Aboriginal women take Cameco to court to stop uranium mining in Western Australia

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Currently in Western Australia (WA) there is a landmark court case to stop Canadian uranium company, Cameco from mining uranium at the proposed Yeelirrie uranium project. Three Aboriginal women from Yeelirrie, together with WA’s peak environmental group Conservation Council of WA, are taking the State Government and Cameco to court to uphold the rights of Traditional Owners to protect sacred lands in WA’s fragile desert country from unwanted uranium mining.

Environmental approval for uranium mining at Yeelirrie was given by the Environment Minister against the wishes of the Aboriginal women and the community who have been fighting for over 40 years to stop this toxic industry and against the recommendations of the Environmental Protection Authority. The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) concluded that the project would cause the extinction of multiple unique species of subterranean fauna and recommended the project not be approved.

Canadian mining company Cameco is the proponent of the controversial Yeelirrie uranium mine proposal in the Northern Goldfields, on Tjiwarl Native Title lands. 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 hearing on the 5th March 2019 will be in WA’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Appeals. If the decision to allow uranium mining at Yeelirrie stands, it will create a dangerous precedent for extinction of other wildlife across our vast and beautiful state and it will allow sacred Aboriginal lands to be permanently damaged and contaminated by uranium mining and processing, including the dumping of radioactive mine waste. For more information or to donate to this awesome work by the Aboriginal women go to


Contents


Yeelirrie Legal Challenge

A case of Traditional Owners, Environmental Law & Extinction

CCWA & three Traditional Owners v Environment Minister, Hon Stephen Dawson MLC challenges the environmental approval, by former Environment Minister Albert Jacob, of the Yeelirrie uranium mine project. A decision that would knowingly approve the extinction of multiple unique species.

Background

Approving Extinction

The legal case concerns the Yeelirrie area, a former cattle station nestled below the Montague ranges in the far north of the West Australian Goldfields. Yeelirrie is home to a unique population of subterranean fauna including 11 stygofauna and 5 troglofauna species endemic to the Yeelirrie paleochannel. These species have evolved over millions of years in complete isolation from other subterranean communities, they are completely unique species. There is no question that the proposed uranium mine would have severe impacts to the population and would likely cause the extinction of multiple species at Yeelirrie that exist nowhere else on earth.

The finding that the project would likely cause multiple extinctions was made by the WA Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) during the environmental assessment of the proposed uranium mine. This view was upheld by the Office of the Appeals convenor and accepted by the former Environment Minister, who approved the proposed mine anyway. The approval of the Yeelirrie uranium project directly contradicts the science, evidence and advice of the EPA and the findings of the Appeals process. It knowingly breaches three core objectives of the Environmental Protection Act,a dangerous precedent that we cannot go unchallenged.

The approval sanctions the extinction of multiple species a precedent that exposes the deep flaws that are pervasive in WA’s environmental assessment process and environmental legislation. The Yeelirrie approval is a dangerous standard that has implications for environmental law and environmental assessments. This case highlights the urgent need for environmental law reform in WA.

The Yeelirrie uranium mine proposal

The Yeelirrie uranium project proposed by Canadian uranium company, Cameco plans to construct a 9km open mine pit with a total clearing footprint of over 2400 hectares of native vegetation, using 8.7 million litres of water per day to mine and process uranium ore and generating 36 million tonnes mine waste that would remain radioactive for thousands of years at Yeelirrie in the mid-west region of Western Australia. There are many environmental risks and impacts from the Yeelirrie uranium mine proposal but none as clearly at odds with WA environmental law as the extinction of multiple species.The Yeelirrie uranium mine proposal still requires Federal environmental approval and we continue to call on the Federal Minister for the Environment to ensure that no Commonwealth approval is issued for extinction.

The Opposition

Mining of this uranium deposit has been strongly and consistently opposed by members of Tjiwarl Traditional Owners for over 40 years. The proposal threatens the area which is part of the Seven Sisters Dreaming songline.The word Yeelirrie translates to the word Yullala – which mean to weep or mourn - and Yeelirrie is referred to as a “place of death”.. At the peak of WAs uranium exploration boom in 2010 Traditional Owners instructed their representative body to not engage with the proponent of Yeelirrie because there was no intention from the group to allow uranium mining at Yeelirrie.

The cultural stories and connections with Yeelirrie are a major factor in the strong and consistent opposition to this project by members of the Tjiwarl Traditional Owners. A video interview with Traditional Owners can be viewed here

Shirley Wonyabong, Elizabeth Wonyabong and Vicky Abdullah are the three women applicants on the landmark legal case. Yeelirrie is important to each of the women, their ancestors and their families. They have fought hard to protect this site for over 40 years. They will not stop fighting for country and culture.

Since 2011 hundreds of people from across Australia and internationally have walked through the Yeelirrie area with Traditional Owners in solidarity and to help draw attention to the importance of the area and the rights of the custodians to protect sacred places. Over 3,000 people lodged submissions to the WA Environmental Protection Authority to voice their opposition to the Yeelirrie uranium mine and in support of the Traditional Owners.

The landmark legal case is protecting wildlife from extinction and upholding the rights of Traditional Owners to protect sacred lands in WA’s fragile desert country from unwanted uranium mining.

The Legal timeline

July 4, 2017 the Conservation Council of WA (CCWA) and three Traditional Owners from Yeelirrie, Shirley Wonyabong, Elizabeth Wonyabong and Vicky Abdullah, represented by the Environmental Defender’s Office WA (EDO), commenced legal proceedings in the Supreme Court of Western Australia for a judicial review of the decision by the former Minister for Environment, Albert Jacob to approve the Yeelirrie uranium project.

14 November 2017, the Supreme Court hearing took place.

9 February 2018, the verdict was handed down to dismiss our appeal for judicial review. Although the outcome was disappointing, as a public interest case we were awarded 50% costs against us.

The verdict demonstrates a fundamental deficiency in the state’s environmental laws, which currently allow a Minister to sign off on the extinction of multiple species with the stroke of a pen.

The way the law has been interpreted by the court, shows the Minister can ignore the EPA’s public assessment process, and instead consider secret information in making a decision with has irreversible impacts on the environment.

March 9, 2018, CCWA and Traditional Owners decide to continue the legal fight to prevent extinction at Yeelirrie by filing an appeal against the Supreme Court decision which upheld the environmental approval for the Yeelirrie uranium mine proposal.

One of Australia’s most eminent legal minds, Bret Walker QC, has agreed to represent CCWA and the three Traditional Owners in the Yeelirrie legal case. Mr Walker QC, has identified this court case as highly important not just for Yeelirrie but for the effectiveness of environmental law and protection across the State.

The Appeal will be heard in a one day hearing in the Supreme Court of Appeals on Tuesday 5 March 2019, 10.30 am, Stirling Gardens, Perth WA.



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