• Based on health considerations, the concentration of uranium in drinking water should not exceed 0.017 mg/L. (google maps)Source: google maps
A government-owned utilities company has refused to say whether planned works in a remote NT community are intended to remove high levels of uranium from its drinking water supply.
Royce Kurmelovs

31 Jul 2020 - 4:32 PM  UPDATED 31 Jul 2020 - 4:32 PM

NT Power and Water have refused to say whether any planned public works are intended to remove high levels of uranium from the drinking water supply at a remote community three-hours northwest of Alice Springs.

Laramba has a uranium content in its drinking water three times World Health Organisation guidelines. Though the issue has been known for a decade, nothing has yet been done – a situation that prompted residents to lodge a complaint against the Northern Territory’s Department of Local Government, Housing Community Development at the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT)

In a tribunal decision delivered last week, it was found that landlords are not responsible for the supply of clean drinking water, leaving open the question of who is responsible.

Government-owned utility company NT Power and Water said it could not comment on the recent decision at the tribunal when contacted by NITV News about the situation.

“As Power and Water Corporation was not a party to the proceeding, we do not consider it appropriate at this time to comment given there are still matters between the parties to be addressed by the Tribunal," a spokesperson said in a written statement. 

When asked about whether there were any planned public works to address the issue, the spokesperson said the company was "not in a position to address this at this time”.

The NTCAT decision has made water security a flashpoint issue for the upcoming NT election.

Unlike other states and territories, the NT has no uniform law mandating a minimum standard of drinking water, leaving a vacuum of legal responsibility.

On Wednesday, the four land councils joined together to condemn the total lack of protection for safe drinking water within the NT and called on whoever wins government to commit to passing a Safe Drinking Water Act.

Central Land Council chief executive Joe Martin-Jard described the situation as “discriminatory” against those living outside cities and towns.

“The lack of legislative protection out bush is discriminatory and constitutes negligence by the Northern Territory Government,” he said.

“That’s why we want whoever forms the next NT government to bring in legally enforceable minimum standards for drinking water quality and security.”

Polling commitment

With voters going to the polls on August 22, all major parties have committed to addressing water security in some form.

Minister for Renewables, Energy & Essential Services, Dale Wakefield, refused to be drawn on the issue of Laramba, saying instead the NT Government would “continue to work with, and invest in communities to provide improved long term water security.”

Earlier in the week, Ms Wakefield told the ABC that there were no medical studies showing high levels of uranium were damaging to human health.

"The Department of Health has said, whilst they are over the World Health Organisation guidelines, there is no immediate threat to people's health and wellbeing" she said.

"There are no studies to show water at that level will impact people's health."

Kirsty Howey, a former lawyer and a Darwin-based researcher from the University of Sydney, said that should not stop government taking action.

“Where there’s scientific uncertainty, that shouldn’t stop people from taking action as a precaution,” said Ms Howey. “We don’t want to get to the point where there’s damage to people’s health from the provision of water.”

Ms Howey said that while NT Power and Water would likely be subject to a duty of care, proving it may be difficult and any such case could only be brought long after people have become ill.

“If you happen into the 18 gazette towns in the Northern Territory then you get a properly regulated water supply with laws applying to Power and Water about how they do that,” she said.

“Everywhere else and principally in the approximately 72 Indigenous communities, there’s this opaque subsidiary Indigenous Essential Services.

“There are no laws that apply to that entity. It’s difficult to enforce [a duty of care] except via legal proceedings under the tort of negligence which requires you to prove damage and causation.”

This made safe drinking water laws essential to addressing the issue for good and before any harm was done.

Fracking impact

Jimmy Cocking, CEO of the Arid Lands Environment Centre, said climate change and the NT Government’s plans to open up the Territory to fracking means the lack of laws guaranteeing access to clean drinking water will also have much broader implications.

“The biggest risk from our perspective, is that if they’re going to open up the Territory to fracking, all these places are not going to be guaranteed safe, clean drinking water,” Mr Cocking said.

“Ninety percent of the Territory is groundwater dependent. If there’s nothing to protect people and something goes wrong, we’re all in trouble.”

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