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Our environment law is powerless to prevent extinction and this ruling just proved it

By Piers Verstegen ‒ Director of the Conservation Council of WA. 

Very few human activities have no impact at all on the environment. From purchasing your morning coffee, to planning a 9 kilometre-long open-pit uranium mine on sacred Aboriginal lands, everything we do has consequences.

The way we consider those consequences is important. The coffee purchase might take a second or two to contemplate – is it worth the guilt of knowing the single use cup will remain in landfill for thousands of years?

In contrast, major developments like the Yeelirrie uranium mine in Western Australia's mid-west require extensive environmental studies, often taking years to complete.

The Conservation Council of WA, with members of the Tjiwarl native title group, recently lost our epic two-year court battle against the approval for this project as the Court of Appeal challenge was dismissed.

This battle has decided the fate of obscure underground creatures in a remote part of our state and turned our comfortable notion of environmental protection on its head, proving that Australia's environment laws are powerless to prevent extinction.

Project approvals inevitably require a balancing of environmental issues with other considerations. Protection of wildlife and cultural heritage, and preservation of the clean air, water, and nature we depend upon are clearly in the public interest. Other considerations relate directly to private benefit or profit.

Because of this need to weigh competing private and public interests, such decisions are undertaken by governments and involve complex moral, and political judgements informed by scientific evidence.

Some decades ago, environment laws were passed in most countries around the world to guide governments in making such decisions. In a developed country like Australia, it is reasonable to assume that these laws provide a 'line in the sand' to prevent the worst forms of damage to our environment.

Wildlife extinction is the most profound and permanent form of environmental damage and the most extreme example of animal cruelty. From extinction there is no restoration, no recovery, no hope. Extinction is the permanent snuffing out of millions of years of evolutionary heritage. It is the denial of existence not just to an individual, but to a whole species.

The Yeelirrie case in WA's Supreme Court has overturned the comfortable notion that Australia's environment laws can prevent this most permanent form of environmental impact.

The decision of the court is the latest chapter in the Tjiwarl country women's ongoing fight to protect sacred country from uranium mining, a fight which has so far lasted four decades and has already seen off at least two mining companies including BHP.

It has profound implications. The latest proposal to mine Yeelirrie by Canadian company Cameco involves a 9-kilometre open-pit in sacred Tjiwarl Aboriginal lands, part of the Seven Sisters songline that has been connecting remote parts of WA for hundreds of generations.

Thirty-six million tonnes of mine waste are to be dumped into the open pits, and would remain radioactive for thousands of years. The project would require clearing nearly 2500 hectares of native vegetation, and would use 8.7 million litres of water per day for the life of the mine.

These are the kinds of impacts that routinely occur with mining operations in WA, albeit not often on this scale; however, it is what lies beneath the ground that has made Yeelirrie different.

Following a public assessment process, the WA Environmental Protection Authority concluded that the mining operation carried an unacceptable risk of extinction of several species of underground fauna and loss of a unique saltbush. It was on this basis that the EPA recommended against the proposal, noting that extinction of any species, no matter how obscure, went against key principles in the WA Environmental Protection Act.

Despite this finding, WA's previous Environment Minister Albert Jacob went ahead and signed an environmental approval for the mine to proceed.

Exactly what factors or evidence the Minister took into consideration in making this decision are unknown, because the laws do not require the Minister to disclose them.

It is precisely this kind of situation that our laws are supposed to guard against. Australia's environment laws were fought for by communities, scientists, and conservationists decades ago. While many concessions were made along the way and in changes since, this fundamental principle of preventing extinction was thought to be preserved.

The precedent this decision sets is so important. Even if the obscure underground wildlife beneath Yeelirrie are unseen and unheard by to most Australians, approving the extinction of any species opens a dangerous legal door.

Suddenly the growing list of endangered wildlife in Australia looks a lot more vulnerable than ever.


Published in Chain Reaction #136, August 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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