Jeanne Miller smiles as she gets to the punchline of her story.
The 50-year-old Barngarla woman is talking about the enduring connection she has to Kimba when she tells how on the day she was born, her parents had been waiting for an ambulance that never came.
Forced to make their own way to the hospital, she says her mum made it as far as the tree outside before giving birth.
“So I’m born on Country,” she says.
Though she may not live there today, Jeanne says a part of her has never left. It is a detail that underscores the significance of the moment she learned Kimba was being considered as a dump for radioactive waste.
“I used to be a carer for my mum. When I first heard [about the facility], I told her. She goes: ‘no, no, no’ and got angry,” Jeanne says. “She said; ‘we don’t want it there’. She said to me: ‘you got to fight for this. You got to fight for it, we can’t have that place there. It’s a special place for us.’”
Most among the Barngarla have a similar story about the shock and confusion at learning their traditional Country was under consideration as part of a proposal to build a nuclear waste storage facility that would take in samples from 100 sites across the continent.
No one, they say, from the federal government contacted them beforehand to talk about the proposal, leaving most to find out through the news media or word of mouth.
Instead it was up to the Barngarla themselves, through the the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation (BDAC) to take the initiative and write to the government in April 2017 to find out what was going on.
When I first heard [about the facility], I told her. She goes: ‘no, no, no’ and got angry. She said; ‘we don’t want it there’.
'Wasn't interested in our views'
That first letter would plunge them into a fight that has so far lasted three years, until it entered a new phase in February when former Industry Minister Matt Canavan announced – a day before he resigned – that he had selected a site just outside of Kimba to situate the nuclear waste facility.
The location he chose was called Napandee, a slice of farmland about 25 kilometres west of Kimba. The precise area had been carved out of a 7500-hectare cereal and sheep property owned by the Baldock family and when built the facility promised to create 45 jobs and bring in $31 million to the community.
Over the course of its operating lifetime, the site would house low-to-intermediate level nuclear waste made up of medical waste drawn from 100 sites across the country. This material would include medical waste, but also the more serious TN81 canisters – casks of material once exposed to high levels of radiation that require containment for several hundred years.
If supporters of the proposal celebrated the financial windfall it would bring, critics worried the decision represented the thin end of a wedge that would eventually see the site expand to house higher-level toxic waste.
For the Barngarla people, however, the proposal represented something more significant: yet another decision where they have been overlooked, ignored and overruled in a process they describe as “divide and rule”.
“It’s like the government’s not listening to us,” Jeanne says. “It’s like if the government picks a place where they want to put rubbish like that, they’ll just go and do it and they don’t care what the people think. And that’s wrong. They should be listening to what the people want too.”
“I know there were people in Kimba that wanted it. We definitely know. We got the looks. We didn’t care. I didn’t care. This is something I believe in strongly and that’s why we don’t want it there, because of my strong beliefs and my family’s beliefs.”
After their early efforts to find out more, the Barngarla say they were stonewalled from the very beginning by both the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, and the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency (ARWA). That stance would become a pattern.
At first it began with the department initially dismissing the possibility that Aboriginal heritage sites may exist in the area and ignoring requests from the Barngarla for a meeting.
It took a year – until February 2020 – before the department offered to meet with the Barngarla people, though by the time the first and only meeting took place the government was already forging ahead to measure community support through a voting process.
In organising the vote, the local council limited those who could participate to ratepayers within the township, and provided a ballot with a single question: “Do you support the proposed National Radioactive Waste Management Facility being located at one of the nominated sites in the community of Kimba?”
Outraged by what they say was a clear act of voter suppression – a strategy common in the US where procedural tactics are used to discourage or prevent people from voting – the Barngarla took their fight to the courts.
They argued that the vote breached the Racial Discrimination Act by excluding the Traditional Owners who were openly opposed to the proposal. The matter would go all the way to the Federal Court, where it was ultimately dismissed on appeal.
