“Within the Wongutha Tribal group I am the leader of my clan, the Koara people. Yeelirrie is in my tribal boundary. One of the things BHP has not done, and what it’s supposed to do it, its law actually for them to do a heritage survey with me and my people.
They’ve never consulted with me to do that. What I need to say to you is this … before we ever knew about nuclear anything that place Yeelirrie was a no go zone for my tribal people. The name of it, in my native language, the place Yeelirrie means ‘death’.
BHP Billiton has never done a heritage survey with me. I’m happy that while uranium is in the ground it’s safe, I’m concerned what it’s going to do when it comes out of the ground. Now if it’s going to start killing off people in another country, destroying their lives, I’m concerned about that, because it’s my land that could be doing this stuff. It concerns me, it concerns my tribal group, it concerns the surrounding people.”
– Richard Evans, Koara Traditional Owner
Yeelirrie is in a small valley south of the Montague ranges in mid west Western Australia around 500 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie. The area experiences some of Western Australia’s most extreme weather, temperatures can rise above 45 degrees and drop below zero. Among the spinifex, breakaways and gnarly Acacia woodlands live a wide variety of marsupials, reptiles, birds, and bugs. Below the surface is a clean water aquifer and an ancient and little studied ground water dependent ecosystem that has evolved over millions of years.
In the 1970s Western Mining Corporation (WMC) operated a trial uranium mine that left 35,000 tonnes of uranium ore on the surface at Yeelirrie. This material was un-fenced and exposed to the environment for 20 years until WMC was forced to clean up and fence the site in 2003. In 2005 BHP Billiton’s acquisition of WMC saw it acquire the Yeelirrie deposit and the massive Olympic Dam uranium mine in South Australia. This started BHP Billiton’s disappointing move into the contested and contaminating uranium sector.
The consultation and consent process for the proposed Yeelirrie mine has been limited and inadequate and the project has been criticised and opposed by both Traditional Owners and pastoralists.
The Wongutha people have formally directed their representative body the Central Desert Native Title Service not to discuss Yeelirrie with BHP Billiton. Local Indigenous people have requested the company to release studies and details of the health and radionuclide content in animals in the region. They are concerned about hunting animals that have grazed on contaminated sites.
BHP Billiton’s failure to release any of these reports has led many to distrust the company. This has been further heightened by a litany of accidents and workplace fatalities at other BHP Billiton operations in Western Australia in recent years. These new concerns build on a long history of deficient environmental performance and management, unnecessary radiation exposure and poor relationships with the Wongutha people and the Koara tribal group.
The Yeelirrie project is surrounded by a high level of uncertainty and remains a risky investment for BHP Billiton. There is continuing political uncertainty around uranium mining in Western Australia and no bi-lateral support for the sector, with strong opposition to uranium mining in Western Australia among the opposition Labor party, the Greens and many civil society groups, including the trade union movement. There is also growing community opposition to the proposed transport of yellow cake across the state. Yeelirrie is a controversial mine in a contested political climate and the project remains uncertain. What is certain is that BHP Billiton’s uranium ambitions are unnecessary, unsafe and increasingly unwanted.
Mia Pepper, Conservation Council Western Australia