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Dubbo Zirconia rare earths project

Posted on 23 October 2013

Dubbo Zirconia Project: How do you feel about a radioactive rare earths mine 25 km south of Dubbo?

Have your say.


Alkane Resources is proposing a 20 million tonne open cut rare earths mine at Toongi, 25 km south of Dubbo. Alkane is specifically targeting zirconium, nobium, hafnium, tantalum, ytterium and other rare earth elements (REE) although minerals which contain REEs invariably contain some thorium and uranium, which are radioactive. The radioactivity associated with REE ores is a major concern, which highlights the strong need to be upfront, transparent and thorough in all aspects of REE production.

Although the Greens do not oppose the mining of rare earths per se, we support a responsible mining framework that safeguards our precious water supplies, community health and ensures products from such mining are not used to for nuclear power generation or nuclear weapons. We are especially cognisant of the need for the proponent of such projects to take responsibility for the storage of radioactive waste for the full lifetime of such waste (often hundreds of years).

The Environmental Assessment is open for public comment until 18 November 2013, so you have an opportunity to object to the development or suggest ways it should be improved. Submissions can be made on the Department of Planning’s Major Project Register website, either as an attachment or via the site form.

Project Summary

Alkane Resources intend to construct an open cut 20 Mt pit and rare earth processing plant at Toongi, 25km south of Dubbo. The project is specifically targeting zirconium, niobium, hafnium, tantalum, and rare earth elements (REEs). The project proposal includes upgrade of Toongi-Dubbo rail line and road network, and the construction of water, electricity and gas pipelines. The area of disturbance is approximately 170 hectares.

 The resource deposit is a radioactive ore but Alkane claims that the production process does not produce a mineral concentrate and hence the uranium and thorium do not get concentrated at the front end of the process like many rare earth projects. [1] The production of uranium is currently banned in NSW, although the NSW government overturned a 28 year moratorium on uranium exploration in February 2012.[2] A pilot processing plant at Lucas Heights was used to test the chemical processing and separation of the metals and REEs from the ore.[3]


 Impacts / Concerns

Radioactivity & the pretext of mining for rare earths may be a precursor to uranium mining – The mineralised material contains between 80-160 parts per million (ppm) uranium and between 250-500 ppm thorium, and contains radionuclides from the U238, U235 and Th232 decay chains. This means the ore is considered radioactive.[4] For reference, the world average for concentrations of these elements in soils is 3 ppm for uranium and 6 ppm for thorium.[5] The Environmental Assessment states:

The process is a whole-of-ore acid leach to extract the rare metals and rare earths, and this process also extracts much of the uranium (~100ppm U) and thorium (~400ppm Th) into solution. Through the flow sheet, uranium and thorium are isolated from the products but remain in solution where they are stabilised and neutralised by limestone within the waste streams. The addition of limestone further dilutes the uranium and thorium so that the average radioactivity in the residue storage facility is less than the ore.[6]

 Alkane claim they aren’t interested in the uranium and only want the rare earths, but Toongi has the largest uranium deposit in NSW, with mineral deposits containing between 10,000 and 100,000 tonnes of U3O8.[7] It is hard to believe that the uranium and thorium will be left in ‘waste facility’ when the infrastructure and market is already there for the sale of uranium and thorium. Although the project is ostensibly for the mining of rare earths, this project sets a dangerous precedent which could be a precursor to uranium mining and processing in the future. Further, the raw material zircon gets processed into zirconium which can be used in nuclear fuel rods and for nuclear cladding.[8]

Lifespan of the project likely to be longer than 20 years & pit likely to be expanded – Although the project claims to restrict mining to 8 Mt of the identified 73 Mt of resource in order to stay above the groundwater table,[9] mine projects have a habit of extending their terms once approved and/or removing conditions that originally protected the environment. There are numerous mentions of the project lasting longer than 20 years, with ASX announcements indicating that the pit is capable of supporting open pit mining in excess of 100 years.[10] The Environmental Assessment indicates that there is “likely to be the opportunity to continuation of the DZP site beyond the life of the current proposal.”[11] This means the project will irrevocably change the landscape and have long term impacts on Toongi and surrounds.

