New uranium mine approved for South Australia


Alternative energy

Four Mile site

The uranium deposit at Four Mile in South Australia was discovered in 2005, and the mine is expected to be operational in 2010.

Credit: Quasar

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The Australian Government has approved a new uranium mine at Four Mile in South Australia, amidst much controversy.

The Government has described the move as one that highlights its "commitment to world best practice environmental standards", and said the mine's approval was subject to strict conditions, and assured its proposal had undergone a "comprehensive, scientifically robust" assessment.

"I have not taken this decision lightly," said Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett. "Following...thorough assessment and careful consideration, I am certain this operation poses no credible risk to the environment."

But Australian Greens Leader, Bob Brown, has pointed out that despite Minister Garrett's assurances, an adequate environmental assessment is yet to be carried out for the mine.

"The go-ahead without an environmental impact assessment of the first order has been given to this mine by a wholly owned corporation, for a process that would be banned, and is banned in the United States, but which is going to do huge damage for an untold time to come," he said on last night's ABC program Lateline.

The Four Mile mine is to be located near the existing Beverley mine, about 550 km north of Adelaide, which itself has come under criticism from environment and Indigenous organisations, following multiple sub and surface spills.

The Australia Conservation Foundation (ACF), a not-for-profit environment group, described the Four Mile approval as another "blow for the environment" that is out of step with community opinion and wishes.

Contrary to government and mining industry assurances, the mine will harm the environment, it said.

The operation has been granted approval to use a technique called 'acid in-situ leaching' to extract the uranium. This involves injecting chemicals into aquifers, contaminating groundwater and essentially poisoning the underground environment.

"[It's] a quick and dirty way to get a hold of a...dangerous mineral [and] a long way from best practice," said David Noonan, ACF nuclear-free campaigner.

In 2003 a detailed Senate examination of the Beverley mine recommended that mines utilising this technique should be "subject to strict regulation, including prohibition of discharge of radioactive liquid mine waste to groundwater."

"[But the mine] will be directly dumping increased volumes of liquid radioactive and heavy metal wastes into the groundwater with no requirement for rehabilitation," Noonan said.

Despite outcry from community and environment groups such as ACF, Minister Garrett insisted the mine will have stringent operating conditions, and be subject to a "rigorous monitoring regime" to ensure agreed environmental outcomes are being met by the mine operators.

The monitoring requirements will remain in place after the mine ceases operation, he said, to ensure long-term protection of the environment.

The mine is expected to begin operating next year.