Aboriginal Elders Face Off With Uranium Mining Company in the Australian Outback

Members of one of Australia’s most remote Aboriginal nations, the Tjiwarl, who live in the red heart of the Western Desert lands, are embroiled in a long running battle to protect their ancestral home from mining interests.

Last year, the government of Western Australia approved four new uranium projects in the state, despite warnings issued by the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority, and a global slump in the price of uranium.

Two of the projects, in Yeelirrie and Kintyre, belong to the Canadian mining giant Cameco. The other two are by Australia-based companies, Vimy Resources and Toro Energy.

While uranium use is banned in Australia it holds 33 percent of the world’s uranium deposits, and, it is the world’s third-largest producer of the mineral after Kazakhstan and Canada. Seen as controversial among Australian politicians and unpopular with electorates, uranium operations have drawn both federal and state government bans at various times.

In February this year, the Supreme Court of Western Australia backed the expedited approval of the Yeelirrie uranium project granted by the previous state government in January 2017, but recognized the duty of the Tjiwarl applicants as cultural custodians of Yeelirrie, to preserve those lands. Tjiwarl Elders, Elizabeth and Shirley Wonyabong, and Tjiwarl Traditional Owner Vicky Abdullah, are now appealing that Supreme Court decision, with the support of the Conservation Council of WA.

Western Desert Aboriginal nations have battled against uranium mining on their lands for forty years. It is just one of the many struggles they have faced to preserve their 40,000 year-old culture and spiritual connections to the land in the face of contemporary society’s competing priorities.

Western Australia is the largest of Australia’s seven states. Huge swathes of it is desert, and its resources have long been relied upon by the country for revenue.

In July 2017 a newly-elected Labor state government resurrected a ban on uranium mining in Western Australia, but since the ban isn’t retroactive, it doesn’t apply to the four mining projects that had been approved by the previous pro-mining conservative government.

The uranium industry has suffered significant downturns since the 2011 Fukushima meltdown. Industry executives and the Australian government alike have publicly complained about the global glut in uranium and persistent soft prices that have made mining and processing uneconomic. Nonetheless, the Labor government said they are obliged to defend the Yeelirrie approval through the court process.

Yeelirrie has one of Australia’s largest undeveloped uranium deposits. Located about 650 km northeast of Perth and approximately 750 km south of Cameco’s Kintyre project, the proposed open-cast mine has an estimated 128.1 million pounds of uranium in measured and indicated resources.

A spokesperson for the current state resources minister, Bill Johnston, said the possible future cost to the taxpayer was at the root of their legal defense of the project approvals. She said the minister was afraid that revoking the Yeelirrie approval might someday provoke costlier corporate litigation, by Cameco.

When the-then former Western Australia heritage minister Albert Jacob originally fast-tracked the Yeelirrie approvals in 2017, he defended his controversial decision with a number of claims, including that he had considered the overarching environmental issues and benefits of the project when he bypassed the concerns of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency. The agency’s environmental assessment of the proposed project originally flagged nine potential risks including threats to the region’s subterranean fauna, which is said couldn’t be prevented if the project went through.

The Western Desert is home to an array of unique wildlife that has evolved to live in the extreme conditions of the desert, including several species of stygofauna and troglofauna — small creatures, predominantly crustaceans, that live permanently underground in water and soils.

Jacob, however, decided that Cameco could adequately counter the risks to stygofauna, and ordered the company to do its own surveys and research into the local endangered species. He even said that Cameco researchers may find species presently identified as specific solely to the project area, are actually more widespread.

The Tjiwarl and the Conservation Council of Western Australia had challenged Jacob’s decision on environmental grounds but their suit was dismissed last November. They have now appealed the dismissal.

Conservation Council of Western Australia Director, Piers Verstegen, said that the Yeelirrie approval had undermined the existing environmental protection framework. He said the approval “knowingly allows the extinction of multiple species” in Yeelirrie and “treats the EPA and its environmental assessment as something to be casually dismissed.”

If the Tjiwarl appeal was successful, it would restore the normal approval process and protect it from political influence, he said. Conversely, if it fails, governments in Western Australia will forever be able to use ministerial oversight to override the independent authority of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The council has previously expressed alarm over the Yeelirrie project’s proposal to clear 2421 hectares of native vegetation for a 9 km-open-pit mine, which they estimate could generate 36 million tons of radioactive waste.

Dr. Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at Deakin University, independent of the proceedings, said some remote regions are under-surveyed and Yeelirrie may fit that category. In such a circumstance, “where the fauna is unique…species that are not found in other areas, and/or it is in an area that is under-surveyed…there’s a risk of inadvertently having a negative effect on species because of our lack of understanding of what species are there.”

He said important research is developing in relation to cryptic species (species that are morphologically similar but genetically different, and unable to interbreed).

Thorough surveys of plant, animal and other organisms in the area of potential developments were vital, above and below ground, he stressed. The impact of uranium on water resources can be critical for many species in the food chain over a wide expanse, he added, and could extend well beyond the boundaries of a project.

Apart from the delicate, unique ecology of Yeelirrie, the area also includes multiple ancient Aboriginal spiritual sites there are so sacred that they cannot even be discussed or explained in open court or media.

Tjiwarl applicant, Vicky Abdullah said breaches of sacred site cultural laws brought detriment to those who enter without being accompanied by a Traditional Owner. (‘Traditional Owner’ is a commonly used title identifying cultural custodians who have inalienable rights and connections to their traditional lands through their family lines.) Government assimilation policies in generations past, saw Aboriginal people forcibly removed from their nations — often via arbitrary detention. Mining fueled the growth of Australia’s young economy in those eras and became a dominant influence in Australia’s political landscape.

Abdullah alleged that damage to formerly pristine Western Desert lands was already emerging and wildlife had moved away from disturbed regions and the animals’ normal food and water consumption had been disrupted. “Emus, kangaroos, you know, we can’t even feed none on that country…because of the water,” she said. The animals of the area and their presence on that land also have a special significance, she added, with disturbances potentially causing even the departure of totems from sacred places.

Abdullah said the Tjiwarl people’s longstanding apprehension and opposition is specifically reserved for uranium mining, and the local goldmines did not draw such vigorous objections. “I have been hearing stories from my other Elders, the men…very strong — to leave it in the ground”, she said, “uranium is really, really bad… not to be touched.”

The government, meanwhile, made claims that construction work on the project would create 1,200 jobs, and that the mine could add up to $1billion in exports to the state’s ailing economy. But it did admit that those future dividends were “based on (uranium) prices rising to economic levels,” which, it seems, is not going to happen any time soon.

The 2016 South Australian Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle determined that uranium mining and processing was financially unviable for the country until at least 2026.

Cameco Australia has decided not to proceed with the Yeelirrie project until there’s renewed market demand for uranium. Additionally, in Cameco’s 2017 third-quarter report, the company’s global chief Tim Gitzel said “difficult conditions” were continuing and there had been “little change in the market.” In fact, earlier this year, just a week before the Tjiwarl filed their appeal against the project, Cameco suspended two more of its key mines in Canada, citing the global glut and the company’s own large inventory.

The 2016 Royal Commission report also alludes to broader public apprehensions about uranium, mirroring in part the concerns of the Tjiwarl community. The commission found that any future uranium mining project to be approved would require a paradigm shift in Australians’ deeply-ingrained mistrust of uranium and nuclear development.

Financial pundits have also questioned if uranium prices can ever make a comeback with the growing strength of renewables on the market.