Western Australia EPA rejects proposed Yeelirrie uranium mine
By Mara Bonacci
After nearly 3,000 people lodged submissions with the Western Australian EPA in opposition to the proposed uranium mine at Yeelirrie, on August 3 the EPA recommended that the project be rejected. Traditional Owners and environmentalists welcomed the decision, but remain wary.
Yeelirrie is located 420 km north of Kalgoorlie in the mid-west region of WA, the land of the Wongutha people. Yeelirrie is the name of a local sheep station and, in the local Aboriginal language, means “place of death”.
In 1973 Western Mining Corporation (WMC) found a uranium deposit there. The Yeelirrie Mine Proposal was submitted to the WA Department of Conservation and Environment in 1979. The proposal was for the development of an open cut mine, ore treatment plant, town and ancillary services and 850 employees. Environmental approval was given by both state and federal governments.
Trial mines were dug in the 1980s, which found the first large scale calcrete orebody in the world. It is estimated that around 195 tonnes of yellowcake were mined in these trials. WMC spent $35 million preparing to develop the mine until the 1983 federal election and subsequent implementation of the ALPs “three mines policy” in 1984, limiting Australia’s number of uranium mines to three.
In 2005, the mine was acquired from WMC by BHP Billiton, who concluded one stage of exploration mining. Then in 2012, Canadian mining company Cameco bought the deposit from BHP for $430 million.
The Yeelirrie uranium proposal was referred to the WA Environmental Protection Authority in November 2014 by Cameco. In 2015 the project was released for Public Environment Review. In August 2016 the WA EPA made a recommendation to reject the Yeelirrie proposal. The final decision will be made by the WA Environment Minister Albert Jacob.
Cameco is the second biggest uranium miner in the world. They have a long history of incidents that impact adversely on traditional owners, communities and the environment a table documenting these incidents is posted on the Conservation Council of WA’s website.
Cameco wants to double the rate of production that was proposed by previous owners BHP. This means increasing water demand and an increased number of trucks from Yeelirrie to Port Adelaide.
Cameco’s Yeelirrie mine proposal includes:
- A 9 km long, 1.5 km wide and 10 m deep open pit mine
- 14 million tonnes of overburden
- Using 8.7 million litres of water a day
- Producing 7,500 tonnes per year of uranium (10 percent of annual world demand)
- To be transported by four road trains a week
- It would produce 126,000 tonnes per year of CO2 emissions
- 36 million tonnes of tailings stored in the open pit2,421 hectares would be cleared
- 22 years of operation
- Highly variable work force – average of 300.
Uranium prices have been low since the disaster at Fukushima, prohibiting the development of mines, but companies such as Cameco have been trying to get approvals in the belief that the price will go back up. However expectations of a price increase have repeatedly failed to eventuate. In May 2016 the price of uranium price fell to an 11-year low, just under US$26/lb U3O8. The spot uranium price has fallen by more than 20 percent since the start of 2016. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal stated that uranium “is the worst-performing mined commodity this year.”
Countless companies have exited uranium, and countless projects have been abandoned. Australian uranium explorer Capital Mining is one of very few companies to have prospered, with its share price doubling in a single day in 2015. How did Capital Mining achieve such a phenomenal result in such a bleak market? On the day of its share price doubling, the company announced that it was divesting itself of uranium exploration assets and planned instead to get involved in legalised cannabis growing!
Huge uranium stockpiles have accrued around the world and those stockpiles are continuing to grow with global production continuing to exceed demand. There may not be a supply deficit in the market until “the late 2020s” according to Nick Carter from Ux Consulting. While the uranium industry appears to be in denial about the likelihood of long-term low prices, the reality is that it is unlikely that new mines will be viable or profitable for at least the next decade. If Cameco wants to pursue the Yeelirrie project, the company will need to be extremely patient.
The winning argument against the mine
A joint submission was provided to the Yeelirrie Public Environment Review by the Conservation Council of WA, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Friends of the Earth Australia, The Wilderness Society, the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of WA, the West Australia Nuclear Free Alliance and the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance.
Amongst other points, they called for the project to be rejected “on the grounds that the Yeelirrie Subterranean Community, a Priority 1 Ecological Community (PEC) comprises a series of highly endemic, diverse stygofauna and troglofauna species within multiple calcrete habitats). The impacts of the proposed Yeelirrie uranium mine, predominantly the associated groundwater drawdown, pose an unacceptable risk that could see a number of subterranean species become extinct (particularly 15 species that are currently only known from the direct impact zone).”
The EPA decision was based on the impacts on subterranean fauna, and disregarded other points made in the submission.
On 3 August 2016, EPA Chairman Dr Tom Hatton said Cameco Australia’s Yeelirrie Uranium Project could not meet one of the nine key environmental factors examined by the independent board.
