The Morrison Government signed off on a controversial uranium mine one day before calling the federal election, and did not publicly announce the move until the environment department uploaded the approval document the day before Anzac Day.
The Yeelirrie Uranium mine, located 500 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, requires both federal and state approval.
The state approval of the proposed mine is still being fought in the state’s Supreme Court by members of the Tjiwarl traditional owners.
In 2016, the West Australian Environment Protection Agency advised the mine not be approved, concluding it posed too great a risk of extinction to some native animals.
The former Liberal Barnett government controversially approved the mine in 2017, just weeks before it lost the West Australian election.
Canadian company Cameco, the world’s largest uranium producer, is seeking to develop the uranium mine, which would cover an area 9km long and 1.5km wide.
It would involve the clearing of up to 2422 hectares of native vegetation.
It is also approved to cause groundwater levels to drop by 50cm, and they would not completely recover for 200 years, according to Cameco’s environmental reports.
A spokesperson for Environment Minister Melissa Price said the approval was subject to 32 strict conditions to avoid and mitigate potential environmental impacts.
Traditional owner of the area, Tjiwarl woman Vicky Abdullah, said she was surprised by the announcement, and was hoping for the project to be rejected.
“It’s a very precious place for all of us. For me and my two aunties, who have been walking on country,” she said.
Mine approval a controversial move ahead of caretaker mode
Simon Williamson, General Manager of Cameco Australia, told the ABC he was pleased Ms Price had approved the mine before calling the election.
“Yeah, that’s likely to raise questions about rushed decision and all that stuff, but the state [government] made their decision in January 2017,” he said.
“The timing was such that all of [the assessment] was completed to allow her to sign off before the election. I think it’s quite appropriate and I think the minster would want to sign off on projects on her plate before she goes to an election.
“I think it’s good housekeeping.”</p> <p>
Mr Williamson said he was in touch with Ms Price’s office ahead of the approval documents being published on Wednesday, but did not know why there was a delay between approval and publication.
Ms Price has declined an interview with the ABC.
In a statement, her spokesman said it is not normal practice to issue a press release after approvals like this, and he defended the timing of the approval publication.
“As required, the department has since conducted its review of the approval documentation before posting the notification in line with normal practice and in accordance with the requirements of the Act,” he said.
Dave Sweeney, an anti-nuclear campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation said the timing suggested the decision was political.
“We need decisions that are based on evidence and the national interest, not a company’s interest or not a particular senator’s or a particular government’s interest,” he said.
“This reeks of political interference rather than a legal consideration or due process.”
The approval is one of several controversial moves the Government made before entering caretaker mode, where such decisions would be impossible, including approving Adani’s two groundwater management plans for it’s proposed Carmichael coal mine.
At a federal level, both Labor and the Coalition support the development of uranium mining in Australia.
‘Where are all the next generation of our kids going to go’
Yeelirrie is one of Australia’s largest uranium deposits, and Cameco is the world’s largest uranium producer.
The company said the mine was expected to produce up to 7500 tonnes of yellow cake concentrate over a 15-year period.
Over its life, the mine would produce around 36 million tonnes of radioactive waste, which would be stored at the site.
The West Australian EPA’s recommendation to block the mine was based primarily on the impacts the mine would have on animals that live in groundwater, called stygofauna.
Dr Tom Hatton, chairman of the West Australian EPA said there was more stygofauna in the area near the mine “than anywhere else in the northern Goldfields”.
“The stygofauna habitat at Yeelirrie is particularly rich, with 73 species recorded,” Dr Hatton said in 2017.
The federal approval is conditional on Cameco producing a groundwater management plan, which manages the risks to those animals.
It also has a number of other conditions, including surveys to confirm reports of night parrots in the area, and if they are found, a night parrot management plan would be required.
Ms Abdullah told the ABC she and her family have used the area for years to hunt and camp.
“Where are all the next generation of our kids going to go,” Ms Abdullah asked.
“It’s going to be destroyed by this mining company.”
Mr Williamson said Cameco’s “highest priorities are protection of our people and the environment”.
“We’ve invested heavily in environmental approvals and will continue to work with both the state and federal government to ensure that the project is implemented in an appropriate way,” he said.
Ms Price’s spokesman said: “The Yeelirrie project was approved subject to 32 strict conditions to avoid and mitigate potential environmental impacts.”
“With the conditions in place, the minister is satisfied that risks to the environment will be appropriately managed and balanced against the social and economic benefits of the project,” he said.
Ongoing court challenges
In October, it was reported that Ms Price would not approve the mine before the court case in Western Australia was resolved.
“My department advised that it was prudent to wait for the result of the WA Supreme Court proceedings before finalising the Federal assessment,” she reportedly told the Kalgoorlie Miner.
“This ensures that we know the state decision is valid and we can avoid overlapping with any state approval conditions.”
Cameco told the ABC there was no link between the West Australian court case, and the federal approval.
“We made that point to the federal minister, and the department agreed, and on the basis of that they continued to assess the federal approval,” Mr Williamson said.
The spokesman for Ms Price said: “The West Australian Supreme Court matter is separate from the Commonwealth Approval process and does not prevent the Minister from making a determination.”