Historical Attempts to dump nuclear waste on South Australia

The Kungkas wrote in an open letter: “People said that you can’t win against the Government. Just a few women. We just kept talking and telling them to get their ears out of their pockets and listen. We never said we were going to give up. Government has big money to buy their way out but we never gave up.”

Radioactive waste and the nuclear war on Australia’s Aboriginal people, Ecologist Jim Green 1st July 2016  “………Dumping on South Australia, 1998-2004

This isn’t the first time that Aboriginal people in South Australia have faced the imposition of a national nuclear waste dump. In 1998, the federal government announced its intention to build a dump near the rocket and missile testing range at Woomera.

The proposed dump generated such controversy in South Australia that the federal government hired a public relations company. Correspondence between the company and the government was released under Freedom of Information laws.

In one exchange, a government official asked the PR company to remove sand-dunes from a photo to be used in a brochure. The explanation provided by the government official was that: “Dunes are a sensitive area with respect to Aboriginal Heritage”. The sand-dunes were removed from the photo, only for the government official to ask if the horizon could be straightened up as well.

Aboriginal groups were coerced into signing ‘Heritage Clearance Agreements’ consenting to test drilling of short-listed sites for the proposed dump. The federal government made it clear that if consent was not granted, drilling would take place anyway.

Aboriginal groups were put in an invidious position. They could attempt to protect specific cultural sites by engaging with the federal government and signing agreements, at the risk of having that engagement being misrepresented as consent for the dump; or they could refuse to engage in the process, thereby having no opportunity to protect cultural sites.

Aboriginal groups did participate in Heritage Clearance Agreements, and as feared that participation was repeatedly misrepresented by the federal government as amounting to Aboriginal consent for the dump.

We would not do that for any amount of money’

In 2002, the Federal Government tried to buy-off Aboriginal opposition to the dump. Three Native Title claimant groups – the Kokatha, Kuyani and Barngala – were offeredA$90,000 to surrender their native title rights, but only on the condition that all three groups agreed.

The government’s offer was refused. Dr Roger Thomas, a Kokatha Traditional Owner, said:“The insult of it, it was just so insulting. I told the Commonwealth officers to stop being so disrespectful and rude to us by offering us $90,000 to pay out our country and our culture.”

Andrew Starkey, also a Kokatha man, said“It was just shameful. They were wanting people to sign off their cultural heritage rights for a minuscule amount of money. We would not do that for any amount of money.”

In 2003, the federal government used the Lands Acquisition Act 1989 to seize land for the dump. Native Title rights and interests were extinguished with the stroke of a pen. This took place with no forewarning and no consultation with Aboriginal people.

Next – the sham ‘consultation’

Leading the battle against the dump were the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, a council of senior Aboriginal women from northern South Australia. Many of the Kungkas personally suffered the impacts of the British nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga and Emu Field in the 1950s.

The government’s approach to ‘consultation’ with Aboriginal people was spelt out in a document leaked in 2002. The document states: “Tactics to reach Indigenous audiences will be informed by extensive consultations currently being undertaken … with Indigenous groups.” In other words, sham ‘consultation’ was used to fine-tune the government’s pro-dump propaganda.

The government’s cynical and disrespectful tactics were the antithesis of Article 29 of theUnited Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that ”no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent”.

This issue of sham ‘consultation’ arises time and time again, most recently with the discussion initiated by a Royal Commission (discussed below) into “building confidence” in the safety of nuclear waste dump proposals. West Mallee Protection (WMP), representing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from Ceduna in western South Australia, responded with this blistering attack:

“WMP finds this question superficial and offensive. It is a fact that many people have dedicated their time and energy to investigating and thinking about nuclear waste. It is a fact that even elderly women that made up the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – a senior Aboriginal women’s council – committed years of their lives to stand up to the proposal for a low-level facility at Woomera.

“They didn’t do this because of previously inadequate ‘processes’ to ‘build confidence’ as the question suggests but because: A) Individuals held a deep commitment to look after country and protect it from a substance known as ‘irati’ poison which stemmed from long held cultural knowledge.

B) Nuclear impacts were experienced and continued to be experienced first hand by members and their families predominately from nuclear testing at Emu Field and Maralinga but also through exploration and mining at Olympic Dam.

C) They epitomized and lived by the worldview that sustaining life for future generations is of upmost importance and that this is at odds with the dangerous and long lasting dangers of all aspects of the nuclear industry.

“The insinuation that the general population or target groups such Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta or the communities in the Northern Territory that succeeded them and also fought off a nuclear dump for Muckaty were somehow deficient in their understanding of the implications and may have required “confidence building” is highly offensive.”

The politicians finally get their ears out of their pockets

The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta continued to implore the federal government to “get their ears out of their pockets”, and after six years the government did just that. In the lead-up to the 2004 federal election, with the dump issue biting politically, and following a Federal Court ruling that the government had illegally used urgency provisions in the Lands Acquisition Act, the government decided to cut its losses and abandon the dump plan.

The Kungkas wrote in an open letter: “People said that you can’t win against the Government. Just a few women. We just kept talking and telling them to get their ears out of their pockets and listen. We never said we were going to give up. Government has big money to buy their way out but we never gave up.”

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