One of the world’s biggest mine clean-ups is happening on the edge of Kakadu National Park. It’s a high stakes operation where failure could be ‘cataclysmic’.
Out of the surface of a cracked moonscape, a tiny sapling is stretching towards the light.
“Yam,” says Peter ‘Christo’ Christophersen, identifying the species, as he cradles its leaf in his palm.
On the surrounding plateau, dozens more stand waving in the breeze, which hits hot as a hair dryer’s blast.
These shoots are among 1.1 million new trees a mining company promises will be planted at this rocky wasteland in the Top End.
The 500-hectare site is a former uranium mine in the early throes of rehabilitation.
The task ahead is gargantuan.
To restore this mothballed operation, the size of 200 MCG playing fields, to a level befitting one of Australia’s most treasured natural wonders.
To safely bury 65 million tonnes of contaminated scraps, mining silos and machinery, without poisoning the surrounding ecosystems of Kakadu National Park.
And to convince wary traditional owners that their cultural values won’t be ignored as they were, profoundly, when the Ranger Uranium Mine was first established.
“The consequences of not getting it right, they’re sort of cataclysmic,” says Justin O’Brien, the chief executive of Kakadu’s Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation.
In Australia’s far north, where nothing ever comes cheap or easy, the precarious balancing act to try and repair Ranger, and the relationships shattered by its creation, is underway.
So far, more than 30,000 native seeds have been sown by hand.
Mr Christophersen, a gardener from the nearby town of Jabiru, is an expert on native plants.
He is leading the revegetation efforts, along with his daughter Delise.
For both of them, these saplings are a sign of rebirth.
“This is a healing,” Mr Christophersen says, his eyes reddening, as he stares out toward Kakadu.
The broad shouldered Bunitj man’s voice cracks like the ground beneath his feet.
Something is stirring within him, something about the mine site on which he stands.
Something about its history.
A history of heartbreak and money.
And of a people dislocated.
“That’s what this mob don’t see,” he says, motioning to a mining company team waiting nearby — managers and scientists — over by their four-wheel-drives.
“They don’t understand the hurt.”
The cost of doing business
Inside Kakadu, a scenic flight over stunning scenery and important dreaming sites is a common attraction for tourists.
But visitors are often struck by the expansive mining operation that yawns by the park’s entrance.
The great holes in the land surrounded by escarpment country and towering eucalypts.
The pits of Ranger.
For four decades, Energy Resources of Australia’s (ERA) now-defunct uranium project supplied the main component for nuclear energy to some of the world’s superpower nations.
With more than 132,000 tonnes of yellowcake produced over the years, Ranger was a financial windfall for Australia.
Alongside the mine came the construction of Jabiru — a self-sufficient Top End township to house the mine’s workers.
In its heyday, Jabiru was a buoyant community hub.
Those who gave remote Northern Territory living a shot were rewarded with a decent wage and a spirited existence on the edge of Kakadu.
But that success didn’t come without its casualties.
Mirarr traditional owners were left reeling when their land was pulled out from under them for the mine’s creation, decades earlier.
For some, the grief remains, as does concern over the ongoing risks to their country.
Mirarr elder May Nango is among those with reservations.
She has lingering doubts over the mining company’s ability to complete the multi-billion dollar clean-up without further impacting the national park.
“Our concern is if there is contamination, the water here floods,” she says in Kunwinjku language, her partner Djaykuk Djandjomerr at her side.
“And it would spread the contamination everywhere.”
As the region shifts away from mining and into tourism, there’s also fear the eyesore sitting on Kakadu’s doorstep won’t be repaired to a high enough standard.
“Tourists are shocked when they get on a plane and fly out of the Jabiru airstrip, and then realise that immediately beside it, there is this great, massive industrial development,” Mr O’Brien says.
“It is a significant scar on the living cultural landscape that is Kakadu National Park.”
ERA, whose main shareholder is mining giant Rio Tinto, ceased production at the site in 2021.
Now, Ranger’s once toxic pits are being prepped to be filled, the plant’s silos and trucks all buried, and the landscape brought back to life.
ERA has pledged the rehabilitation will be done to a standard that could one day see the pits incorporated into Kakadu’s boundaries.
Supervising scientists, employed by the federal government, are overseeing the rehab to make sure ERA sticks to its promises.
“I think the biggest risk relates to the 65 million tonnes of uranium tailings that’s being stored in the pits,” supervising scientist Keith Tayler says.
“Compared to that, the former machinery and mill is actually quite a small amount of material.
“We’ll be monitoring the groundwater quality around Ranger very closely, to ensure that the environment of Kakadu National Park is protected over the long term.”
ERA, despite doubts about its bottom line, has also pledged it will be able to find the estimated $2.2 billion needed to rehabilitate Ranger properly, without having to plead with the Commonwealth for a taxpayer-funded bailout.
The company has already seen the budget it first forecast blow out by more than a billion dollars.
And it won’t commit to a completion date, other than to say it could drag on past the end of the decade.
The full restoration of the natural ecosystems will take far longer, scientists like Sharon Paulka, the site’s closure manager, say.
“We’re aiming, about 25 years after our planting, at being on a solid trajectory to forming a good ecosystem,” Ms Paulka says.
“But the final ecosystem, with all the different animals and plants coming back, could take a bit longer than that.”
For now, according to Mr O’Brien, “the world is watching Rio Tinto and ERA.”
“It shouldn’t be constrained by any arbitrary timelines, or cost,” he says.
“The rehabilitation of the Ranger mine, in Australia’s biggest national park, upstream of Aboriginal communities, in highly sensitive international-listed wetlands, means that they need to do the best job.”