Though the court found the local council had not excluded the Barngarla people on the basis of their ethnic identity, BDAC Chairperson Jason Bilney says the court did acknowledge the council had discretion about who to include in the vote, and they had deliberately chosen to exclude native title holders.
“They basically created hurdles,” Bilney says. “The catchphrase was ‘rateable property’ – that’s white man’s terms ‘rateable property’. We’re the native title holders. That holds more weight than ‘rateable property’, so we should have been included.”
Around the time the Barngarla filed their lawsuit to challenge the vote, the first meeting with the department took place in August 2018 – a moment Bilney recalls with frustration.
He says Mr Canavan spoke for fifteen minutes before he left, taking all the government representatives with him.
“That’s it,” Bilney says. “He wasn’t interested in our views, he just wanted us to hear what he had to say.”
When the poll of Kimba residents was counted, it returned a result that saw 61.6 per cent of 824 participants vote in favour of the proposal.
BDAC responded by organising is own poll, asking its 209 members the same question that was asked of the broader Kimba residents.
The result would be a unanimous “No” from the 83 participants – a turnout figure explained by cultural and logistical factors that make it difficult to gather in any one place.
The Barngarla delivered the result to the department in November last year on the understanding Mr Canavan had promised to consider them together.
“Canavan said he would put the two together. He never did because if you put the two together there was clearly no broad community support,” says Bilney.
In its submissions to the senate, the department denies it agreed to incorporate the two votes, but says it only agreed to “consider” their outcomes.
“They basically created hurdles. The catchphrase was ‘rateable property’ – that’s white man’s terms ‘rateable property’. We’re the native title holders. That holds more weight than ‘rateable property’, so we should have been included.”
'Aliens in our own country'
What happens now is up to the Senate economics reference committee and a clutch of Labor, Greens and independent senators.
The Barngarla say the recent approach of the federal government – to legislate the precise location of the site – represents a new twist as it departs from the process established by the Gillard government under the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012.
Worse still, the Barngarla say the provisions of the bill will stymie their rights to seek a judicial review of the minister’s decision in the courts. The Parliamentary joint committee on human rights also raised concerns about the bill in April this year that it says may extinguish Native Title.
“In relation to any cultural and spiritual significance attaching to the land itself, it remains unclear how this would be protected once a radioactive waste facility is operational on the site. Further, it is unclear how Indigenous people will be able to access sites of cultural significance, should they be determined to exist,” the report said.
When NITV News contacted the Australia Radioactive Waste Agency for comment about the process to date, a spokesperson said in a statement the government is seeking to consult with the BDAC going forward.
“Napandee is privately owned, has no Native Title and has been used for agricultural purposes for 80 years. Preliminary assessments have identified no registered cultural heritage at the site,” the spokesperson said.
“Further ground cultural heritage surveys with Traditional Owner consultation are planned, to determine cultural heritage values at the site.
“That said, we have approached the Barngarla through BDAC numerous times during the past years to work together to identify heritage, without resolution.”
In addition, the federal government is seeking to establish a Barngarla economic plan backed by $3 million in government funding, employment opportunities at the site and a cultural heritage management plan.
The Barngarla view this as a bribe when for them it isn’t a matter of money, but one of self-determination concerning what happens on their Country, set against a much deeper history.
So far it has taken two decades for the Barngarla to have their Native Title claim to a 45,000 square kilometre stretch of the Eyre Peninsula recognised by the courts – a process during which they were once informed that they did not exist as a people.
Neither have they forgotten the horror at Maralinga when the British army tested nuclear weapons after falsely declaring there were no Aboriginal people in the area.
To the Barngarla, the government has only decided to talk after the big decisions have been made.
“We’re still flora and fauna to these people,” Bilney says. “They should have included us from the start. We heard about it on the news. We weren’t included in the vote.
“You know, the Barngarla [native title] claim was basically an unwinnable case, they said. It’s taken us 21 years. Twenty-one years to win Native Title under white man’s law. And yet we’re still classed as second-class citizens? Flora and fauna.
“We’re basically aliens in our own Country.”