A proposed $900 million rare earths mine in Central Australia has been recommended for approval by the Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority (EPA), after an assessment process lasting more than two years.
Arafura Resources’ Nolans Project at Aileron, 135 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, would mine rare earth materials such as neodymium and praseodymium, used to manufacture strong magnets for wind turbines and electric vehicles.
The EPA identified several long-term environmental risks and impacts with the project, but found they could be managed.
“There will have to be a high level of operational management control for this project over a couple of generations, and there’ll have to be a high level of regulatory scrutiny, there’s no two ways about that,” EPA chairman Paul Vogel said.
The primary risks include the permanent storage of naturally occurring radioactive material onsite and the use of significant groundwater resources over the 35 to 55-year lifespan of the project.
Mr Vogel said he understood public concern about such issues, and the effectiveness of the EPA to effectively monitor them, but said the authority was better placed to provide sufficient oversight.
“That’s something that we’ve drawn attention to with government already, saying that we need to be adequately resourced … to ensure that these facilities are adequately regulated over time,” he said.
It is estimated the project will use 2.7 gigalitres of groundwater a year, and the EPA has recommended aquifer levels and water usage be monitored in real-time with data made available to the public.
“This includes using very conservative triggers for both water quality and quantity and condition of vegetation that are embedded in adaptive management plans, so that we don’t reach a point where you’ve got some irreversible change to the environment,” Mr Vogel said.
Radioactive material to be stored in dams
The EPA also recommended best-practice mine closure and progressive rehabilitation practices be adhered to, but noted that uncertainty remains around the significant environmental impacts over the life of the project.
Arafura Resources Sustainability manager Brian Fowler said the low level of radioactive material produced in the processing of rare earth material would be stored onsite in purpose-built dams.
“We’re very confident those dams will secure those radioactive elements now and into the future,” he said.
“They will not be a threat to the environment and they won’t provide a threat to public health, and quite frankly, they are relatively stable in a normal environmental setting.”
Mr Fowler said the approval of the EPA was a significant milestone for the project, which began 10 years ago.
“What it’ll enable us to do now is to go forward and do our detailed mine planning which will then lead us to financial investment decision in the late part of this year with a view to then starting construction, assuming we can attract the required financing, in 2019,” he said.
The company said the project would create an investment of about $900 million in Central Australia, as well as 250 to 300 permanent jobs.
Mr Fowler said the company intended to target local people for employment where possible, with the view to creating intergenerational change in the community.
“We understand that there’ll be significant challenges in doing that, but when you’ve got a mine life that contemplates 35 to 55 years, it gives you the opportunity to do lots of planning and work with stakeholders to ensure those benefits are realised,” he said.