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Rio Tinto takes over Northern Territory's Ranger uranium mine clean up

Dechlan Brennan -

Rio Tinto will take control of the rehabilitation project at the former Ranger uranium mine in the heritage listed Kakadu region, which has been hit with significant delays and cost blowouts.

The Rio Tinto majority-owned Energy Resources of Australia Ltd (ERA) ceased operations in 2021 at the site, which is surrounded by Kakadu National Park and 230 km east of Darwin. Despite initially estimating the clean-up and rehabilitation of the area to cost $500 million and be completed by 2026, ERA told investors last year the cost would likely "materially exceed" $2.2 billion.

On Wednesday, Rio Tinto said they had agreed to manage the Ranger Rehabilitation Project on behalf of ERA in a Management Services Agreement (MSA).

It is expected the transition to Rio Tinto, who own 86.3 per cent of ERA, will take three months.

"Under the MSA, Rio Tinto and ERA aim to complete the Ranger Rehabilitation Project in the safest and most efficient way, and to a standard that will establish an environment similar to the adjacent Kakadu National Park and that is consistent with the wishes of the Traditional Owners of the land, the Mirarr people," Rio Tinto said in a statement.

The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC), who represent the wishes of the Mirarr Traditional Owners in the region, welcomed the announcement.

Chief executive Thalia van den Boogaard said the decision was recognition of both ERA's inability to manage the project, and the failure of the Federal Department of Industry, Science and Resources to guide the site's rehabilitation.

"Mirarr are pleased that the ERA independent board committee has finally admitted that ERA has lost control of the Ranger Rehabilitation Project and will hand over management of it to the major shareholder Rio Tinto," Ms van den Boogaard said.

She said the Mirarr Traditional Owners "lost all confidence" in ERA's capacity to manage the rehabilitation project when they asked the Department for over $50 million from the rehabilitation trust fund.

"That fund is intended to be the safety net," Ms van den Boogaard said.

"This is a step in the right direction as a major operator with expertise like Rio Tinto is needed to turn this around."

Mining at Jabiluka has been a significant point of contention, with the lease area covering a sacred site with hundreds of examples of ancient rock art. Protesting by Traditional Owners and environmental campaigners fiercely opposing discussions to mine the area in 1998 saw hundreds of arrests.

Jabiluka was not mined, with ERA saying they would continue to respect the wishes of the Miarr people. However, last month, the company applied for a ten-year renewal of their mining lease, drawing the ire of Traditional Owners.

Mirarr Traditional Owner Corben Mudjandi said whilst he was happy Rio Tinto had taken over the rehabilitation project, it was "disappointing" one of the few remaining things left under ERA control was the Jabiluka Mineral Lease.

"It's time for both the Northern Territory and Commonwealth governments to pay attention to Kakadu and dismiss the notion that ERA is in any state to hold on to a mineral lease anywhere, let alone over dual World Heritage listed country that a generation of Australians fought to protect," Mr Mudjandi said.

Rio Tinto has been attempting to strengthen their relationship with First Nations people after the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge in 2020 caused public outcry.

In the wake of the destruction, Rio Tinto apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and the Pinikura peoples, and chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques, as well as two other executives, stood down.

On taking over the rehabilitation project, Rio Tinto Chief Executive Kellie Parker said: "With the signing of this agreement, we are pleased to be able to directly provide more closure and project delivery experience and know-how to this critical task."

"We look forward to working in partnership with the Mirarr Traditional Owners and other stakeholders to complete the project," Ms Parker said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) "cautiously welcomed" the announcement on Wednesday, with ACF's Dave Sweeney arguing Rio Tinto was better placed than ERA to operate the project.

"There is a massive shortfall in funding for the Ranger clean-up and put simply Rio has deeper pockets, more talent and greater reputational exposure than ERA," he said.

Mr Sweeney said ERA had "dragged its heels" on rehab works and criticised their application for an extension of the Jabiluka Mineral Lease "against the explicit wishes of the region's Mirarr Traditional Owners".

"ACF is disappointed that under the new arrangements ERA remains the primary corporate decision maker on Jabiluka," he said.

"In the shadow of Juukan Gorge, Rio Tinto will continue to be closely watched and long judged for its performance on this clean-up."


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