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Wednesday, 11 May 2016 12:42

Dumped-on Elders down but not despairing

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Adnymathanha Elders150The news received by Adynamathanha Elders that a property adjacent to the Yappala Indigenous Protected Area would be the proposed dumpsite for national radioactive waste was akin to "getting news of a death", writes Sister Michele Madigan rsj.

Gillian Bouras named it. "Despair is surely a great temptation in today's extremely troubled world," she wrote recently.

"What can one feel except helpless in the face of the stark realities that confront huge numbers of ordinary people through no fault of their own?"

She quotes the 416 BC Thucydides: "the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must".

Last Friday 29 April, I spoke with one of those suffering people facing her own stark reality. She is not an asylum seeker, but she was thinking about them in the midst of her own great sadness.

"I'm sitting here trying to eat my weetbix and keep my thoughts calm," said Enice Marsh, Adnymathanha Elder/Traditional Owner for the Flinders Ranges area of SA. "But do you know what I was thinking? Originally Australia was colonised by boat people. Now we have boat people trying to get into Australia. Let them come. But colonisation is again attacking the First Nations people and poisoning their land."

Enice and the other Adynamathanha Elders had just received the shattering news that the former South Australian Liberal Senator Grant Chapman's part-owned property Bardioota is 'at the top of the list' to be the site of Australia's national radioactive waste dump. (Politician-speak for being almost certainly the eventual site.)

The proposed dumpsite is adjacent to the Yappala Indigenous Protected Area. As one Yappala resident, Regina McKenzie, later described it, "It's like getting news of a death."

The situation certainly exemplifies the Thucydides analysis. In her interview for ABC's AM program an hour before our own phone conversation, Enice spoke of her "total surprise. It's a disaster. I feel absolutely shattered."

Outlining the numerous times that the Traditional Owners had asked the State Minister for the Environment and the Federal Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg to visit the site, she could only conclude, "But all this has come to no avail — it's all been totally ignored."

On Friday Frydenberg managed to have it both ways, in what seems to be a now fashionable way to go about such announcements. "There is no final decision." And yet, there is only one site remaining from what was a 'self selection' offer by the original 28 property owners and the shortlisted six.

Frydenberg described the selection process to date as 'rigorous'. However, as the follow up process will now include 'technological, safety and environmental assessment', an obvious question remains about just how 'rigorous' it could really have been.

In a repeat of the one of the Kimba owners' comments some months back, Chapman seems to be quite ill-informed regarding what will actually be deposited on the property, quoting the usual presenting argument used in the former SA campaign of 1998-2004: that the dump will be for medical low-level waste from various hospitals and universities around the country.

No mention as usual that there is no need for this to be stored long term in the first place. No mention of the intermediate level radioactive spent fuel rods which arrived back from France in December, and are presently housed at Lucas Heights. One wonders when such news will be broken to the property owners and the Hawker community.

In contrast, the Adnyamathanha neighbours and other Traditional Owners are completely aware of this and decry the flawed, seemingly unscientific process where one person can offer their land with absolutely no consultation to the neighbours.

Their own Indigenous Protected Area expert research and eyewitness knowledge cites that as well as being a site replete with 'countless thousands of Aboriginal artifacts and registered cultural heritage sites', 'There are frequent yarta ngurra-ngurrandha (earthquakes and tremors). We see the ground move and the hills move; we feel the land move. At least half a dozen times each year.

"It is flood land. The water comes from the hills and floods the plains, including the proposed dump site. Sometimes there are massive floods, the last one on 20 January 2006."

In stark contrast to the previous national dump campaign of 1998-2004 which was opposed by the state government, it seems that this time no member of the SA government has come to the defence of the extraordinary Flinders Ranges, a focal point for the tourism industry of South Australia. Wilpena is a famous tourist site of great beauty and heritage, popular with both national and international tourists.

Indeed the SA community next Friday will hear the royal commission's final recommendation to import high-level radioactive waste into our seemingly politically disposable state — disposable, now, even to our own politicians.

As Bouras concludes, despair is a temptation but there is also "the distressing matter of indifference. Indifference can be lethal." And what pain it gives to those like Enice Marsh who care.

But still there is resilience, and still there is hope. Not only are the Adnyamathanha determined to fight on, the five other communities that are now off the shortlist have pledged their solidarity in a continuing fight against 'this flawed process'.

Who knows the power of such leadership to break the bonds of our own indifference and despair.

This article by Josephite Sister Michele Madigan was first published on 2 May 2016 in Eureka Street.