Muckaty Station is the name of a sacred Aboriginal land located about 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek in a beautiful and remote part of the Northern Territory.
It is also where, in 2007, the Australian government wanted to build the nation’s first consolidated nuclear waste dump. If the plan went ahead, the site would be used to store medical and scientific research waste as well as Australian nuclear waste scheduled to return from Europe in 2014-15.
The plan was supported by the federal government and opposition resulting in Muckaty Station being specifically named in the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill as a possible site for the dump.
And in May 2007, on behalf of a family of Ngapa clan traditional owners, the Northern Land Council nominated a small area within Muckaty Station to be considered as a possible site for the facility. Four months later, the government accepted the nomination.
Who owns Muckaty Station?
Muckaty Station was returned to Traditional Owners in 2001 when the Aboriginal Land Council declared that multiple clans had joint and overlapping interest in the land, which has on it a sacred male initiation site. By law, before a site on Aboriginal land can be nominated by government for development, any Aboriginal people with an interest in the land must be adequately consulted. Traditional owners must also give consent.
So when news of the land’s nomination for a waste dump was made public, it was met with outrage by many of the Traditional Owners who argued they were authorised to speak for the land, that they’d not been properly consulted about the nomination and that they’d not given their consent. They also declared that regardless of the amount of money being offered, they never would.
The NLC and government took a narrow view, however. They identified only one branch of the Ngapa clan as the Traditional Owners who could speak for the land, and regarded only their consent as necessary for the nomination.
Legal action launched
Mark Lane Jangala, a senior Ngapa Traditional Owner, along with senior elders of the other clans, commenced legal action in June 2010. Maurice Blackburn Lawyers represented them together with NSW firm Surry Partners and Julian Burnside QC. They claimed the NLC had failed to properly consult Aboriginal people, had failed to get consent from the relevant Traditional Owners and had engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct in winning approval for the dump from only one clan, while ignoring the interests of others.
A trial began in the Federal Court four years later during which about 40 witnesses where expected to give evidence about the cultural significance of the site and their experience of consultations.
Podcast: This Place We Call Muckaty
Kylie Sambo was just a teenager when she found out the government wanted to put a nuclear waste dump on her grandfather’s country.
She went on to play an integral role in saving her family’s sacred homeland for future generations.
Listen to the podcast below, or subscribe on iTunes.
Historic agreement reached
Two weeks in to the trial, an historic agreement was reached between the parties. Ultimately, the Commonwealth agreed not to act upon the nomination of the Muckaty Station site by the NLC, and that no nuclear waste dump would be built there.
The Traditional Owners who opposed the dump were overjoyed, and incredibly relieved. Several years of fighting galvanised the community but it had also taken a heavy toll given what was at stake.
Maurice Blackburn ran the case on a pro bono basis through its social justice practice and was honoured to have secured such an important outcome.