Mining companies in Western Australia (WA) could face slower project approvals in the wake of the Rio Tinto Juukan Gorge disaster in May 2020. Since then, the WA Government has proposed new heritage legislation that will better protect cultural sites and give more negotiating power to Aboriginal people about how the land is used by mining companies.
The proposed legislation, called the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020, will replace the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972. It will levy an initial fine of up to A$10M for damaging heritage sites, with a further A$500,000 fine each day that the damage continues to occur.
The new law is likely to instil caution among the mining community, potentially holding up approval schedules. In comments to the Australian Financial Review this week, however, WA Premier Mark McGowan, disagreed: “If there is any slowdown, it won’t be because of legislation,” he said. “It will be more a reticence by companies to make errors because they saw what happened to the senior management at Rio and the reputation of Rio, and they don’t want that to happen to them.”
A case in point is that of iron ore giant Fortescue Metals Group which, in 2020, re-evaluated plans for expansion of its Queens mine, which is part of the Solomon project in the Pilbara region of WA. Indigenous groups had stated that the planned expansion would threaten sacred sites, including a 60,000-year-old rock shelter. The decision to re-evaluate was the direct result of the backlash against Rio Tinto.
Applications and drilling continue
Despite the looming legislation, some mining companies in the state have ramped up their operations. On 8 January 2021, it was reported that Viking Mines has applied for a new tenement in the region’s Ida Greenstone belt, close to the First Hit Gold Project. If approved, this will add 21 square kilometres to the company’s position.
Another is Westar Resources, which announced this week that 12 new targets have been identified at the Coolaloo Gold Project. Four of these targets have been labelled high priority, and drilling is planned for later this year once necessary consents have been obtained. And on 14 January 2021, Westgold Resources Limited stated it will commence its 36 reverse circulation drill hole programme at the Forrest Deposit, 130 kilometres north of Meekatharra in the Bryah Basin, for copper and gold.
It seems that, at least for the mining companies, its business as usual before the proposed laws are brought into force. And this will depend on Mr McGowan’s personal success at the state election in March later this year.
Finding a balance
Nevertheless, there are some who think the proposed legislation does not go far enough. Kado Muir, deputy chairman of the National Native Title Council, worries the law will focus too much on mining companies.
In comments to ABC last October, he said: “The legislation is more focused on approvals rather than actual cultural heritage management. Ultimately, what we really need from the government and our minister is really leadership on privileging cultural heritage above economic development.” If there is a disagreement between a mining company and an indigenous group, the final decision will lie with whoever is the Aboriginal Affairs minister, sparking fears about potential conflicts of interest.
What is clear is that mining companies in WA are continuing to push projects forward before the proposed legislation can come into effect. It remains to be seen how they and indigenous groups can work together to defend cultural heritage while continuing to access some of Australia’s most important natural resources.