Senator Scott Ludlam questions the Department of Environment about toxic spills and clean-up operations at Ranger Uranium Mine.
Senator LUDLAM: Apologies to the committee. I was just trying to be in two places at once. Mr McAllister, I had the understanding that you were joining us by video conference. Fifteen minutes is a short time to travel such a long way. What happened?
Mr McAllister : We had some other business to do in town so we thought it was probably better we come, given some of the recent incidents.
CHAIR: Kill two birds with one stone?
Senator LUDLAM: Indeed. It is always better to see you face to face. Do you want to provide us an update? You would be aware that I am principally interested in the spill that happened at Ranger late last year.
Mr McAllister : Yes.
Senator LUDLAM: Do you have some sort of prepared statement or some info that you just want to advise the committee on?
Mr McAllister : Nothing prepared, no. I am open to questions.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay. Can you tell us about what just happened up there and how that investigation is proceeding and your visibility of it.
Mr McAllister : As you would be aware, on 7 December leach tank No. 1 failed and subsequently split, with the contents spilling out into the plant area. We were advised of issues on site at approximately 6.20 in the morning. We had staff out on site within a few hours to investigate the extent of the spill. They provided advice back shortly after and then me, Mr Keith Tayler and our radiation expert were out on site the next morning doing our own follow-up investigations. Subsequent to that, we kicked off our own independent investigation into our mandated area, which is the impacts on the environment and determining whether there were any impacts to the environment. The other players include the Department of Mines and Energy in the Northern Territory government, Northern Territory WorkSafe and the department of industries, all who have a regulatory role to play. They individually have kicked off their own investigations. Subsequently, because of the four groups undertaking investigations, we created a taskforce to oversee the various investigations to make sure that they were running concurrent with each other. In addition to those four parties, we also included the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation and the Northern Land Council as representatives of the traditional owners on that taskforce.
Senator LUDLAM: Are they on the taskforce?
Mr McAllister : Yes.
Senator LUDLAM: So the membership is composed of the four agencies that you mentioned before—yourselves, Gundjeihmi, and who was the final one?
Mr McAllister : The Northern Land Council.
Senator LUDLAM: Who convenes it?
Mr McAllister : It is currently convened by the Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy.
Senator LUDLAM: So that is the composition. How many times has the taskforce met?
Mr McAllister : I would say approximately five. We have a meeting tomorrow.
Senator LUDLAM: You have a meeting tomorrow. Do they occur in Darwin, Jabiru or where else?
Mr McAllister : Wherever appropriate. Usually people have to phone in to attend.
Senator LUDLAM: Electronic means. How many times has the taskforce met so far?
Mr McAllister : I would say five.
Senator LUDLAM: Five times. Is there an independent expert who has been appointed as lead investigator? There have been some press reports along those lines.
Mr McAllister : Yes. As part of the process, the department of industries have sought an independent investigator to undertake an investigation into not only the mode of the leach tank failure but the current status of the plant as well as any governance issues around ongoing maintenance for the plant.
Senator LUDLAM: What do you know about other leach tanks on the site? How many are there, and what condition are they in? How confident are you that we might not see a repeat of this event?
Mr McAllister : There are seven leach tanks on site. The leach tank that failed was leach tank No. 1. The remaining six tanks are, I believe, structurally sound. They have been emptied of their contents and are currently part of the investigation.
Senator LUDLAM: That is part of it, okay. Needless to say, the mine has not resumed production up there yet?
Mr McAllister : No.
Senator LUDLAM: Do you have any idea when they are proposing to restart the mill?
Mr McAllister : No.
Senator LUDLAM: Days, weeks, months, or really no idea?
Mr McAllister : Look, I would not hazard a guess at this point, sorry.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: And it would still be dependent upon the approval of the minister for industry?
Mr McAllister : Yes.
Senator LUDLAM: The Commonwealth minister or the territory?
Mr McAllister : Yes.
Senator LUDLAM: So there is actually a hold on restarting of the mill until the Commonwealth approves?
Mr McAllister : Until they are satisfied that they can recommence operations.
Senator LUDLAM: Can you just describe for us the work program of the taskforce?
Mr McAllister : Essentially, the taskforce, as I have said, oversights the investigations that are underway. We provide a report back individually on our own investigations during the taskforce meetings. Collectively, they make decisions about the ongoing investigations, including feeding into the independent investigation, where required.
Senator LUDLAM: Can you just describe for us the role of the OSS specifically with relation to that taskforce?