Rare earth mining is not a clean, ‘green’ process - Under-regulated rare earths projects can produce wastewater and tailings ponds that leak acids, heavy metals and radioactive elements into groundwater, and market pressures for cheap and reliable rare earths may lead Alkane to skimp on environmental protections.[12] Few independent studies chart the industry’s global ecological impact.[13] The radioactivity associated with REE ores is a major concern, which highlights the strong need to be upfront, transparent and thorough in all aspects of REE production.[14] REE mining requires appropriate engineering design, construction, operation and decommissioning – using world-class regulation, community engagement and business stewardship.[15]

Dilution is not the solution – Alkane plan to dilute the radioactive waste by mixing it with lime until it is below accepted international concentrations for the radioactive material. A similar project by Lynas in Malaysia contemplated turning the lime solution into solid structures that could be used for sea walls or construction materials.[16] Dilution does not neutralise the radiation, but merely puts it into a more dilute and manageable form. This would not preclude future mining of the radioactive materials if the government’s ban was to be lifted in the future.

Industrialisation of Toongi and surrounds – The project entails major infrastructure works which will irreversibly change the nature of Toongi and surrounds for the next 20-100 years, particularly the mass industrialisation of at least 170 hectares of agricultural land.[17] The project entails the construction of 30 km gas pipeline from Dubbo, the construction of 132kV electricity transmission line from Geurie, the construction of 8 km water pipeline from the Macquarie River, and the proposed upgrade of the Dubbo-Toongi railway. These are all major infrastructure projects that are resource intensive and will have long term impacts on the landscape.

Traffic impacts & railway – The project will see the exponential increase of light and heavy traffic movement between Dubbo and Toongi, with an estimated 158 truck movements per week along the Obley Road. Alkane’s claim to re-establish the railway would not happen for at least 5 years, and even then there is no guarantee.[18] Once reopened, the rail line through town will expose residents along the rail corridor to increased noise and dust pollution.

High risks associated with the project – Alkane’s own environmental assessment identifies high and extreme risks associated with the project, such as:

  • leachate from evaporation ponds affecting aquifers and bores
  • radiation affecting workers during mining and processing
  • chemical spills contaminating surface and ground water
  • reduction in environmental flows to Wambangalang Creek and other tributaries of the Macquarie River
  • clearing of native vegetation and endangered ecological communities
  • increased noise levels from blasting and processing
  • removal or destruction of Aboriginal heritage items

High risk is described on p 36 of the Environmental assessment as “requiring in-depth assessment and high level documentation of the proposed controls and mitigation measures. Ultimately, this level of risk may preclude the development of the Project.”

Extreme risk is described as “requiring in-depth assessment and high level documentation of the proposed

controls and mitigation measures and possible preparation of a specialised management plan. Unless considered to be adequately managed by the controls and/or management plan, this level of risk is likely to preclude the development of the Project.”

Waste and the need for long term waste management – Waste from the project is to be stored onsite in solid and liquid form. It is estimated that a total of 1.36 million bank cubic metres of waste will be removed during the 20 year mine life, and will cover 20 hectares.[19] This includes 6.7 million tonnes of salt. The liquid waste facility will remain for the life of the project.[20]

Greenhouse gas emissions – 260,000 tonnes CO2 equivalent per year, which is equivalent to 52,000 cars.

Noise – particularly from blasting, 24 hour processing operations and rail transport.

Water – The project plans to use 4.05 GL of water per year, which will be sourced from the Macquarie River via the construction of a water pipeline. 1 GL is equivalent to 400 Olympic size swimming pools, which means the project will use over 1600 swimming pools of fresh water per year.

There are conflicting figures regarding the depth of the open cut pit, which the Environmental Assessment claims will stay above the groundwater table.[21] The depth is listed variously as 40 m[22] or 32 m[23], while the measured resource is up to 100 m depth.[24] Due to the conflicting nature of the pit’s supposed depth, and the critical need to avoid contaminating the water table, the depth of the pit and its impacts on the water table is of critical importance to assessing the project.

Energy intensive – The project will use 970 terajoules of gas per year, via the construction of a new gas pipeline. This is equivalent to approximately 33,000 tonnes of coal per year, or 270 million kWh – which is about the same amount of energy used to power 38,000 households. That’s more than twice the size of Dubbo.

