Yeelirrie, WA - WMC

Another Classic Case of WMC Mismanagement
and Environmental Contamination

See also : Anti-Nuclear Alliance of WA - Yeelirrie Page

The Yeelirrie uranium deposit was announced by WMC in January 1972 and is located about 500 km north of Kalgoorlie in a semi-arid region. It is an extensive yet low-grade ore (0.14%) and is believed to be the largest calcrete type deposit in the world. The main ore zone extends over 9 kms, up to 1.5 kms wide, up to 7 metres thick and lies mostly at a depth of 5.5 metres below the surface. It is estimated to contain 52,000 tonnes of uranium oxide (U3O8), plus substantial reserves of vanadium.

Photo of the trial mine from the WMC 1996 Environment Progress Report. (1) More photos - click here.

The area of the proposed mine has high background levels of radon.

Proposed production rates estimate that 2,500 tonnes per year of uranium oxide (U3O8) and 1,000 tonnes per year of vanadium pentoxide would be produced.

Yeelirrie was initially planned to be developed in two stages. The first stage, lasting three years, involved the construction, testing and development of the orebody. Stage Two consisted of mine development and construction of the mill. Due to the large nature of the orebody and the project, WMC could not finance the project themselves and thus joint venturers were sought.

In August 1978 WMC reached agreement with Esso Exploration and Production Australia Inc. (an Exxon subsidiary), for the US company to take up 15% of the equity, and the West German UG (Urangesellschaft) another 10% (but this was reacquired by WMC in October 1993). Plans were well underway to have the mine in full production by the end of 1984 and the pro-nuclear WA government was keen to see the project commence. In late 1978 the WA government was urging support for the construction of a pilot uranium treatment plant at Kalgoorlie - a proposal strenuously attacked by the Labour party and the regional Campaign Against Nucler Energy (CANE).

The Draft EIS was released towards the end of 1978, and within a year both the state and federal governments approved the project giving the green light for yellowcake and redcake. The project went ahead under the Uranium (Yeelirrie) Agreement Act and is regulated by the Department of Minerals and Energy. (3)

Steel drums carrying the radioactive material were to be transported to Fremantle via trucks for export. Tailings would be dumped in "open-cut graves" and "progressively integrated with other waste". Certain parts of the operations would be "automated" to reduce radiation exposures.

Both the substance of the EIS, and the manner in which it had been rushed for approval, were attacked by environmental organisations. CANE declared that there was no guarantee the waste would not be used for building purposes at a later stage, and promises of jobs were "illusory", since there was likely to be a uranium over-supply by 1985 (a prediction later proved to be correct). CANE protested that only four weeks had been given for public submissions on the Draft EIS, while Friends of the Earth (FoE) noted that only 28 critical submissions had been made.

Considerable controversy was attached to the pilot processing plant at Kalgoorlie, aimed to be built by July 1985, with production of 4,000 tonnes per year - a fifth of the total Australian output so optimistically predicted by 1990 - and a workforce of around 850.

Initial testing of ore would start quickly at the site, and 27,000 tonnes of radioactive wastes would be deposited in a basin 4 km away. Among safety measures proposed for personnel was a prohibition on smoking.

CANE condemned the pilot plant as "the thin edge of the wedge", which of course it was intended to be. In March 1979, after the mine's official go-ahead, the Transport Worker's Union, the Australian Railways Union, the Seamen's Union, and the Waterside Workers' Federation, all undertook to ban the handling of any material destined for the Kalgoorlie plant, and its transportation through Esperance to Kalgoorlie and Yeelirrie.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) assessed the trial mine but it's recommendations were not enforceable under the Environmental Protection Act at the time and it could not audit performance. (3) The EPA's report on the mine claimd that "no Aborigines live at or are dependent on Yeelirrie", and that the area had been surveyed by the Western Australian Museum, identifying only one site near likely operations, with another seven that demanded protection under the Aboriginal Heritage Act. Sir Arvi Parbo, at both the 1977 and 1978 WMC annual general meetings, made even more erroneous claims - submitting that there were no Aborigines "within hundreds of miles" of the mine, and that Western Australians living in towns were too far away to be affected by operations. In fact, several Aboriginal communities have a claim on Yeelirrie and there are at least 30 sites of significance in the project area. The name itself ("place of death") is a grim reminder of the potential for destrcution posed by uranium mining.