“This was an extremely complex assessment which included an extensive public consultation period, a site visit, numerous discussions with the proponent and the careful and rigorous examination of nine key environmental factors,” Dr Hatton said. “Of the nine factors assessed, one ‘Subterranean Fauna’ was unable to meet the EPA’s environmental objectives.”
Dr Hatton said the EPA had concluded the proposal would threaten the viability of some species of subterranean fauna (animals which live below ground), in particular stygofauna.
“The stygofauna habitat at Yeelirrie is particularly rich, with 73 species recorded – more than anywhere else in the northern Goldfields,” Dr Hatton said.
“Despite the proponent’s well considered management strategies, based on current scientific understanding, the EPA concluded that there was too great a chance of a loss of species that are restricted to the impact area.
“The other eight factors, including potential impacts to Flora and Vegetation, Inland Waters Environmental Quality and Decommissioning and Rehabilitation, met the EPA’s objectives. The EPA also concluded radiation exposure from the mine site to workers and the public would be within acceptable limits for human health.”
Traditional Owners’ response
The Wongutha Traditional Owners have been fighting this project for over 40 years. Mining at Yeelirrie would destroy cultural heritage sites and would also have other cultural, social and environmental impacts. When the site was owned by BHP Billiton, the Wongutha people asked for guarantees that their land and animals would not be contaminated. They directed the Central Desert Native Title Service to no longer negotiate or discuss uranium mining with BHP in an act of opposition to any plans to mine uranium there.
Richard Evans, Koara elder and co-founder of the West Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, said:
“The EPA decision to protect subterranean fauna is a good decision and the right decision and we are happy with the outcome. But we believe the EPA has underestimated the risk to bush foods, public health and water and most importantly our cultural heritage and our community’s opposition to the mine.
“I invite the Minister (who has never spoken to us before) to come and meet with us the Traditional Owners of Yeelirrie before making a decision about our country. No Minister has come to talk to us about that country.
“Yeelirrie is an important place in our culture, it is a dreaming site it important to us and other tribes around us. In the short time since WA was colonised there has been drastic changes to the ecosystem and the country. It’s not just about protecting this country for us – but uranium threatens communities and country from the cradle to the grave, at home and overseas. This is our responsibility and we take that responsibility seriously. We have to leave this poison where it is.”
Environment groups including the Conservation Council of WA (CCWA) and the Australian Conservation Foundation welcomed the WA EPA’s recommendation not to approve the proposed Yeelirrie uranium mine.
CCWA nuclear free campaigner Mia Pepper said: “This is an important decision that prioritises the survival of a number of different species and the health and wellbeing of the local community. CCWA’s submission to the EPA identified the likely extinction of several species of underground fauna, known as stygofauna and troglofauna if the proposal were approved and it is pleasing to see the EPA has considered that evidence. The EPA recommendation has been met with great relief among pastoralists, Aboriginal communities and environment groups who continue to campaign against uranium mining in WA.”
National environment groups have joined their state counterparts in welcoming the EPA’s call. “We congratulate the EPA for making this important, clear and strongly evidence based recommendation,” said the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Dave Sweeney. “ACF expects and looks forward to the Environment Minister upholding the EPA’s recommendation.”
The Cameco website states that “Cameco respects the findings of the EPA and acknowledges the complexity and uncertainty involved with assessing subterranean fauna.”
Cameco Australia Managing Director Brian Reilly said: “Sampling and impact management for subterranean fauna at Yeelirrie is very complex and this is reflected in the EPA’s findings. We believe that with further sampling and research, subterranean fauna can be appropriately managed at Yeelirrie and we will work with government agencies and stakeholders to find a way forward. More than 850 samples have been taken from the Yeelirrie project area, which has identified 73 species of stygofauna. Of these, eleven species are currently only known from the impact area.”
“Cameco believes the long-term fundamentals of the nuclear industry are strong and we are taking prudent steps to prepare our uranium projects for improved market conditions,” Reilly said.
But the fundamentals of the industry aren’t strong at all, as Cameco well knows. Cameco announced in April that it is suspending production at one Canadian uranium mine, reducing production at another, and winding down production at its two uranium mines in the USA. A Cameco statement in April said that “with today’s oversupplied market and uncertainty as to how long these market conditions will persist, we need to focus our resources on our lowest cost assets and maintain a strong balance sheet.”
The EPA’s report to the Minister for Environment is now open for a two-week public appeal period, closing August 17, 2016. Appeals are administered independently by the Appeals Convenor and can be made at www.appealsconvenor.wa.gov.au
Following discussions with other decision-making authorities, the Minister for Environment makes the decision on whether the proposal should proceed.