By Adam Morton
[…Cameco did not have to show if WA mine would lead to extinction of tiny fauna before its approval on 10 April
multinational uranium miner persuaded the federal government to drop a requirement forcing it to show that a mine in outback Western Australia would not make any species extinct before it could go ahead.
Canadian-based Cameco argued in November 2017 the condition proposed by the government for the Yeelirrie uranium mine, in goldfields north of Kalgoorlie, would be too difficult to meet.
The mine was approved on 10 April, the day before the federal election was called, with a different set of conditions relating to protecting species.
Environmental groups say the approval was politically timed and at odds with a 2016 recommendation by the WA Environmental Protection Authority that the mine be blocked due to the risk to about 140 subterranean stygofauna and troglofauna species – tiny animals that live in groundwater and air pockets above the water table.
A Cameco presentation to the department, released to the Greens through Senate estimates, shows the government proposed approving the mine with a condition the company must first demonstrate that no species would be made extinct during the works.
Cameco Australia said this did not recognise “inherent difficulties associated with sampling for and describing species”, including the inadequacy of techniques to sample microscopic species that live underground and challenges in determining whether animals were of the same species. It said the condition was “not realistic and unlikely to be achieved – ever”.
The condition did not appear in the final approval signed by the environment minister, Melissa Price, which was made public after being posted on the environment department’s website on 24 April.
Instead, the government said the company should develop a groundwater management program, limit groundwater extraction in some places to 50cm and have evidence from a qualified ecologist that work in part of the area affected by the mine would not lead to extinction. All would need to be submitted to the environment minister for approval.
Mia Pepper, from the Conservation Council of WA, said the change to the conditions showed mining companies had a disproportionate influence in what was a flawed environmental approvals process.
She said a clear condition to stop extinction had been replaced with convoluted requirements that shifted the onus for stopping species loss from the company to the government.