Although the mining industry in Australia has given the strong impression that Yeelirrie does not affect Aboriginal land claims, the lie to this was given in 1978 when an Aboriginal delegation from North Queensland visited UG's offices in Frankfurt and addressed the management on behalf of black West Australians.

UG's managing director told the delegation, "Mining is a part of civilisation, and Aborigines have to be part of civilisation".

Four years later, at the time of the Noonkanbah confrontation with Amax, other statements were made by Peter Hogarth (Yambilli), Roley Hill (Nulli) and Croydon Beaman, Aboriginal tribespeople living near Leonora: "We been fighting for Yeelirrie. The sacred ground is each side of Yeelirie. 'Yeelirrie' is white man's way of saying. Right way is 'Youlirrie'. Youlirrie means 'death', Wongi (Aboriginal) way. Anything been shifted from there means death. People been finished from there, early days, all dead, but white fella can't see it.

"Uranium they say, uranium they make anything from it, invent anything, yet during the war when the Americans flew over, what happened to Hiroshima? And that'll happen here too if they're messing about with that thing. They never learn."
Jakson Stevens, chairman of the Nnanggannawili Community at Wiluna, was also quoted in 1980 as saying:
"Uranium mine. We got one up here. We trying to put a block to it. It's Aboriginal sacred site. If they, the Government and the mining companies came in here, we'll be pushed away from our own country, own place, to the town, Wiluna. No work there".
By 1980, the pilot project was operating (though under some secrecy), and contracts had been concluded with Japanese utilities, as well as with the project's partners. The pilot plant continued operation until 1983. But suddenly, in May 1982, Esso announced that it would be withdrawing from the project, although it would complete financing of Stage One. This was, said Esso, because the project was "not economically viable under the terms of the joint venture agreement and Esso's current assessment of the world's uranium market outlook".

The news was greeted with surprise and alarm in Australian financial circles. It had seemed that Exxon's participation in the mine gave the company a valuable entrée into Australia's uranium market - and access to the plan for an enrichment plant, being touted in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Nonetheless, Esso had shouldered much of the financial burden of the first stage of development and, in 1982, it had already taken the decision to withdraw from uranium mining, as the market slid downwards. Esso's withdrawal was followed by a "savage" drop in WMC's share price, despite UG promising that it would possibly take up some of Esso's relinquished equity.

In the event, UG held onto its more important Australian interests. However, there was certainly a long history of doubts within the company about the viability of mining uranium in the antipodes. As long ago as 1978, Casimir Prince Wittgenstein (representing Metallgesellschaft, but clearly speaking for UG as well) was getting disgruntled in Melbourne. Just after the 1977 elections which brought a more pro-mining Liberal Federal government to power, Prince Wittgenstein was complaining: "We have been trying to get this Western Mining (Yeelirrie) thing going for six years. First, the Whitlam Government spiked the wheel and now the Fox Report is out and we haven't got a true definition of what is going on. It is a sort of hotch-potch thing which we cannot see clearly". However, the "Western Mining thing" was soon sorted out, with UG gaining a 10% share interest in Yeelirrie and a similar percentage of production, although initially it canvassed for more.

At the same time, the WA Trades and Labour Council (TLC) confirmed its opposition to uranium mining, citing Yeelirrie in particular.

The long term disposal of the radioactive tailings was estimated to be around 27 million tonnes. Hazards posed by the existence of such tailings dams is evidenced by the fact that already there have been recreational users of this facility. Boat races have been held here (Kalgoorlie Miner 2-9-82).

In the next few years, the Australian Labour Party's anti-uranium policy was to be virtually reversed - as predicted by Arvi Parbo in 1982. By then, the Olympic Dam/Roxby Downs uranium project was well under-way. Not surprisingly, Yeelirrie was soon consigned to the back-burner. The French government revealed an interested in possibly aquiring Esso's 15% stake, but by 1983 WMC was still looking for partners. The rise of the ALP and the "Three Mines Policy" in March 1983 prevented any further development.