Biodiversity – The project impacts on 3 endangered ecological communities, and a threatened species – the pink tailed worm lizard.[25] Alkane proposes an offset of 1021 hectares.

Aboriginal heritage – There will be “unavoidable” impact on 14 Aboriginal heritage sites, including two potential archaeological deposits.[26]

Royalties – less than $10 million annually are predicted by Alkane[27]

Rare Earths

  • REE are essential for many new developments in electronics and future energy technologies, including solar voltaic cells, LED’s, electric motors, wind turbines and computers.[28]
  • China produces 97% of global supplies of REE,[29] with two thirds mined from Baotou, Mongolia,[30] but China has announced that it would severely restrict its exports of REEs due to rising problems with its mines such as polluted waterways and radiation exposure affecting not only workers, but entire communities.[31]
  • The world’s REE deposits are abundant enough to supply the world for decades to come.[32]
  • Australia has 59.4 megatonnes (Mt) of sub-economic REE resources in addition to 1.65 megatonnes of economic REEs. Some 53 Mt of the sub-economic variety can be found in the giant Olympic Dam ore body in South Australia.[33]
  • Processing of ore can require leaching with hydrochloric acid or sulfuric acid (both of which are products of the petrochemical industry), ion exchange separation, solvent partitioning and crystalisation.[34]
  • Minerals which contain REEs invariably contain some thorium and uranium, both radioactive elements.
  • For a case study of REE mining, read the story of Baotou,[35] in Inner Mongolia and of Lynas Corporation operating its Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Malaysia.[36]
  • For an excellent discussion of the impacts of the technology boom, read: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/sep/26/rare-earth-metals-technology-boom


Greens’ Position

The Greens certainly oppose uranium mining, with NSW uranium spokesperson, Jamie Parker speaking out against the NSW government’s reintroduction of uranium exploration.[37] Australian Greens’ policies clearly oppose uranium mining, due to the strong link between the mining and export of uranium and nuclear weapons proliferation.[38]

The Greens do not oppose rare earth mining per se, but do support an approach that safeguards our precious water supplies, community health and agricultural land. We should be looking at ways to reduce the demand for resources, particularly those that pose potential risks in extraction, processing and waste disposal. The Greens have a comprehensive policy regarding waste,[39] and support the recycling of electronics and consumer items containing REE through robust product custodianship laws that require manufacturers to take responsibility for their products’ lifecycle. Europe has been doing this for nearly a decade, while Australian product stewardship laws are only voluntary.[40]


[1] 19 September 2011 ASX announcement

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-14/nsw-cabinet-endorses-uranium-plan/3829974

[3] http://www.ansto.gov.au/BusinessServices/ANSTOMinerals/Capabilities/RareEarthProcessing/index.htm

[4] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 16

[5] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 16

[6] 19 September 2011 ASX announcement, p 12

[8] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 66

[9] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 84

[10] DZP’s Marketing Presentation Hong Kong November 2010, p 28; 19 September 2011 ASX announcement, p 3

[11] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 13

[13] http://e360.yale.edu/feature/boom_in_mining_rare_earths_poses_mounting_toxic_risks/2614/

[14] http://theconversation.com/will-rare-earth-elements-power-our-clean-energy-future-2433

[15] http://theconversation.com/will-rare-earth-elements-power-our-clean-energy-future-2433

[16] http://e360.yale.edu/feature/boom_in_mining_rare_earths_poses_mounting_toxic_risks/2614/

[17] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 115

[18] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 13

[19] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 73

[20] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 13

[21] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 84

[22] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 67

[23] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 4

[24] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 70

[25] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 18

[26] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 21

[27] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 24

[30] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/aug/07/china-rare-earth-village-pollution

[31] http://theconversation.com/will-rare-earth-elements-power-our-clean-energy-future-2433

[32] http://theconversation.com/will-rare-earth-elements-power-our-clean-energy-future-2433

[33] http://theconversation.com/will-rare-earth-elements-power-our-clean-energy-future-2433

[40] http://www.environment.gov.au/settlements/waste/product-stewardship/index.html

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