Conservation Council of WA (CCWA) Director Piers Verstegen said that there is much to lament after the election, but the words in the statement of reasons for the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine in WA’s mid west drives home just how much ground we lost on advancing the new environmental laws we so desperately need.
“Under our existing flawed environmental laws the decision to approve a uranium mine which could cause the extinction of 13 species was made on the eve of announcing an election and after negotiating a set of substandard conditions with the mining company behind closed doors”.
Let this statement sit with you for a moment: "The Department accepted that a potential consequence of these impacts is the loss of one or more of the 12 species of subterranean fauna that are only known to occur in the proposed impact area." (Paragraph 47 of the Statement of Reasons for the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine.)
Now add this to the mix - the Department proposed two conditions (among many other conditions referred to as the B1 conditions) - that the proponent would have to provide to help inform the Ministers thinking. Evidence that the proposed action would not cause the extinction of troglofauna species and suitable evidence that the proposed action would not cause the extinction of subterranean fauna species.
Extraordinarily the federal Minister for the Environment did not adopt these reasonable and basic conditions. The ask for evidence to prove extinction will not occur were dropped, and the big question is why…
We know, from asking questions through the Senate that the Canadian mining company Cameco was in negotiation with the government, via a very unclear and opaque process.
Documents released via the Senate show that company argued against the two proposed conditions described above. The company argued that to provide evidence that the project would not cause extinction “Is not realistic and unlikely to be achieved ever!”
They argued that the sampling is complex, and that historical decisions have not required this. In other words, it’s too hard and too expensive and at the end of the day the most likely scenario no matter how much money and research is done that the answer will still be the same- that the 12 species at threat of extinction at Yeelirrie only exist at Yeelirrie and face a direct extinction threat.
“Beyond the failure to prevent extinction and the secretive negotiations between miners and government there is a further deep concern. The justification the Minister gave for not requiring the company to prove that the project would not cause extinction poses a very dangerous precedent”.
The Minister says in the Statement of Reasons that "if I attached the Attachment B1 conditions, there is a real chance that the project could not go ahead”. Whether or not the project is feasible or not should not be a consideration for the Environment Minister when deciding on the conditions for a mine that would likely cause extinction. Those conditions in Attachment B1 are the only way to ensure that extinction does not occur and her justification for not adopting them was that it could mean the project could not go ahead. Surely the object of the Act is to protect the environment - not protect the environment if and when it is convenient and not too expensive or too hard for the proponent to do so.
The other edge of the sword is that the Minister, months before making the approval, promised she would wait until the outcome of a state Supreme Court appeal over the earlier contested State approval.
This approval was given in the dying days of the former Barnett government by a Minister who subsequently lost his seat. The federal commitment to await a decision on the validity of this was prudent and gave some clarity of process for those in the community involved in the court appeal, which is expected to make a decision later this year.
Unfortunately this promise was broken, just like many of our environment laws.
If the Yeelirrie were to go ahead it would mean both species extinction and large volumes of radioactive materials and wastes. These things are forever – unlike the state and federal Ministers who have approved this plan neither of who still holds that role.
At both a state and federal level we desperately need laws that prioritise and protect our environment and defend against extinction. These laws need to be based on actual environmental outcomes, science and evidence – not driven by politics.
Yeelirrie is a clear and compelling case of the need for environmental laws and approaches that do not trade off the long term health of our environment for perceived and unproven short term economic benefits.
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For more information and history of the Yeelirrie legal challenge click here