Health

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. By Max Opray.

Kakadu mining and radiation

The Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.
Credit: Christian Vaisse / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 14, 2021 as "Sickness country".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.