Conservationists bid to save remote ironstone mountains

The Australian Victoria Laurie Senior reporter Perth 12:00AM November 6, 2017

Jenita Enevoldsen from The Wilderness Society stands on top of a rock formation at the Helena and Aurora Range. Picture: Paul Pitchugin

Fifty high-profile scientists and conservationists are calling on the West Australian government to protect the Helena Aurora Range, a banded ironstone formation whose fate the mining industry says will be a “litmus test” for Premier Mark McGowan’s commitment to creating resource jobs.

Mineral Resources hopes to expand its iron ore operations at Bungalbin, 100km north of Southern Cross, to include the range, claiming it will create 400 jobs and pump $1 billion into state coffers over the life of the 600ha mine extension.

The Environment Protection Authority knocked it back in June for a second time, on the grounds the environmental impact could not be managed acceptably. The 50 signatories, including scientists from 11 universities and conservation agencies such as Birdlife Australia, will today issue a ‘‘Helena ­Aurora Science Declaration’’ that backs a call by the Wilderness ­Society for the range to be turned into an A-class national park.

The statement says Helena Aurora Range is part of the “banded iron formations” of the Mid West and Goldfields, rocky outcrops in striking banded colours that support a suite of animal and plant biodiversity that the environmental watchdog has identified as needing protection.

A pebble dragon in the Yilgarn region of Western Australian. Pictuer: Paul Pitchugin

The signatories say the range’s comparatively low-grade ore would be mined from “remnants of a landscape dating back over 2.6 billion years, meaning they are among the most ancient landforms on Earth. The area is home to rock art and animals including the tiny pebble dragon. Unique local flora among 350 plant species and 152 native fauna should be protected, the statement reads, as “so many of WA’s other outstanding banded ironstone ranges are destroyed or in the process of being destroyed”.

Jenita Enevoldsen, Wilderness Society state director, said the Helena Aurora Range would be “the first critical test” of the Labor government.

WA’s previous Liberal government overturned several key decisions, including launching an appeal against a Supreme Court case won by protesters that had ruled environmental approvals for Perth’s controversial Roe 8 highway extension to be invalid.

The Liberals’ stand on Roe 8, which Labor has scrapped, was seen as a contributing factor to its defeat in the March state election.

Helena Aurora Range is among several mining appeals facing the McGowan government that pit conservation values against mining operations.

In June, the EPA rejected mining approval for another banded ironstone range at Sinosteel Midwest Corp’s Mungada East expansion in the state’s Mid West.

EPA chairman Tom Hatton said both cases involved highly biodiverse ranges set in predominantly flat landscapes and among the oldest landforms on Earth. He said that, once mined, they could not be restored. “These proposals would significantly and permanently impact the environmental integrity of distinctive formations supporting some of the highest biodiversity and social values in their respective regions,” he said.

The previous Liberal government intervened in favour of Mineral Resources by calling for a public review after its Bungalbin expansion was initially rejected by the EPA.