Mr McAllister : Our role on the taskforce is to feed into the process of the independent investigation. Our specific role in terms of investigation is into our mandated area, which is to determine the impacts to the external environment. So we come to the table with information regarding our activities. Anything that we can feed into any other investigations that are ongoing, we will at that point.
Senator LUDLAM: Recognising that this is afoot now, is there anything you can tell us about external impacts? Firstly, how do you define external? What have you discovered thus far?
Mr McAllister : External is the external environment outside the mine site area. None of our monitoring to date indicates an impact outside of the mine site area.
Senator LUDLAM: Did you step up or increase preliminary monitoring after the accident, or did the company, I should say?
Mr McAllister : We have continuous monitoring in place in the creeks, which is ongoing. In addition, we undertook additional downstream ecotox monitoring to ensure that we were covering off on the biological side. We have also undertaken various activities on site in relation to our investigation, which includes sampling both surface and ground waters as well as radiological measurements throughout the site.
Senator LUDLAM: What were you able to discover about groundwater impacts directly beneath the impact area, whether or not they have left the perimeter of the site? What about water bodies directly below the site?
Mr McAllister : At this point in time, what we have done is engage Geoscience Australia to assist us with the independent investigation. So at this point in time, I cannot provide any further information on that specific issue.
Senator LUDLAM: Does the leach tank failure have any implications for the proposed 3 Deeps underground mine?
Mr McAllister : I think you would probably have to ask the EACD that.
Senator LUDLAM: Ask?
Mr McAllister : The Environmental Assessment and Compliance Division. At this point in time, I could not comment as we do not have the results of the investigation. So the impact on Ranger 3 Deeps is—
Senator LUDLAM: They might be a little later in the program. That is all right. In a statement to the stock market on 30 January this year, ERA said that it would allocate $1.3 million to the remaining clean-up, decommissioning and investigation costs. Given that your work is not complete and it appears to be open-ended—you do not know when it will be complete and when the mine may be restarting—do you have any idea on what basis ERA can make that claim?
Mr McAllister : I am not privy to why they made that claim or under what circumstances, so no.
Senator LUDLAM: The investigation, I guess, is part of the work. What is the status of clean-up specifically of the material that leaked?
Mr McAllister : The material on the surface is defined in three zones named E, B and C. I might pass to Keith if he wants to provide some detail on this.
Mr Tayler : The three zones were, I guess, arbitrarily designated as the areas that the company cleaned up in that order. Zone 3 is the only zone that remains to be cleared, which was the zone immediately around the failed structure, where it was unsafe to enter.
Senator LUDLAM: You are working outside in?
Mr Tayler : Yes. So within probably one or two days of the incident, the great majority of the material had been removed from the roadways and the surrounding areas. We attended the site and cleared each of those two zones. We took water samples and other things to make sure that the clean-up had been effective. I believe we will be clearing the final zone shortly.
Senator LUDLAM: I do not know if you have this information at the table or whether you want to take it on notice and table it for us. Do you have estimates of how much material was spilt into each of the three zones by volume or mass?
Mr Tayler : The total amount of material that spilt would be in the order of 1.3 megalitres. It would be very difficult to estimate exactly what quantity went to any particular area. ERA began their clean-up immediately. By the time that we had officers on site, quite a bit of material had already been picked up and moved to a safe area. So to quantify specifically how much ended up in each area is difficult.
Senator LUDLAM: That is interesting. It is not possible even to provide a rough estimate, if we do not hold you to the individual megalitre? You understand why that is a fairly important concern?
Mr McAllister : Certainly we understand the total aerial extent of the spill. The depths across site of that spill then equate to how much volume remained in those areas. That is the difficulty. In places, it was between one centimetre and five centimetres deep, for instance. So it is hard to quantify exactly, even roughly.
Senator LUDLAM: In their statement of 19 December last year, ERA said that slurry was removed from outside the exclusion zone. Had that occurred before your staff got there?
Mr Tayler : I am not sure what you refer to as the exclusion zone. ERA did commence clean-up works almost immediately the incident occurred. The incident occurred, obviously, in the middle of the night.
Senator LUDLAM: Yes.
Mr Tayler : So we were not on site until about 11 am the next morning. By that time, clean-up works were well and truly underway.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay. So you do not know how much material spilled outside the bunded area, for example? Maybe if we can work from the outside in, as it sounds as though the clean-up crews were doing. Did any material at all leave the mine site laterally?
