Australia: Red Sky in the Morning, Radioactive Warming


10-13-09, 9:51 am

Original source: The Guardian (Australia)

The spectacular dust storm that hit the central and eastern Australian states last week was the third in twenty five years, and the worst. It blacked out inland areas in mid-afternoon and reached New Zealand and Norfolk Island. Many people sought medical treatment, but no one died, and many east coast residents will probably remember it as an eerie red fog, a colorful if unnerving curiosity. However, it was a warning of the continuing deterioration of the soil due to inappropriate agricultural practices, and of the danger of repetitive droughts that are liable to become more frequent and severe because of climate change.

And now there is a strong possibility that future dust storms sweeping across from South Australia will be radioactive and will carry toxic metal contaminants.

Pollution on an Olympic scale

A group of fifteen eminent scientists is now warning that BHP-Billiton’s proposed enlargement of its massive Olympic Dam uranium mine will result in massive pollution of the atmosphere and groundwater. They have called for a review of the health impacts from proposed enlargement of the mine, and for BHP to set aside funds to pay for medical effects on the population of areas affected by pollution from the mine, possibly for centuries.

The enlargement would create the world’s largest open-cut mine. During its operating life, some 242 million tons of radioactive tailings, containing uranium, copper, mercury and arsenic, would be stored on the site.

A series of dams, covering 4,000 hectares across the site, would contain 5.5 million tons of the tailings. However, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the mine’s expansion only mentions lining 15 percent of the dam walls, which means that by 2020 the dams could be leaking eight million liters per annum and entering the groundwater around the dams.

As documentary film maker David Bradbury recently commented: “…with the open-cut expansion that BHP wants permission from state and federal governments to go ahead with, the radioactive tailings left behind will blow over the eastern coast centers of the most populated cities in Australia.”

Objections have also been raised to the proposed construction of a desalination plant in the upper reaches of Spencers Gulf, to provide the vast quantities of water for mining and processing the ore, because its heavy brine waste could kill off the area’s unique marine species.

The company’s environmental impact statement maintains that this would not happen, but its assumptions on the movement of the brine have been strongly queried by scientists.

Moreover, enlargement of the mine would cause an increase in its greenhouse gas emissions by at least an extra 4.1 million tons per year. At the moment South Australia’s total emissions are only 3 million tons per year, so the extra emissions from the enlarged Olympic Dam mine would represent an increase of some 12.4 percent in the state’s total annual emissions.

Government says: Fire away!

The Rann government, which encouraged the establishment of the mine, is likely to welcome its enlargement, despite unanswered questions about the validity of the EIS and the scope of the project. The EIS states that the enlargement will result in an extra 750,000 tons of copper product, but the application mentions the extraction of a million tons.

A state parliamentary inquiry also unanimously concluded that the desalination plant should be located elsewhere to protect the marine species, but the government does not appear concerned.

Nor is the government swayed by objections from the area’s traditional owners. Enlargement of the mine site would require an extra 17,000 hectares of the adjacent land, which contains most of the sacred sites of the local Maduwonga people. A tribal elder, Isabel Dingaman, objected bitterly to the proposal, commenting “All the old men said ‘no destruction of sacred sites’. The old people loved the land, we still love it and we’re still carrying on the tradition”.

As compensation, the company has offered native title payments and employment of Maduwonga people, but that’s not likely to impress them. On the other hand, the company will benefit by more than $350 million in diesel rebates over five years. According to one report, that’s more than the cost of the royalties.

It’s no minor dust up

Just like the Oklahoma “dust bowls”, so graphically described in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, last Wednesday’s dust storm provides a prime illustration of mistreatment of the environment by greed-fired capital, in particular the rapacious clearing, grazing and ploughing of vast areas of former wilderness.

The dust storm brought about a short-sighted response and the trivialization of some very serious issues by the NSW government, which announced a temporary easing of water restrictions to allow people to wash their cars, even though the state’s water supplies are very low.

Dust storms are evident during periods of low rainfall. That problem is now being accentuated by climate change, which has been brought about by the use of greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. Our extensive use of coal in our power stations has given Australia the world’s worst per capita emission rate. Despite this the nation’s coal exports are expected to double over the next six years, a prospect welcomed by the NSW government.

Last week a correspondent to the Sydney Morning Herald observed that the dust storm would have been tremendously damaging to the nation’s economy and reputation as a tourist destination if it had occurred during the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. But just imagine how more damaging it would have been if the dust was radioactive and contained toxic metal contaminants!

Perhaps the dust storm, and those that are to come, will bring about a more widespread public recognition of the seriousness of climate change and the need to elect new governments that take the issue seriously.