Freedom of Information (FOI) documents reveal the Federal Government has been aware of potential mental health issues, from as early as 2017, caused by the search for a site to store the nation’s nuclear waste.
The Federal Government is considering two sites at Kimba and one near Hawker for a facility that would permanently store low-level waste and temporarily store intermediate-level waste.
Kimba, a small town on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, has been divided on whether to support or oppose the facility.
Some residents believe the facility could help bring much-needed business to the rural town, while others suggest it could damage the region’s agricultural reputation.
“Many of the opposed group have raised the issue of mental health in submissions and direct discussions,” the FOI documents, written in 2017, said.
“They believe mental health issues are arising in Kimba due to the stress of being in this process.
“These issues have been raised with the Kimba doctor and counsellor.”
Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick obtained the Freedom of Information documents and hoped the concerns were a catalyst for change.
“In my view, that creates a very strong obligation for the Government to act,” he said.
“They’ve clearly known about this issue since 2017 and it is now time to ask the minister exactly what he is doing in relation to that.”
Industry, Innovation and Science Minister, Matt Canavan, is responsible for determining which site should be chosen for the facility.
“If anyone in Kimba advises they have concerns about their health, they can be referred to the Kimba Mental Health and Wellbeing Group,” a department spokesman said.
“Following a Community Benefit Program application, that group received funding of $30,000 for Healthy Mind Healthy Community workshops to improve resilience, mental health and wellbeing.”
Site selection process ongoing
The site selection process has been put on hold since traditional owners took the District Council of Kimba to court over a proposed community ballot on support for the facility.
The Barngarla Native Title Determination Aboriginal Corporation took the matter to the Federal Court because not all native title holders were included in the ballot.
A decision will be made on the court action this year, with Native Title holders claiming the ballot would breach the Racial Discrimination Act.
However, an early technical assessment gave the Napandee property a score of 90, while Lyndhurst received 82.
“Both sites were ranked as ‘highly suitable’ by the initial desktop assessment,” the FOI documents said.
“This assessment involved a multi-criteria site assessment where the sites were evaluated against criteria of health, safety, security, environment protection, equity, economic viability, and stable environment.
“On balance, it is recommended that if there is a decision to proceed, both sites should be taken forward.
“If only one site is taken forward, it is recommended to be Napandee.”
This is despite a consultation in 2016, mentioned in the documents, found “that the Lyndhurst site was preferred by the community”.
“Given the perception it is ‘further out of town’ and on less productive land, but there is no strong basis for this assessment.”
The documents also revealed that the Federal Government was aware of the “strong division” within Kimba that the site selection process was causing.
“It is unlikely community views will change significantly in the short to medium term, with a block of around 40 per cent persistently strongly opposed,” the documents said.
“There is strong division in the town and this is expected to continue and may become more vocal in the short term.”
Jeff Baldock owns Napandee, the site indicated to be preferred by the Federal Government in the FOI documents.
“It’s been a very long process,” he said.
“When it first started out, there was probably a few things that could have been done better.
“But as it’s gone along, everyone’s had plenty of opportunity to find out what they want to know.”
Mr Baldock said there had been “vague references” to mental health concerns.
“But I’ve never actually spoken to anyone who feels particularly that way and I know that the department did have an open offer that they could contact them.”
Peter Woolford is Chair of No Radioactive Waste on Agricultural Land in Kimba or South Australia, an organisation against the facility.
He said there was no doubt that the site selection process had caused mental health concerns within the community.
“We’ve lost people from our community because of it,” he said.
“People I speak to are reluctant to go into Kimba much these days.
“It’s disappointing to say the least that if you went up the street and tried to have a conversation about the nuclear waste facility from people from opposite sides, you wouldn’t get much of a conversation.”
Another section of the documents found there had been some cases of businesses being boycotted by locals if the owner either supported or opposed the facility.
“Business owners have noted that boycotting of businesses by the opposed group is occurring,” the documents said.
“While these claims may be exaggerated, this would appear valid and detrimental to the town.”
The ABC has also been told that those opposed to the facility were boycotting businesses that supported it.
It has also been told that up to 90 per cent of businesses at Kimba supported the facility.
Senator Patrick was concerned about the impact boycotting businesses could have on a town like Kimba.
“Kimba is a very small township and the last thing you want to have is animosity developing across members of the community,” he said.
“To the point where they simply won’t go and shop in a particular shop because of someone’s view on this issue.”