Environmental authority approves uranium mine in WA

Saturday, August 2, 2014
Karlamilyi National Park next to the proposed uranium mine.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) gave approval to a uranium mine at Kintyre in Western Australia on July 28. The mine is about 260 kilometres north-east of Newman in the east Pilbara in an area that was excised from the Karlamilyi (Rudall River) National Park to allow mining in 1994.

Because it is illegal to export uranium from WA, trucks carrying the uranium oxide concentrate — otherwise known as yellowcake — will have to travel 4600 kilometres from the Kintyre mine to Port Adelaide.

National and state environment groups have called for a dedicated public inquiry into plans for increased uranium mining in WA, following an EPA recommendation to conditionally approve the mine.

Conservation Council of Western Australia campaigner Mia Pepper said: “The proposal to mine uranium 500 metres from a creek system that is part of a network of significant waterways in a national park is reckless and should not be approved.

“This polluting plan would put great pressure on one of WA’s special places — our largest national park — and would impact on scarce water resources and a number of significant and vulnerable species including the bilby, marsupial mole and rock wallaby.”


The approval recommendation follows recent allegations that former mine owner Rio Tinto made secret payments of about $21 million to silence Aboriginal concerns and opposition while it negotiated the project’s sale to current owner Cameco.

Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Dave Sweeney said: “Uranium mining is a high risk, low return activity where the proven risks far outweigh any promised rewards.

“Uranium is currently trading at US$28 a pound. Cameco has stated it will not mine unless the uranium prices reaches upwards of US$75 a pound. The EPA is recommending a green light for yellowcake when the company has stated the finances and the plan don’t stack up.

“Uranium mining poses unique risks and long-term human and environmental hazards. It demands the highest level of scrutiny and assessment — instead we have a lower order EPA report based on the hope of ‘satisfactory implementation by the proponent of the recommended conditions’. This inadequate approach is out of step with community expectations and fails to reflect the uranium sector's proven history of leaks and failure.

“In the shadow of Fukushima, a continuing nuclear crisis directly fuelled by Australian uranium, Bill Marmion and Colin Barnett should put this controversial and contaminating sector before the people and under the spotlight via a public inquiry.”

Australian uranium mines have a history of leaks, safety breaches and failed rehabilitation. A 2004 report by the Federal Senate References and Legislation Committee found "a pattern of under-performance and non-compliance" in the uranium mining sector.

There is not a single example of a uranium mine in Australia that has been rehabilitated to the point that radiological conditions are stable and ongoing monitoring is no longer required. The lack of proper rehabilitation coupled with the economic uncertainty facing the uranium industry puts Western Australian taxpayers at risk of inheriting expensive and long-term legacy sites.


These extraordinary risks are made worse due to the sensitive location of the Kintyre uranium deposit. The proposed mine could substantially impact on the Karlamilyi National Park and the Rudall River catchment area. The project area is in the watershed for the Rudall River and plays a significant role in the ecological processes of the Karlamilyi National Park.

The area includes permanent water holes, ephemeral rivers and salt lakes. There are spinifex plains, red desert sands, salt lakes and ancient gorges that protect pristine rock pools and swimming holes.

Despite the Kintyre exploration site being excised from the National Park under contentious circumstances, the area still maintains a high level of ecological significance to the National Park and its ecosystem. Uranium mining at Kintyre poses a long-term threat to the National Park.

Under WA's Environment Protection Act 1986 the EPA is required to report key environmental factors relevant to the proposal to the Minister for Environment as well as conditions it should be subject to and any recommendations.

The 71-page EPA report lists the often administrative conditions of the approval in Appendix 4, but in the body of the report says they include: ensuring that the project is implemented so that it does not affect the viability of significant fauna; and ensuring that any potential impacts to non-human biota are assessed and managed in accordance with best practice.

The EPA approved WA’s first uranium mine in 2012, owned by Toro Energy at Wiluna. Kintyre is the second mine to receive EPA approval.

Environment groups will challenge uranium mining every step of the way. Appeal to the decision can be lodged by August 11.

[Visit the Conservation Council of WA for more information.]

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From GLW issue 1019