Traditional owners won’t give up 40-year opposition to Yeelirrie uranium mine
By Linda Pentz Gunter
In the local Aboriginal language, the name Yeelirrie means to weep or mourn. It is referred to as a “place of death.” Yeelirrie is on Tjiwarl Native Title lands in Western Australia, where it has long been faithfully protected by Aboriginal traditional owners. The Seven Sisters Dreaming songline is there. It is home to many important cultural sites. And for 40 years, due to resolute indigenous opposition, and thousands of community submissions of protest, it had been spared plans by the Canadian mining company, Cameco, to plunder it for uranium.
The earth guardians know that such a desecration would cause the extinction of multiple species of subterranean fauna. It would release death. It would destroy Yeelirrie.
Now the fate of those tiny creatures hangs in the balance, their future in the hands of three brave women, backed by environmental organizations, after the outgoing Western Australian government decided to allow the Yeelirrie uranium mine project to go forward.
That decision was made in January 2017, despite the fact that, in August 2016, the Western Australia Environmental Protection Agency (WAEPA) had recommended that the Yeelirrie project be rejected.
The Conservation Council of Western Australia (CCWA), which is engaged in contesting the uranium mining permit for Yeelirrie, said the WAEPA had rejected the Yeelirrie mine plan “on the grounds that the project is inconsistent with three of the objectives of the Environmental Protection Act — the Precautionary Principle, the Principle of conservation of biological diversity, and the Principle of intergenerational equity. The EPA decision was based on the overwhelming evidence that the project would make several species of subterranean fauna extinct.”
But former Minister for Environment, Albert Jacob, threw all that aside to approve the Yeelirrie mine in the waning days of Western Australia’s Liberal government, now replaced by Labor, which came in on a mandate to end uranium mining that it now may not be able to enforce.
In February 2018, CCWA and three members of the Tjiwarl community initiated proceedings in the Western Australia Supreme Court in an attempt to invalidate the approval decision made by Jacob. The case was dismissed by the court, a decision said CCWA executive director, Piers Verstegen, that shows that “our environmental laws are deeply inadequate,” and “confines species to extinction with the stroke of a pen.”
However, while the decision was a set-back, Verstegen said, “it’s absolutely not the end of the road for Yeelirrie or the other uranium mines that are being strongly contested here in Western Australia.”
Accordingly, CCWA and the three Tjiwarl women — Shirley Wonyabong, Elizabeth Wonyabong, and Vicky Abdullah (pictured left to right above the headline) vow to fight on, and have begun proceedings in the WA Court of Appeal to review the Supreme Court decision.
“I grew up here, my ancestors were Traditional Owners of country, and I don’t want a toxic legacy here for my grandchildren,” Abdullah told Western Australia Today in an August 2017 article.
“We have no choice but to defend our country, our culture, and the environment from the threat of uranium mining — not just for us but for everyone.”
Yeelirrie is one of four uranium mines proposed for Western Australia. The other three are Vimy’s Mulga Rock project, Toro Energy’s Wiluna project, and Cameco’s and Mitsubishi’s Kintyre project. Each of them is home to precious species, but Yeelirrie got special attention from the WAEPA because the proposed mine there would cause actual extinctions of 11 species, mostly tiny underground creatures that few people ever see.
According to a new animated short film, produced by the Western Australia Nuclear-Free Alliance, all four of these proposed mines could irreparably damage wildlife, habitat and the health of the landscape and the people and animals who depend on it. The film highlights Yeelirrie, but also describes the other three proposed uranium mines and the threats they pose.
At Mulga Rock, in the Queen Victoria Desert, the site is home to the Sandhill Dunnart, the Marsupial Mole, the Mulgara and the Rainbow Bee Eater, according to the film.
Wiluna, a unique desert lake system, could see uranium mining across two salt lakes that would leave 50 million tonnes of radioactive mine waste on the shores of Lake Way, which is prone to flooding.
The Kintyre uranium deposit was excluded from the protection of the Karlamilyi National Park within which it sits so that uranium could be mined there. It is a fragile desert ecosystem where 28 threatened species would be put at risk, including the Northern Quoll, Greater Bilby, Crest Tailed Mulgara, Marsupial Mole and Rock Wallaby.
At Yeelirrie, says the CCWA, “Cameco plans to construct a 9km open mine pit and uranium processing plant. The project would destroy 2,421 hectares of native vegetation and generate 36 million tonnes of radioactive mine waste to be stored in open pits.”
The mine would likely operate for 22 years and use 8.7 million litres of water a day.
Under Australian laws, ‘nuclear actions’ like the Yeelirrie proposal also require approval by the Federal Environment Minister. CCWA and Nuclear-Free Western Australia, have launched a campaign directed at Federal Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg, calling for a halt to the Yeelirrie mine, given the immense risk it poses to “unique subterranean fauna that have been found nowhere else on the planet.” They point out that the Minister has the opportunity to “protect these unique species from becoming extinct.
“Species have a right to life no matter how great or small,” they wrote. “One extinction can massively disrupt an entire ecosystem. No one should have the right to knowingly eliminate an entire species from our planet forever.”
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