A failed legal action has left the remote central Australian community of Laramba to grapple with high levels of uranium in their drinking water – and no way to fix it.
The community took the Northern Territory’s Department of Local Government, Housing Community Development to the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) as part of a class action over the drinking water issue along with several other concerns relating to the condition of their homes.
The applicants argued a landlord was responsible for ensuring a safe supply of drinking water to the property to make it habitable – in this case by installing filters on at least one tap in the household kitchen.
NTCAT tribunal member Mark O’Reilly disagreed in a blunt decision on July 1 that said landlords were not responsible for uranium present in drinking water supplied to a property, except where the issue was caused by equipment on the property.
"In my view the landlord's obligation for habitability is limited to the premises themselves," the decision read.
"[Landlords' obligations] do not extend to external factors that might be considered an 'act of God' or a 'force majeure'.
"If the water supply in Central Australia simply dried up completely it would not be the responsibility of the various landlords of Alice Springs to provide a remedy or compensation."
A report by the Northern Territory’s Power and Water Corporation found 0.046 milligrams of uranium per litre in the community’s drinking water.
This puts them three times over the recommended limit advised by the National Health and Medical Council’s national guidelines that say the level of uranium in drinking water should be no more than 0.017 milligrams per litre.
Laramba is an hour and a half drive southeast from Yuendumu and a two and a half hours from Alice Springs.
According to a 2018 water quality report by the NT government-owned Power and Water Corporation, the uranium is naturally present in the geology of the region but under certain conditions becomes absorbed into the groundwater aquifer over time.
NITV News has contacted Power and Water for comment.
The situation – which has been known for a decade – now leaves the Laramba community at risk of long-term health issues.
Lawyers for the community are expected to appeal, with Daniel Kelly, lawyer assisting for Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights, telling the ABC he was disappointed by the outcome.
“The decision leaves the question, well, who is responsible? Because these people have been exposed to uranium in the drinking water for over 10 years,” Kelly said.
"The Department of Housing is doing nothing about it, Power and Water is doing nothing about it and the Northern Territory Government is doing nothing about it."