The company behind a new lithium project in the northern Goldfields says it has reached a new benchmark for engagement with traditional owners but some are worried for the future of cultural heritage sites. 

Key points:

  • The Kathleen Valley lithium project has shifted to underground mining to avoid cultural heritage sites
  • Some elders accepted the minimised impacts on nearby sites while others were concerned
  • A traditional owner claimed the Aboriginal corporation did not consult properly with the community

Liontown Resources signed an agreement with the Tjiwarl Aboriginal Corporation on Wednesday for its $470 million Kathleen Valley lithium project between Leinster and Mount Keith.

The deal comes after more than two years of consultation through the Aboriginal corporation, which has involved redesigning the mine to minimise impacts on adjacent cultural heritage sites. 

Tjiwarl traditional owners said Jones Creek, which runs above a high concentration lithium deposit at Kathleen Valley, was a significant cultural heritage site.

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New lithium mine shifts plan around cultural sites(Supplied: Liontown Resources)

“The mine plan was significantly altered to go predominantly underground as opposed to a fairly large open pit,” Liontown managing director Tony Ottaviano said. 

Four men sign an agreement at a desk

The Aboriginal corporation and the company said the agreement was a new benchmark standard for cultural heritage consultation.(ABC Goldfields: Sean Tarek Goodwin)

Meanwhile, the Western Australian government’s new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill is being debated in state parliament this week.

The bill was created to boost protections and consultation requirements for projects involving cultural heritage sites, in light of the destruction of a sacred site in the Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto last year.

Impacts accepted but reduced 

Kado Muir, a director at Tjiwarl Aboriginal Corporation, said the standard of consultation should be adopted throughout the industry. 

“The original design included a massive open pit, which would have diverted the flow of Jones Creek, or Ngurluwuriwuri, an important site to us,” Mr Muir said.

“The company went from a massive pit that would have been an environmental and cultural heritage disaster to mostly an underground operation.”

Map of the proposed Kathleen Valley lithium project

Liontown Resources says it had adapted its plan to reduce the impact on the Jones Creek cultural heritage site.(Supplied: Liontown Resources)

He said the corporation accepted that there would be some disturbance to the heritage sites but now had an open dialogue to manage that. 

“There will be places that will be destroyed, that will be impacted, both from an environmental and a broader cultural perspective,” Mr Muir said. 

“But the process of dialogue, negotiation and agreement through this cultural heritage management plan protects and minimises the disturbance from our perspective.” 

Kado Muir infront of a tent looking at the camera

Kado Muir says it is important that traditional owners will have a framework for ongoing engagement.(ABC Goldfields: Madina Jaffari)

Some traditional owners upset over deal

June Tullock is a Tjiwarl traditional owner and travelled from Port Hedland to attend the meeting in Leinster on Wednesday. 

“My dad was born right there in the creek there, it’s a woman’s ground,”  Ms Tullock said. 

She said she was not involved in the consultation process.

“I’m just sad when I’m thinking about it, [it’s] making me a bit emotional,” Ms Tullock said. 

Crowd

Many of the traditional owners welcomed the deal after two and a half years of negotiations.(ABC Goldfields: Madina Jaffari)

Ms Tullock said, despite her sadness for the impacts on the area, she was happy the project would create economic opportunities. 

“The best thing about it is all our young people are getting jobs here and I’m happy about that,” she said. 

Traditional owner claims mistreatment by Tjiwarl

Wayne Abdullah, another Tjiwarl traditional owner, said he was not satisfied with the level of engagement from the Aboriginal corporation on the new deal. 

“The reality is that most of the traditional owners weren’t aware of the decision until we received notification from Tjiwarl,” Mr Abdullah said. 

He said those who did not agree with the plan were not involved in the negotiations. 

Wayne Abdullah stands in front of a painted mural

Wayne Abdullah says many traditional owners were not shown the plans before a notification of Wednesday’s meeting was sent in September.(ABC Goldfields: Sean Tarek Goodwin)

“They were contacted by phone once, and they objected to it and then they weren’t contacted again,” Mr Abdullah said. 

He said he had his membership cancelled a month and a half ago, without a clear reason or response to his requests for mediation. 

“That was on the pure fact that I objected to so many aspects of the business operations, the heritage concerns that I’ve raised, and the legitimacy issues that I’ve raised,” Mr Abdullah said. 

He alleged a Tjiwarl board member physically threatened and verbally abused members of another family over a cultural heritage disagreement in 2017. 

But Tjiwarl Aboriginal Corporation CEO Greg Ryan-Gadsen said those claims were not accurate, and communication had been ongoing.

He said he could not comment on Mr Abdullah’s individual membership but there was due process set out in the organisation’s constitution.

“The reasons for loss of membership, which are described in the book, are usually for repeated non-compliance of responsibilities of a member, things that aren’t in the interests of the corporation,” Mr Ryan-Gadsen said. 

He said there was a strict code of conduct at meetings and he had not seen any instances of physical or verbal abuse in his time with the organisation. 

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Mine shifts plan around cultural heritage sites but not everyone is on board
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