Mr Tayler believes ERA’s claim Ranger could one day be a part of Kakadu is legitimate — but how long that will take is anybody’s guess.
“It’s uncharted. Nobody has ever restored a uranium mine to a standard that would allow it to be incorporated into a dual world heritage-listed national park,” the supervising scientist says.
“And for that reason, I would suggest Ranger is one of the most significant, and challenging, rehabilitation projects in the world.”
The boy from The Block
The man now responsible for steering Ranger’s transformation is an unlikely mining company chief executive.
He’s a former Indigenous land rights protester who as a kid appeared in the film clip to Midnight Oil’s seminal racial equality anthem, Beds Are Burning.
Brad Welsh chuckles when asked how an Aboriginal lad who grew up on The Block in Sydney’s Redfern could end up running the mine that once triggered land rights rallies across Australia.
“I grew up marching the streets for land rights, for justice,” he says.
Mr Welsh, a Muruwari man hailing from Goodooga, New South Wales, has no illusions about the hurt and pain once inflicted on Kakadu’s Aboriginal residents by Ranger’s construction in 1980.
“[But] we’re [also now] the first company that’s appointed an Indigenous CEO to deliver world-class rehabilitation that is not occurring anywhere else.”
It’s a job he says could be the biggest mine rehabilitation project on the planet.
He concedes the challenge to “bring the land back to a standard that could be incorporated into Kakadu National Park” is going to be an uphill march.
But he believes it is doable.
“It can be daunting, but we’ve just got to remember that everybody’s going for the same objective here,” Mr Welsh says.
“And it’s going to be something that we can deliver.”
He also says Rio Tinto has learnt lessons about working on Aboriginal country after — to the fury of landowners — it demolished a sacred site known as Juukan Gorge in West Australia in 2020.
“Juukan was a shock to the nation — it was a shock to Rio Tinto,” he says.
“It really emerged that there was an absence of a genuine partnership.”
The wake-up call
The ruthless path taken to build Ranger was a wake-up call for many Australians.
It sparked vocal protests in the major southern cities.
Despite the outcry, with Commonwealth legislative approval, the trucks rolled in and the land was cleared for the uranium mine, leaving elders of clans like the Mirarr distraught.
For those with an eternal link to the land, the battle appeared lost.
Ms Nango sits by Madjinbardi Billabong, a favourite fishing spot, just downstream of Ranger.
“They wanted to be free to travel their land and camp wherever they wanted to,” she says, reflecting on her elders’ struggles.
“At that time nobody had come and destroyed their land.”
There did prove to be something of a consolation pay-off for the traditional owners.
The acquisition of their land had a fixed price.
A royalties system meant Aboriginal people across the Northern Territory, via Aboriginal land councils, could access funding from the substantial profits garnered by Ranger.
“This mine bankrolled the Aboriginals Benefit Account for many years — it was the thing that gave significant funding to other land councils throughout the Territory,” Mr O’Brien says.
“So, in a sense, that was a success.
“But it was at the cost of the Mirarr people’s country, and their culture, being hammered out here.”
For Peter Christophersen, royalties couldn’t replace what had been taken from his mother’s country.
It was more than just the land.
“Back in the early days when there was a lot of royalties going around, alcoholism was quite rife and it was quite sad to see,” he says.
“It was staring me right in the face.”
Since the mine’s closure in 2021, ERA has adopted a far more conciliatory tone than those early years.
The company says it is actively seeking Aboriginal involvement in the rehabilitation process.
Its management also claims the decisions made on this ancient country will no longer be a one-way street.
“We want to really make sure that we’re bringing Indigenous thought to the centre of the business,” Mr Welsh says.
“Because if we can bring to life the cultural landscape, especially in a place like Kakadu, then we all benefit from that.”
The chance to heal
Mirarr traditional owners are wary, but hold hope ERA’s promises are in good faith.
While it remains to be seen if the company’s vision for the land will ever come to fruition, there are positive signs.
Elders are being invited for regular visits to Ranger, where some of their advice about how the site should be restored has already been acted upon.
Large boulders have been trucked in, and placed into piles across the flattened landscape, to offer shade and shelter to smaller mammals, and help entice other wildlife back into the space.
Already, insects and birds are returning.
Dingo tracks were also recently spotted.
“We realise, though, it will be different to what it was.
“When we hear the birds singing along the creeks … and can hear those animals calling out and we can go fishing again.
“When we sit in the shade on that country again, that’s wonderful.”
Ms Nango was among a group of elders bussed to the pit late in 2021 to help plant the first trees.
The power of that moment for Mr Christophersen, his voice wavering, is clear.
“On this site here where we’re standing, we got all the Gundjeihmi traditional owners to come out,” he says, pointing over to the cracked earth.
“That’s where their father stood when this mine was cut.
“And the idea was to get them back out, and give them an opportunity to heal.
“I guess it’s a healing for everybody, but it had to be for them, first.”
Out on Ranger’s pit one, the area where shoots are beginning to sprout, Mr Christophersen’s daughter Delise talks of her lifelong ambition to see their efforts take root.
“I would like to see it, decades and decades later, what this is going to be like,” she says.
“Knowing that I put those first trees out there and to kind of get a glimpse of what it used to be like, back in the old days, before the mine came here.
“That’d be something magical, I reckon.”
She looks out over the pit and its tiny plants.
The saplings offering hope, one day, of a fertile forest, and of a land reborn.
Reporting: Matt Garrick
Photography: Michael Franchi
Digital production: Steve Vivian
Graphics: Jessica Henderson