Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022


Atomic Energy Amendment (Mine Rehabilitation and Closure) Bill 2022; Second Reading

7:19 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party, Shadow Minister for Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

The coalition supports the passage of the Atomic Energy Amendment (Mine Rehabilitation and Closure) Bill 2022. This bill is the culmination of work initiated by the former coalition government, and the coalition commends the government and the minister for continuing this important bill.

In 1999, an agreement was reached between the Commonwealth government and Energy Resources of Australia that, upon the completion of mining activities at Ranger mine site in the Northern Territory, Energy Resources of Australia would take charge of rehabilitating the Ranger mine site. This was agreed upon by the government and Energy Resources Australia to ensure a commitment to the proper rehabilitation of the Ranger site. Stringent environmental standards were agreed upon as part of this agreement. Mining at Ranger ceased in January 2021 and the remediation is already underway.

The current framework allows Energy Resources Australia, ERA, to undertake remediation work until January 2026. More than 20 years ago it was believed that ERA would only need five years to complete the remediation and rehabilitation works on the site. As a result, the authority set out a cease of operation for mining works in January 2021, with the authority lapsing on 8 January 2026. However, following consultation with the previous and current governments, it was concluded that, in order to fully rehabilitate the site to high contemporary standards, ERA would require more than the five years provided to complete the rehabilitation and monitoring required.

In ERA's submission to the committee, they emphasise that attempting to finalise rehabilitation by 8 January 2026 is not feasible and will not meet the agreed objectives of stakeholders. ERA is committed to undertaking proper and thorough rehabilitation of the Ranger project area to a world-class standard. It has already commenced that work, but in order to rehabilitate the mine site to the standard it requires further time, beyond 8 January 2026.

This bill extends the legislative framework surrounding the rehabilitation, ensuring that ERA can complete rehabilitation, close out the site, continue monitoring and return the land to the traditional owners. This bill does not provide any authority for further mining of the site, which follows ERA's commercial decision not to pursue any further mine site extensions in 2050. Rather, this bill's primary purpose is to enable the long-term remediation and monitoring of the site.

Primarily, it amends the legislation to allow the remediation authority to be milestone based rather than time based, keeping the onus on the responsible company to complete the rehabilitation. The authorities created under this legislation will allow for the progressive close-out areas of the mining lease. This means that, as portions of the lease are considered to be fully rehabilitated, the land can be returned to the local community sooner.

Brad Welsh, CEO of ERA, noticed the safeguards inserted as part of the bill. He stated:

Further, the Bill entrenches a number of safeguards to ensure the involvement and agreement of the Traditional Owners is required, including:

• a Rehabilitation Authority cannot be granted unless there is first an agreement in place between the Commonwealth and the NLC pursuant to ALRA;

• the Minister is required to further consult with the NLC before any Rehabilitation Authority is granted;

• before the Minister makes any declaration that an Authority no longer applies to part of the RPA because the Minister is satisfied the area is rehabilitated, the Minister must consult with the NLC;

• before the Minister revokes an Authority, the Minister must be satisfied the area is rehabilitated, and the Minister must first consult with the NLC; and

• before the Minister makes any variation to the conditions of an Authority, the Minister must consult with the NLC.

These safeguards ensure that there remain proper procedures and checks throughout the extended rehabilitation and monitoring process.

The coalition supports all mine rehabilitation being completed to high standards. Australia has some the most stringent, environmental and rehabilitative standards and processes in the world and supports ERA fulfilling their obligations to properly remediate the Ranger mine. The Ranger mine has served the country well over its years of operation, creating economic benefits for the country and local community, and providing jobs and employment services to the local population and the wider Northern Territory. As Ranger's operations have come to a close, the focus is on ensuring that the affected areas, which are small in size, are fully rehabilitated to ensure the protection of our natural environment.

The environmental requirements that were set out in 1999 are of an incredibly high standard. ERA has affirmed their commitment to upholding these environmental requirements. As a result, through more modern appraisals of the requirements to successfully rehabilitate the site to these stringent standards, ERA have determined that the five years previously allocated are now not sufficient for the completion of rehabilitation operations and monitoring. The coalition accepted ERA's determination and, as part of our commitment to environmental rehabilitation, undertook processes to explore the options available to the government to allow for continued rehabilitation. There remain strict reporting requirements throughout the rehabilitative process, and these will remain with the implementation of this bill.

The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water Supervising Scientist, in a submission to the committee, affirmed:

ERA is required to submit an annually updated mine closure plan for Ranger which provides clear scientific evidence to demonstrate that the rehabilitation works proposed by ERA will achieve the rehabilitation objectives. The Ranger Mine Closure Plan is publicly released and subject to detailed assessment by regulators and stakeholders, including the Supervising Scientist, and requires approval from the Australian Government Minister for Resources and the Northern Territory Minister for Mining and Industry. The Supervising Scientist is undertaking a detailed rehabilitation verification process to provide certainty that all rehabilitation works are completed in strict accordance with the Ranger Mine Closure Plan and associated approvals.

Strong environmental standards are commonplace across Australia's mining industry. Australia is a world leader in environmental practice. The resources industry employs large numbers of environmental scientists to ensure that environmental guidelines are met.

Furthermore, the former coalition government made a very significant contribution to the protection, conservation and rehabilitation of our natural surroundings by delivering a strong record of achievement in the environmental portfolio. Just in our final term of government alone, we invested over $6 billion in programs, policies and measures to protect our natural environment. Collectively, all of this has led to the development and enforcement throughout Australia of some of the highest and most exacting environmental standards of the world. These apply to a very wide range of issues, including biodiversity, pollution, heritage, contamination, conservation, hazardous substances, recycling and waste and, in this case, mine site rehabilitation.

Consultation on this bill has been extensive. The coalition and the government and the government of the Northern Territory all recognise the importance of proper rehabilitation of the Ranger site and ensured engagement with a wide range of relevant stakeholders on this bill. Traditional owners, the Northern Land Council and other Northern Territory bodies are supportive of the bill and have expressed their support for ERA fulfilling their obligation set out under the act to rehabilitate the Ranger site.

Throughout the committee process, a number of stakeholders participated in the hearing on this bill. This process firmly certified support for this bill and the continued rehabilitative works being conducted by ERA. This wide-ranging engagement includes the Australian Conservation Foundation, who strongly support the passage of the bill, and their submission to the committee affirms that there is a clear alignment amongst diverse stakeholders about the need for high-quality rehabilitation works and a credible time line to facilitate this. Given this key legitimacy threshold and the need for more rehabilitation time and greater certainty, the Australian Conservation Foundation welcomes this legislation and supports its swift passage into law.

The committee also found that ERA was committed to utilising local businesses and contractors as part of their rehabilitative work. This includes local Indigenous businesses. This forms part of ERA's plan to continue to engage with the local traditional owner groups and other representative bodies and organisations. ERA meets monthly with local traditional owner groups and the Northern Land Council to ensure continuity throughout the rehabilitation process. This is echoed by the submission from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources in conjunction with the National Indigenous Australians Agency which states:

The rehabilitation of the RPA fits within a broader commitment by the Commonwealth in Jabiru and Kakadu to support empowerment of the local Mirarr traditional owners as they implement their vision to the transition of Jabiru from a mining town servicing Ranger to a world class—

Debate interrupted.