WA’s Environmental Protection Authority has struck again. Plans for one of the nation’s biggest uranium mines were recently overturned because of the threat they may pose to 11 species of ‘stygofauna’. Apparently the state’s remaining 2,669 species will not suffice.
Don’t know what stygofauna are? Neither did we. Apparently they are minuscule groundwater-dwelling creatures which range from 0.3mm to 10mm and ironically, their existence was largely unknown prior to the expansion of the mining sector.
Australia indisputably has some of most stringent environmental regulations. For Cameco’s multi-billion-dollar project to be held up by what are essentially prawns, makes a mockery of the system and sets a dangerous precedent. In fact, Subterranean Ecology Australia indicates that far from being remarkably rare, variations of stygofauna can be “found within the … cracks and fissures in virtually any other type of rock or sediment”. While WA is no doubt a hot spot, other states also host “diverse and abundant” types.
Canadian-based Cameco paid $US430 million for the Yeelirrie property in 2012 and planned to develop it into a mine, bringing employment for hundreds of local workers and annual production of around 3850 tonnes of yellowcake. On a greater scale, the mining sector as a whole comprises 40% of national exports. Over the last twenty years, aside from directly supporting 320,000 Australians, the sector has contributed more than $500 billion to GDP.
However, this means nothing to the EPA and their supporters who, for the last 46 years, have been desperately clawing at any excuse to shut Yeelirrie down. Yes, the objective of these green groups is clearly to stop mining, whatever the cost. They don’t even pretend to attempt any sensible compromise between environmental protection and economic development.
Yeelirrie can and should be seen as yet another example of how green-tape is thwarting economic development and raising energy prices for practically no environmental benefit. With Australia’s global-competitiveness continuing to fall, we urgently need to reform our outdated environmental laws.
Cameco Australia’s managing director Brian Reilly has not yet lost all hope. He stoically believes that the EPA’s concerns may be overcome by making special considerations to the protection of these dear prawns. However, if uranium prices remain as low as they are, the extra costs of these considerations could be crippling.
The fact that the final decision rests with Environment Minister, Albert Jacob, may explain Reilly’s optimism. When similar opposition was raised against the Pilbara uranium mine in 2014, Mr Jacob dismissed it. And so, with the EPA findings now open to a two-week period of public appeal, we may prevail to beat the Greenies yet.
Bronwyn Allan is a legal intern at the Institute of Public Affairs