Residents of a remote Indigenous community who have been left to drink uranium-contaminated water for a decade will get a new treatment plant by the end of the year under a plan by the Northern Territory government to address the issue.
Details of the project were revealed in a statement to the Australian stock exchange by engineering firm Clean TeQ Water, which announced it had signed a $5m contract in March to build an ion-exchange water filtration system for the 350-person community at Laramba.
The Clean TeQ Water CEO, Willem Vriesendorp, directed questions to Northern Territory’s Power and Water Corporation but said in the statement the contract “demonstrates the development of our company in delivering larger and more complex plants.
“The global need for groundwater treatment technologies is increasing [due to] economic activity, climate change, declining ground water levels and increasing pollution from natural sources, agriculture, and industry,” the statement said.
Design of the system is currently under way and the “practical completion of the plant” is expected by 16 December 2022.
The Central Lands Council CEO, Lesley Turner, said residents of Laramba had so far been left without details of the treatment plant and had been forced to pay for bottled water while they wait.
“Minister Chansey Paech announced this filtration system in Laramba last October and told the community it would take 40 weeks to install,” Turner said.
“Residents want to know why no work has started yet and why they still have no details about the technology. They also asked the government to supply Laramba with uncontaminated drinking water for those 40 weeks.
“These are some of Australia’s poorest people, forced to shell out $12 for a box of safe drinking water that barely fills a few billies each.
“We have been told the community will receive free, uncontaminated water at some stage, but the residents need urgent answers about when this will start.”
The development comes as the community awaits the result of a legal challenge to a Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal decision in July 2020 that found landlords had no obligation to install filter taps in homes to ensure water was safe to drink. In Laramba the NT government is both landlord and supplies drinking water to the community. A decision is expected on Monday.
The presence of uranium in Laramba’s water supply has been known since at least 2008 but the scale of the issue was only confirmed in 2018 when testing by Power and Water Corporation found concentrations of uranium at 0.046mg/L. This was nearly three times the limit of 0.017mg/L recommended in the Australian drinking water guidelines published by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Follow-up testing in 2020 found the problem was getting worse as uranium concentrations – which occur naturally in the area – had risen to 0.052mg/L. The water also contained contaminants such as nitrate and silica.
In response to media pressure the NT government announced $28m in April 2021 to find “tailored” solutions for water issues in remote Aboriginal communities across the territory.
Drinking water in remote Indigenous communities within the Northern Territory is managed by Indigenous Essential Services (IES), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the government-owned utility company Power and Water Corporation (PWC). IES has no staff, no offices and pays a fee to its parent company for administration services.
During the community’s recent legal challenge, the NT government filed a fact sheet published by PWC as evidence. It said the company planned to build an “ion-exchange water treatment system” in Laramba that “has been proven to work in a similar environment in a remote Western Australian community”. The system operates by binding uranium ions with a resin to clean the water.
It also said PWC “is getting approvals from Department of Health and the NT Environment Protection Authority” on the project.
Guardian Australia contacted both NT Health and the EPA, but neither had received an application for approvals on the treatment plant.
NT Health said PWC was “undertaking an assessment” about how to classify wastewater from the plant. “This classification will determine if approvals are required from NT Health,” it said.
PWC has previously directed questions about progress on the $28m spend to the NT government, including as recently as late April.
When Guardian Australia asked PWC about the situation at Laramba in October last year, it could not confirm any work had taken place.
Around that time representatives from PWC travelled to the Pilbara in Western Australia on a fact-finding trip to visit the remote community of Yandeyarra, where an ion-exchange water treatment plant has been operating for about 10 years.
PWC was contacted for comment but declined to comment.
The NT minister for essential services and water security, Eva Lawler, was expected to make an announcement regarding the water treatment plant this week.