Call to end Woomera uncertainty

SACOME chief executive Jason Kuchel has told MINING DAILY the Federal Department of Defence must establish a clear set of guidelines for mining companies hoping to access the Woomera Prohibited Area.

The South Australian Chamber of Minerals and Energy (SACOME) yesterday called on the Federal Department of Defence to outline its requirements for mining companies with tenements in the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA).

The 127,000 km² WPA is the world’s largest weapon testing range and covers more than 120 mineral exploration leases granted by the South Australian Government, according to SACOME.

The area also hosts the Coober Pedy opal fields and the operating Challenger and Prominent Hill mines.

However, a number of companies have found it difficult to get approval from the Department of Defence to develop their tenements, particularly when foreign investment is involved.

In October, Defence knocked back Western Plains Resources’ bid to carry out a study of its Hawks Nest magnetite deposit with the help of Chinese state-owned steel producer Wuhan Iron and Steel (WISCO).

While SACOME chief executive Jason Kuchel does not believe the Department was being inconsistent, he said the industry was unclear why some projects were approved and why others were not.

“Essentially, we would like the Department of Defence to give mining companies the chance to demonstrate that their projects can meet their safety and security requirements,” he told MINING DAILY.

“If a company mines in an environmentally sensitive area in South Australia, the Department of Environment of Heritage allows them to prove the operation will not adversely affect the environment.

“We would like Defence to give miners the same opportunities.”

Kuchel believes foreign participation in these projects is a big stumbling block for the Department, particularly when Chinese state-owned companies are involved.

“I think investment from countries that are not considered allies of Australia does present some challenges for Defence,” he said.

“But we believe there are a range of different options to safeguard against any security concerns they have and the companies should be given the chance to satisfy these requirements.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Defence told MINING DAILY that clearer guidelines on mining access to the WPA are being developed by a number of Federal Government Departments in conjunction with the South Australian Government.

“Where it is assessed that mining is compatible with Defence activities and meets safety and national security considerations, an access deed is agreed between Defence and the miner,” the spokesperson said.

“There will be some locations, such as those within the range’s core area of operations where it may be impossible to facilitate access for all types of mining activities and retain a test capability.

“The frequency of testing and associated need to evacuate areas of the range to ensure the tests are conducted safely may diminish the commercial viability of some locations.

“Companies wishing to conduct mining in the WPA should recognise the commercial risks inherent in conducting their business on a weapons testing range.”

According to Kuchel, the mining industry is happy to do whatever it can to improve Defence’s confidence.

“I am reasonably optimistic that we will get some clarity on the issue and unfortunately I think there will be parts of the WPA that will be no-go-zones,” he said.

“Ultimately, there will always be some obstacles for companies, because both the Defence requirements and the political landscape will continue to change.”

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