Four years later the position had not materially changed except that, in order to retain its pastoral lease over Yeelirrie, WMC said it would shift the mine to a "care and maintenance" basis and restock it as a sheep station.

The Trial of All Trials

A little known fact about the activities of WMC at Yeelirrie is that, in order to explore the orebody more extensively, WMC actually dug a series of trial mines at the site. (6) This was the first large scale calcrete orebody found in the world, and thus no exploration techniques were known in order to accurately determine ore reserves and develop the feasibility study for a commercial mine.

The trial mining involved several pits, extracting a total of more than 130,000 tonnes of ore (7). The pilot processing plant was in Kalgoorlie, although the tailings were still dumped back at the mine site, in several dams. The exact production of uranium is unknown, although given the amount of ore mined, it is probably around 195 tonnes U3O8. It was most likely shipped to Roxby in the late 1980's and then mixed in to production and sold.

Photos of the trial mining (2) (click for larger version, all ~1973-5) :

The left-most photo is one the exploration trial mines, or "costeans", used for detailed resource estimation. The trial open cut is about 500 m by 50 m, and was 10 m deep (when finished).

The bottom centre photo shows yellow-coloured carnotite, a potassium uranium vanadate mineral.

Surprise Surprise Surprise

In it's 1996 Environment Progress Report, released in July 1997, WMC "admitted leaving a contaminated trial uranium mine exposed to the public, with inadequate fencing and warning signs, for more than 10 years". (4) A spokesperson for WMC said a 1995 inspection revealed the problems and also admitted that the company could have known about the problem as early as 1992. (3)

Western Mining said there were inadequate signs warning against swimming in a dam at the site, which was found to be about 30 times above World Health Organisation radiation safety standards and admitted that people used the dam for "recreational" purposes including swimming, but did not drink the salty water.

WMC say they have "no record of whether uranium ore or contaminated products inside the exposed drums were removed". However, a further 1996 inspection revealed that "uranium ore from the site was also found to have been used to repair nearby roads". Another CANE prediction has proved to be correct. This material has since been recovered and returned to the Yeelirrie site.

Earthworks, additional fencing and signs and a site clean-up, including demolishing the Kalgoorlie pilot uranium processing plant (5), has now been completed by WMC and they claim that the Yeelirrie site is no longer in breach of any state or federal environmental regulations. In June, after the clean-up had finished, WMC invited the Australian Radiation Laboratory to assess the mine. Their preliminary findings clear Yeelirrie of any past health risks, although it should be pointed out that it's assessment is based on WMC supplied data and samples taken over the month of July 1997, after the clean-up. (3)

WMC is currently conducting a $1 million desk-top study of Yeelirrie, and if results are favourable, a full-scale feasibility study will follow. (5) Subject to state and federal government approvals, it could be mining within three or four years. (5)

No Surprise ?

In February 1999, WMC announced (7) they are attempting to sell the Yeelirrie deposit within 2 years, or else hand it back to the WA government. Strange it took them so long to realise the permanently bad state of the uranium market, but it is nonetheless a major admission. Whether WMC will properly rehabilitate the site, including the old Kalgoorlie pilot plant, before abandoning the site is yet be seen. It is highly doubtful that they'll get a buyer at the "right price".

Information from :
- Uranium Information Centre
- The Gulliver File
1 - 1996 WMC Environment Progress Report (source of image).
2 - Western Mining Corporation Limited : Uranium (Yeelirrie Project Profile). (No date, about 1982 'ish ?).
3 - The West Australian, Friday July 11, 1997, "WMC in Yeelirrie Uranium Clean-up", page 3.
4 - The Age, Thursday July 10, 1997, "WMC Admits Leaving Uranium Mine Exposed", pages A1-A2.
5 - The West Australian, Friday July 11, 1997, "Back to the Future, 25 Years On", page 3.
6 - John A. Haycraft, 1976, Sampling of the Yeelirrie Uranium Deposit, Western Australia, 12 pages. Proceedings of the Symposium "Sampling Practices in the Mineral Industries", Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM), Melbourne Branch, September 1976. (Contact the SEA-US webmaster for a copy of the paper.)
7 - The West Australian, Wednesday February 9, 2000, "WMC Sets Limit on Uranium Hope", page 9.

Last Updated - February 14, 2000.

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