Mr Tayler : No.
Senator LUDLAM: The mine is composed of various areas that can contain radiological materials and those that cannot. Did any spill outside areas where the sort of material would be prohibited from going?
Mr Tayler : You are referring to what they call the controlled areas?
Senator LUDLAM: Maybe that is what they mean by exclusion area.
Mr Tayler : Certainly, yes. Some went on the roadways and some of the hard stand areas around, but none of it left the plant area of the mine site.
Senator LUDLAM: Any way of estimating how much got into the controlled area?
Mr McAllister : Into the controlled area or outside of it?
Senator LUDLAM: Sorry, outside. I beg your pardon.
Mr McAllister : Again, from our observations, a certain proportion remained within the bunded structure of the leach tanks. Part of our ongoing investigation is determining exactly the proportion that remained inside and, therefore, the proportion that remained outside. We have an estimation of exactly how much was in the tank. Keith has alluded to that—1.3 megalitres. We would assume at a worst case that the majority of that spilt outside the bunded area. But that will be part of our investigation.
Senator LUDLAM: Towards the end, okay. Where has the cleaned up material gone? Where has it been taken?
Mr Tayler : Pit No. 1.
Senator LUDLAM: It has been put into pit 1. Did it need to be diluted or treated in any way, or was it just dumped?
Mr Tayler : No. It was just placed in the pit.
Senator LUDLAM: Would I need to speak to ARPANSA to establish elevated radiation doses that any of the workforce might have accrued in having to clean this material up?
Mr McAllister : I do not believe ARPANSA would have those figures at this point in time. We certainly have followed up with our radiation staff the radiation readings undertaken by ERA. We have no reason to believe they are incorrect. They indicate that the radiation doses in the area are no different to what would be expected from that part of the plant.
Senator LUDLAM: Even though more than a million litres of radioactive slurry has been dumped in there?
Mr McAllister : Correct. The slurry itself is a combination of the ground ore plus acid, so that area itself is one of the more active areas in the mine site anyway, given the dust issue with the grinding of ore. So essentially the only additive at that point in time is acid.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay. But also the material was uncontained and slushing around all over the place?
Mr McAllister : On the ground. The material remains on the ground. But the radiation readings that we undertook on site on the Sunday indicated to us that it was no different to what you would expect.
Senator LUDLAM: That is interesting. Will that data all be produced when you produce your final report?
Mr McAllister : Our data and ERA's data will be part of our report, yes.
Senator LUDLAM: It might pre-empt my next question. Is ERA supplying all the radiation dose measurements, or are you undertaking your own independent monitoring?
Mr McAllister : We have undertaken our own independents. We are also getting ERA's data, yes.
Senator LUDLAM: So what can you tell us about the cause of the spill? Does that have any implications for the integrity of the other leach tanks?
Mr McAllister : At this point, I cannot comment on the cause of the spill. ERA certainly have their own views. That will be part of the independent investigation.
Senator LUDLAM: Finally, on this one, has any information been shared within the remit of your office, obviously, and Rio Tinto's Rossing mine regarding failed leach tanks, clean-up and prevention, given that they had a very similar accident—in fact, an identical accident, as far as I could tell—at the Rossing uranium mine?
Mr McAllister : I am aware that Rossing did have an issue with their leach tanks.
Senator LUDLAM: One exploded.
Mr McAllister : I am unaware of whether or not ERA have been talking to Rossing about that. They are part of the same larger company—Rio Tinto.
Senator LUDLAM: Sorry, I do not ask you to speak for them. Have you shared any information with people on the ground or regulators in Namibia?
Mr McAllister : No.
Senator LUDLAM: Of other matters at Ranger, are you aware of any incident in the R3D decline in recent weeks?
Mr McAllister : I am not aware of any incident in the R3 Deeps decline.
Senator LUDLAM: I do not know whether Senator Birmingham is going to shut me down if I put a rumour to you. There have been rumours of a tunnel collapse or a tunnel partial collapse on the decline into 3 Deeps on or around 11 February. Is that not ringing a bell at all?
Mr McAllister : What is ringing a bell is that ERA have encountered what they would call poor ground conditions. I do not believe they have had any collapse per se. We have been advised that ERA are looking to realign their tunnel to remain outside of those poor ground conditions, but I am unaware of any failure.
Senator LUDLAM: And you would expect to be informed?
Mr McAllister : I would expect to be informed, yes.
