By ERWIN CHLANDA
The NT Environment Protection Authority (NT EPA) says the Nolans project of Arafura Resources Ltd near Aileron, 135 km north of Alice Springs, can “be managed to avoid unacceptable environmental impacts and risks”.
The EPA recommended government approval for the mine, subject to several conditions. It would employ up to 500 workers during construction, an average of 375, and a peak of 300 during operations.
The EPA says the proposal is to mine rare earth elements,”key components in many green and sustainable products, such as wind turbines for the clean energy industry and hybrid vehicles.
“The proposal includes open cut mining and processing over a 55 year mine life.”
EPA Chairman Paul Vogel says mining wastes that include naturally occurring radioactive materials would be permanently stored onsite.
The proposal also includes groundwater from a new borefield and permanent diversion of an ephemeral creek.
Dr Vogel says the EPA had “identified potentially significant environmental impacts and risks associated with the proposal and made 16 recommendations to avoid and mitigate those impacts.
“Potential contaminants and the presence of naturally occurring radioactive materials in these waste streams warrant independent technical review and operational oversight to ensure the risks are minimised to the lowest extent practicable and to promote a transparent regulatory process.”
The EPA also considers there is “potential for impacts on groundwater hydrological processes and associated environmental values. The sustainable use and management of groundwater resources is important in an arid zone where the project is located.
“The NT EPA recommends further hydrological investigations including refining the groundwater model, setting site-specific groundwater level triggers and adaptive management of groundwater use.”
Dr Vogel says a mine closure plan should be regularly updated and there should be a security bond to ensure the costs of rehabilitation and post-closure liabilities are not borne by the NT Government and the community in the event of the operator abandoning the site or becoming insolvent.
The EPA notes that uncertainty remains around the potential for significant environmental impacts. Environmental commitments, safeguards and recommendations outlined in the EIS and required by the EPA must be implemented by the company “with a high level of oversight and strong compliance enforcement by the relevant regulator throughout the life of the project”.
Arafura’s Managing Director, Gavin Lockyer, says the EPA decision should go some way towards securing final government approval for the project.
The company’s flagship project is Nolans where the company “plans to mine, concentrate and chemically process rare earths and transport an intermediate product to an offshore refinery [yet to be determined] for final chemical processing into high-value rare earth products.
“The price of rare earths has been affected by cyclical downturns, largely impacted by Chinese dominance of the market.
“However, the demand for the key rare earths to be produced by Arafura at Nolans – neodymium (Nd) and praseodymium (Pr) – is rising at an estimated 7-8% a year due to their use in ultra-strong permanent magnets in the automotive industry, in clean energy applications such as wind turbine generators, and in personal electronic consumer products such as smart phones,” says Mr Lockyer.
“Arafura maintains its confidence that the company will become a world-leading source of magnet-feed NdPr rare earths and is well-positioned to capitalise on market changes that have led to escalating prices in 2017.”
The company distributed $360,000 as part of its exploration agreement with traditional owners for projects including a new laundry block at Alyuen and the Roosters Football Club in Ti Tree.