Over the 2015–16 reporting period the Supervising Scientist Branch completed all planned monitoring and supervision activities, and finalised a number of key research projects. The multiple lines of evidence gathered through these combined programs continue to show that the people and the environment of the Alligator Rivers Region remain protected from the effects of uranium mining, including from the Ranger uranium mine.
The Supervising Scientist Branch released a revision of the Ranger Water Quality Objectives in early 2016. The revised objectives were the accumulation of 10 years of research and monitoring data, forming a truly world leading water quality compliance framework. For the first time water quality objectives were set for Gulungul Creek and continuous monitoring and automatic sampling were included as a statutory requirement. The Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries and Resources formally issued the revised Ranger Water Quality Objectives on 7 March 2016 thereby giving them statutory force.
All statutory water quality objectives were met in both Magela and Gulungul Creeks throughout the 2015–16 wet season. The mine had negligible influence on water quality in Magela Creek. Gulungul Creek water quality continued to show the effects of shallow groundwater seepage expressing into Gulungul Creek Tributary 2, originating from the western edge of the Ranger Tailings Storage Facility. Effects on water quality were reduced in comparison to the 2014–15 wet season due to low wet season rainfall and extensive seepage interception works.
The Supervising Scientist Branch continues to take a risk and evidence-based approach to environmental monitoring. During 2015–16 the Supervising Scientist Branch reduced the inspection schedule for Jabiluka, and ceased surface water monitoring at Jabiluka and atmospheric radiological monitoring surrounding Ranger. These changes are supported by a large amount of data showing the associated environmental and human health risks to be very low. Monitoring in the Gulungul Creek catchment was significantly increased in response to observed changes in water quality, including the installation of an additional upstream monitoring station and the deployment of a number of temporary sensors throughout the catchment. The Supervising Scientist will continue to monitor any changes in mining operations through-out the Region and adjust monitoring programs accordingly.
The Supervising Scientist Branch continued an active and applied research program through 2015–16, focussed almost solely on the rehabilitation of Ranger. Of the 34 research projects underway, 11 were completed during 2015–16. The program has been expanded to 41 projects for the 2016–17 year, including significant external collaboration. The Supervising Scientist Branch’s research outputs included 28 peer reviewed publications and representation at a range of domestic and international fora. The feedback from these engagements has been overwhelmingly positive and shows that the Supervising Scientist continues to produce world leading science.
Oversight and endorsement of the Supervising Scientist Branch’s research program was provided by the Alligator Rivers Region Technical Committee which met three times during 2015–16.
Importantly, both a comprehensive ecological risk assessment on the rehabilitation of Ranger and a revision of the Alligator Rivers Region Technical Committee Key Knowledge Needs were completed during the reporting period. The risk assessment formed the basis for the revised Key Knowledge Needs, which in turn drive the Supervising Scientist Branch research program. In combination with a strengthened planning and prioritisation process, these key projects ensure that the research program remains clearly linked to the rehabilitation of Ranger, and focussed closely on the highest priority needs.
During 2014–15 the Supervising Scientist Branch was focussed on the assessment of expansion plans, including an extension of operations on the Ranger Project Area beyond 2021. The announcement by Energy Resources of Australia Ltd on 11 June 2015 that the Ranger 3 Deeps underground mine would not proceed significantly shifted the focus of the Supervising Scientist Branch to the imminent cessation of operations and the rehabilitation of Ranger.
The Supervising Scientist Branch continues to provide advice to Energy Resources of Australia Ltd through the Closure Criteria Working Group process. Whilst the development of closure criteria by Energy Resources of Australia Ltd is delayed, rapid progress is now being made and many criteria appear likely to be agreed during the 2016–17 year.
The Supervising Scientist Branch continued to oversee uranium mining operations in the Region through 2015–16, including conducting a range of site inspections, audits and incident investigations. Notable developments at Ranger included: the commissioning of a dredge in the Tailings Storage Facility; the installation of a significant seepage and surface water interception system to the west of the Tailings Storage Facility; and the October 2015 fire which escaped the Ranger Project Area and burnt through adjacent areas of Kakadu National Park.
Following from the re-alignment of the work program during 2015–16, and the transition of the Supervising Scientist Division to a Branch within the Science Division, significant structural changes were completed. The structure of the Branch was revised to align with the statutory functions of the Supervising Scientist and key business outputs. This included the introduction of a Public Assurance and Advice team, the amalgamation of the Supervision and Monitoring functions into a single team and a consolidation of research teams to better facilitate multi-disciplinary projects. Additional to the structural changes, the Branch planning, prioritisation and reporting processes have been significantly revised and strengthened. These changes will position the Supervising Scientist Branch well to continue to support the statutory role of the Supervising Scientist into the future.