Adani, Yeelirrie and mining: Our environmental laws are broken

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Environment Minister Melissa Price (screenshot via YouTube)

The Morrison Government’s quiet approval of a controversial uranium mine in Western Australia the day before the Federal Election was called is evidence that our national environment laws are broken and too often subverted for political purposes.

Environment Minister Melissa Price approved the Yeelirrie uranium mine on April 10, the day before the Prime Minister headed to Government House to call the 2019 Federal Election. Ms Price did not announce the approval via a public release. Instead, two weeks later a notice was placed on the Environment Department’s website, late in the day ahead of the Anzac Day public holiday.

Perhaps the view was that when it comes to public awareness of irresponsible sign-offs for radioactive pollution and species extinction, we best forget.

Minister Price’s approval came despite a clear commitment that she would not advance any further federal approval until a continuing legal challenge to the earlier state approval for Yeelirrie had been decided.

The controversial project, which is in Ms Price’s electorate of Durack, is still being legally challenged on appeal by senior Tjiwarl native title holders and conservationists.

Ms Price had previously told media: “My department advised that it was prudent to wait for the result of the WA Supreme Court proceedings before finalising the federal assessment [for Yeelirrie].”

The mine had been previously rejected by the WA Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) because it could drive rare subterranean fauna species to extinction and do harm to other wildlife species like the Malleefowl, Princess parrot and Greater bilby.        

Critics have identified that Yeelirrie could produce more than 35 million tonnes of radioactive mine waste, use up to 10 billion litres of groundwater and require 2500 hectares of vegetation to be cleared for its nine-kilometre long open pit.

The lack of respect for the Australian people and due process demonstrated by this clandestine approval under the cover of a national election is a sign of both Government desperation and the fact that environmental protection currently runs a poor second to political imperatives.

The WA EPA’s prudent recommendation not to approve Yeelirrie was overruled by the conservative Barnett Government just weeks before it lost the 2017 state election.

Now the Morrison Government has performed the same trick, approving Yeelirrie hours before the Federal Election was called, without regard for the Tjiwarl Traditional Owners on whose land the planned mine sits or other stakeholders who might be adversely impacted.

The proposal threatens the area which is part of the Seven Sisters Dreaming songline. The word Yeelirrie translates to the word Yullala – which mean to weep or mourn - and Yeelirrie is referred to as a “place of death”. The cultural stories and connections with Yeelirrie are a major factor in the strong and consistent opposition to this project by members of the Tjiwarl Traditional Owners.  

The community has been dudded doubly over this project with both the State and Federal governments putting politics and corporate interests ahead of science and the national interest.

The approval decision followed hard on the heels of Minister Price’s rushed approval of Adani’s plans to guzzle billions of litres of groundwater for its massive coal mine on the eve of the election and was greeted with widespread scepticism and described by Opposition leader Bill Shorten as “shonky”.

Environment groups have called the assessment deficient and urged that this rushed rubber stamp be reviewed by any future federal government. The Conservation Council of West Australia has started an online call to Federal Labor: It’s not worth wiping out a species for an unsafe, unwanted and uneconomic uranium mine.

Radioactive risks last longer than any politician and deserve real assessment, not backroom fast-tracking. Australia’s environment laws have long been abused and short-changed by politicians cutting deals that put the interests of big companies over nature, traditional owners and local communities.

For environmentalists, the lessons from the Yeelirrie and Adani eleventh hour approvals are clear. Australia needs new and stronger national environment laws that protect nature and take politics and undue influence out of approval decisions for major industrial projects.

These laws should be overseen by an independent national EPA that is charged with making approval decisions free from the interfering hand of big businesses and their politician mates.

Since the Minister’s rubber stamp there have been three further developments.

Mining company Cameco has stated it will not immediately develop the project due to challenging market conditions. An expert international body has warned of one million looming species extinctions. And Minister Price has been missing, just like the species at Yeelirrie will be, should this flawed project ever go ahead.

Approving Yeelirrie is a deeply deficient decision that makes neither dollars nor sense.

Dave Sweeney works on nuclear issues with the Australian Conservation Foundation and was a member of the Federal advisory panel on radioactive waste. You can follow him on Twitter @nukedavesweeney.

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