respect of the hazards that radiation may pose to the environment, and that the dual approval system may benefit from review to the extent that the same issues are considered under both assessment processes. 

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency more recently told the second EPBC Act Review that ‘the current definition of nuclear actions under the EPBC Act can lead to substantially the same assessment activities being undertaken across multiple jurisdictions creating duplicative regulatory processes’ (ARPANSA 2020, p. 3). 

The recommendations of the second independent review of the EPBC Act for a set of national environment standards and devolution to the States (discussed later) would address duplication in this area, although the Commonwealth would likely retain some role.”

Pg. 169. – “The interim report of second independent review of the EPBC Act recommended the Australian Government introduce a set of National Environmental Standards (box 6.4) and then accredit State and Territory systems to assess and approve projects where they can demonstrate they meet the Standards (Samuel 2020, p. 55). The Australian Government supported this recommendation (Ley 2020c). 

This proposal would address several issues raised in this chapter relating to Commonwealth–State overlap, including those relating to the nuclear and water triggers, and would support the use of bilateral assessment agreements and bilateral approval agreements (section 6.2). However, the process is in its infancy. The ability of the Commonwealth to develop effective national standards that are supported by State and Territory Governments will be crucial.”

Pg 110. – In a section on indenture/ state agreement Acts as different types of regulatory arrangements for some mines. They find that Indenture acts do not prevent best practice or impede investment.
“South Australia’s Roxby Downs indenture 
The Olympic Dam mine, approximately 560 kilometres north of Adelaide, produces copper, uranium, silver and gold. The mine’s remote location required the establishment of a local township, Roxby Downs. Today, the mine and town are operated by BHP. 
The Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act 1982 (SA) overrides any inconsistent provisions of other laws, such as licensing, environment, heritage, and freedom of information, in the area of the town and mine. Instead, BHP has the power to make decisions about this legislation independently (in consultation with the South Australian Government). This arrangement has been subject to some controversy since its introduction for the various privileges offered to the mine: 
Olympic Dam ought to be subject to legislative and regulatory controls and standards at least as rigorous as those that apply to smaller projects. To apply considerably weaker standards is indefensible. (Green and Mudd 2011) Sources: Hunt, Kavenagh and Hunt (2015, pp. 12–23); Western Australian Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation (nd, nd); BHP (2020d).”
Pg 200. – “a 1400 cubic metre leak of radioactive slurry at the Kakadu-based Ranger uranium mine in 2013 followed tailings dam leaks into surrounding creeks in 2009 and 2010 (ABC News 2016; Murdoch 2010).”
(This is found in the section on monitoring and enforcement – is it effective and efficient – The PC broadly find that it hasn’t been, they are unsure if failures have been due to a lack of compliance and monitoring or ineffective regulations – they suggest that substantial changes to compliance have been made – and conclude there must be resource for regulators to be able to regulate)
Pg 215. – “In some cases, the end goal for rehabilitating land used in resources sites is restoration to its original state. For instance, the Ranger uranium mine — which sits inside the Kakadu National Park — is a site with rehabilitation requirements encompassing restoration (DAWE nd).26 However, restoration may not always be feasible, or may be excessively costly, in which case rehabilitation can involve repurposing the land for different uses.”
Pg 217. – “instance, an assessment of the initial closure plan for the Ranger Mine, undertaken by the Supervising Scientist, concluded that a ‘significant amount of work’ was required to demonstrate that rehabilitation objectives could be achieved, and made a number of recommendations to support this (DoEE Supervising Scientist 2018, pp. viii–iv). Progress against the recommendations was examined in another assessment of the revised plan the following year (DoEE Supervising Scientist 2019).”
This is found on the section on Mine Site Rehabilitation – which concludes there are not many examples of rehabilitated mines because mine closure policy is relatively new and there are now examples of positive end uses of mine emerging (narrow, vague and completely missing the huge issues)

December 10, 2020 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, uranium

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