Senator LUDLAM: I will wrap up here. I find it a little odd that it is completely open-ended that you have no idea when there will be a final report. Is that a bit peculiar? Should I read anything into that?
Mr McAllister : Are you talking about our report or the independent investigation?
Senator LUDLAM: Well, both. I guess your inputs into it and then the independent investigation.
Mr McAllister : We are expecting information back from Geoscience probably in the order of April. We will be looking to finish up our report shortly after that. Our release of the report will be also dependent on the release of the other reports so as not to pre-empt any actions that may occur.
Senator LUDLAM: Is it your understanding that they will be put into the public domain?
Mr McAllister : Ours certainly will be, yes.
Senator LUDLAM: And the department's?
Mr McAllister : It is part of Industry. You will probably have to talk to them about the release of that report.
Senator LUDLAM: This is a very open and transparent government, so I have high hopes. I have two other very brief questions. If we are short of time, I am happy to have these taken on notice. There was an incident on 3 November involving unauthorised vehicle movement; a potentially contaminated truck that left the mine nearly threw a hole in the fence. You were assisting the NT mines department. Any report or update on the status of that investigation?
Mr Tayler : Yes. We have completed our report into that. We have provided that report to the members of the mine site technical committee. The findings of that report in essence were that the vehicle in question, which was a Hilux utility, was uncontaminated and that the two persons in question took that vehicle off the site in deliberate contravention of company policies and procedures. They knew that they were doing an inappropriate thing. They sought to avoid detention by taking that vehicle off site in the middle of the night by a circuitous route. They were detected by security and the vehicle was returned to site. We provided some minor recommendations to the company around slight changes to their induction process and other procedural matters. In essence, it came down to the deliberate actions of two individuals who chose to contravene company procedure.
Senator LUDLAM: Would you be aware whether any disciplinary action has been taken, or is that not in your remit?
Mr Tayler : We were advised that disciplinary action against those two was.
Senator LUDLAM: Thanks. This is my final question. It is still in relation to vehicle issues. On 20 February, there were extensive media reports concerning the movement of inadequately secured uranium drums for a laboratory in Perth back to the Ranger mine site. Does OSS have any visibility of that or have you made any independent assessment of that incident?
Mr McAllister : We have not made any independent assessment. My understanding is that they were being transported in accordance with the act and there was no issue to answer.
Mr Tayler : It is also important to note that they were not uranium drums. They were exploration samples.
Senator LUDLAM: Samples of ore?
Mr Tayler : Not all of them. They were actually being taken away or returned to the site from rock strength testing. The majority of the samples were not actually mineralised.
Senator LUDLAM: Some of them were, by the sounds of it.
Mr Tayler : There was some very low grade radioactivity in those, but they were transported in accordance with the requirements.
Senator Birmingham: The final point to note is that they were transported in accordance with requirements.
Senator LUDLAM: So the media reports that I am referring to on and around 20 February have incorrectly implied or reported that those drums were inadequately secured?
Mr McAllister : If that is what they were reporting, then yes.
Senator LUDLAM: Yes.
Senator Birmingham: The stories I have seen, compared with the information that I have received when asked for it, would indicate that they were inaccurate reports.
Senator LUDLAM: Thanks, Senator. Lastly—
CHAIR: When is this final question?
Senator LUDLAM: I am asking about four final questions.
CHAIR: This will be the final one, thank you.
Senator LUDLAM: This is the last final question. You put a clarification or correction, I guess, to the last time we met which was around mineralised ore that had been taken out of the 3 Deeps decline and stockpiled somewhere, so thanks for correcting the record. Does that 300 tonnes, I think it was, then go into the mill? Is it legal to process that ore, or does it just sit there until the decline works have concluded?
Mr McAllister : Yes. Until ERA get approval to go ahead with Ranger 3 Deeps, they have to stockpile it separately and not process it.
Senator LUDLAM: All right.
CHAIR: This is your last question.
Senator LUDLAM: I really am pushing my luck now.
CHAIR: This is your last question.
Senator LUDLAM: Is work still continuing in that underground area by the company, or has that ceased, as far as you are aware?
Mr McAllister : No. It continues. The exploration decline continues. They are almost up to the end of phase 1, which is two kilometres long. They will start phase 2, which involves a vent rise and some workings to take them closer to the ore body.
Senator LUDLAM: The Chair has been very patient. I will leave it there. Thanks for your time.
CHAIR: Thank you, Mr McAllister and Mr Tayler. I now call the Director of National Parks.