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August 20, 2003
Rio Tinto to Rehabilitate Uranium Mine
    by Paddy Manning

Environmental activists have long been advocating for restoration of the Jabiluka uranium mine, which is located in the Kakadu World Heritage Area in Northern Australia.

Mining giant Rio Tinto (ticker: RTP) has announced it will rehabilitate the controversial Jabiluka uranium mine, sited in the Kakadu World Heritage Area in Northern Australia. The move follows campaigning over more than a decade by environmental activists and indigenous representatives opposed to the mine, which is operated by Energy Resources Australia (ERA).

Work started when the mine was approved by Australian Prime Minister John Howard's conservative administration. Subsequently the project was investigated by the United Nations' World Heritage Commission. The Commission was concerned that Kakadu's conservation values were in danger.

Although the Commission ultimately did not list Kakadu World Heritage Area as endangered, the controversial project was suspended once Rio Tinto acquired its majority stake in ERA from North Ltd in August 2000.

On Friday August 1st, 2003 ERA announced it had obtained approval from the Northern Territory Government to restore the mine site in line with the wishes of the traditional owners of the Jabiluka land, the Mirrar people.

A large hole in the ground or "decline" exists at the site. Mirrar representatives have been calling for the restoration of the decline since at least last year, after Rio Tinto chairman Sir Robert Wilson publicly promised the mine would not proceed without consent of the traditional owners.

Mirrar senior traditional owner Yvonne Margarula, chairman of the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation which represents the Mirrar people, issued a statement at the time that such consent would never be given.

Now the decline will be backfilled, with an estimated 60,000 tonnes of stockpiled uranium ore and waste rock being returned underground.

ERA is currently working on an agreement with the Mirrar, and the Northern Land Council, in relation to the long-term care and maintenance of Jabiluka.

ERA chief executive Bob Cleary said the agreement is near finalization although Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Andy Ralph said it was "early days" and finalization was weeks away.

Ralph said the agreement would include veto rights for traditional owners and said ERA's rehabilitation announcement "heralds a new era of cooperation" between the Mirrar and the mining company.

Alec Marr, campaign director of environment group the Wilderness Society issued a statement welcoming the Jabiluka rehabilitation and thanking thousand of campaign supporters around the world.

"We always said that if we couldn't stop a uranium mine being built inside a World Heritage Area, against the wishes of the traditional owners and the combined campaign efforts of the Australian environment movement, then nowhere would be safe," said Marr.

"The fact is the mine has been stopped," he said.

Marr also congratulated Rio Tinto on its decision, saying the company had "taken a much more sensible attitude to Jabiluka than the now defunct parent company Norths, who started construction of the mine.

"Rio have made a good business decision that is also good for Kakadu and will generate some good will towards the company," he said.

Green shareholder activist Erika Ford, who led the anti-Jabiluka shareholder campaign against North Ltd almost five years ago, said it had been a long wait.

"It's great to see the parties have come together but we need expediency," she said. "The story is not over yet. The land has to be reincorporated into the [Kakadu National] Park."

Ford questioned why ERA would retain its leasehold rights at Jabiluka: "why hold onto the lease if you have no intention to mine it? That's where the mistrust comes in."

Rio Tinto is one of the world's largest diversified mining companies and is invested by a number of global socially responsible share funds including funds managed by Swiss-based Sustainable Asset Management (SAM).

Copyright 2003, Ethical Investor, all rights reserved.


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