Media Releases - 04 July 2019

Yeerlirrie Mine approval further emphasises need for an independent national EPA

  • One day before the Morrison Government went into caretaker mode, former Federal Environment Minister Melissa Price approved the controversial WA Yeelirrie Uranium mine
  • The Statement of Reasons has been released indicating she implemented lesser conditions than those recommended by her own department to prevent the potential extinction of 12 species of Stygofauna and the entire known population of a saltbush only found at the site
  • Our national environment laws—which are supposed to regulate these huge and contentious development projects—are toothless and provide ultimate discretion to the minister of the day to override independent advice, which needs substantial review

The former Federal Environment Minister, Melissa Price, is still making ripples in the environmental sector despite no longer being in the position. Once named the ‘Invisible Minister’ by the Wilderness Society, Ms Price continues to astound environmentalists with decisions made before her departure.

Only one day before the Morrison Government went into caretaker mode, the final environmental approval was delivered for the much-maligned Yeerlirrie uranium mine found in the remote midwest of Western Australia. Not only was this decision not made public for a number of weeks, differing from other similar decisions which were published at the time, but was also dropped quietly a day before ANZAC Day. 

This challenging decision reverses the Minister’s original statement in October indicating that she would wait for the Supreme Court of WA’s decision on this proposal which has been appealed by local Indigenous groups. This process continues and has now been cast into further importance by this federal decision.

The approval for the Yeerlirrie mine was further explored today by the release of the Statement of Reasons indicating that not only did Minister Price lessen the environmental regulatory conditions attached to the mine—designed to protect up to 12 species of stygofauna from becoming extinct—but indicated if they were imposed then ‘there was a real chance the project would not go ahead’.

The same document also lists another endemic species of saltbush, only found at the Yeerlirrie site, which would could likely become extinct should the project go ahead. The statement of reasons says the western population occurs entirely within the proposed area for the mine and there is a risk the development would clear all of it.

The Environment Minister of the time must act in the best interests of the environment and stand up for the necessary protections and considerations being presented for any proposal. Economic and social conditions run secondary to the principal values of this ministerial position and must be treated accordingly.

In Western Australia, the battle over Yeerlirrie has continued for several years—with the State Government of the time providing sign-off on the project despite clear environmental rejection of the proposal from the WA Environmental Protection Authority. To see such contempt, at both at the state and federal level, for scientific evidence suggesting that this project is environmentally unsustainable is galling and highly contentious. 

Uranium mining has no social license and no market in Australia. The proposal is vast—covering an area 9km long and 1.5km wide, clearing up to 2,500 hectares of native vegetation and dropping groundwater levels by 50cm—which may take centuries to recover. Notably, there are more endangered stygofauna in the area proposed to be mined than all over the northern Goldfields—putting their very survival at risk due to this approval. Proposed management plans are targeted to protect these species, whilst also potentially preparing conservation strategies for the rarely witnessed Night Parrot, which is believed to be found in the area. 

This decision adds to the growing list of proposals that show our current system is failing at its very purpose: protecting the environment. The environmental approval process fails if the Minister at the time is able to supersede independent advice at his or her discretion, with such decisions breeding mistrust and suspicion of Big Business interference. 

Over recent times, we have seen failures in our national environmental laws which have led to more species becoming threatened, habitats being destroyed and huge new mining developments being approved—often to benefit the decision-makers themselves and their vested interests.

Australia needs to produce new, mature environmental laws which protect our endangered species and oversee the natural wilderness that they so heavily rely upon. A strong and independent National Environmental Protection Authority, which is respected and depended upon by political decision-makers and the public, can provide this clarity of vision and reliability of conviction.

As the Yeelirrie decision proves: too often, decisions affecting the environment are made behind closed doors; too often, decisions are influenced by powerful corporations; and too often, even the best-intentioned Environment Minister gets rolled. A national body with teeth would stand up for communities and Country.

Groups like the Wilderness Society are continually being called upon to monitor the back channels of environmental approvals during periods of national downtime to ensure that sneaky notifications like this do not go unnoticed. Only through effective change can we see a clear route forward which provides us all with the confidence that our political leaders have our environment’s back. 


For further comment, please contact Kit Sainsbury, Wilderness Society Western Australia State Director, on (08) 94207255.