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Submission: Arafura Rare Earths Water Licence Application

The Nolans Project is a proposed rare earths mine and processing operation near Aileron, just 135kms north of Alice Springs.  This development, owned by mineral exploration company Arafura Resources, is potentially one of the largest rare earths mines in the world and will extract up to 4.8 billion litres of water per year for 40 years. ALEC’s submission to the water extraction licence application highlights a concerning lack of publicly available information, as well as concerns regarding the Water Allocation Planning Framework (WAPF).

Background: Arafura water licence

Arafura seeks to extract up to 4800ML of water per year for 40 years from 17 bores. Pumping is scheduled to begin in November 2022, and the development will reach full pumping capacity after two years.

Groundwater will be used in:

  1. Constructing the open-pit mine;
  2. The ore processing facility and associated infrastructure;
  3. Project accommodation and associated infrastructure.

Groundwater will be accessed from the Reaphook paleovalley and the underlying Ngalia basin aquifers. These water sources form part of the Southern Basins.  There are currently no groundwater licences in this area, and this region lies outside of any existing water allocation plans. It will then be governed by the Northern Territory Water Allocation Planning Framework.

Lack of access to information

The majority of key documents related to the Arafura licence have not been made publicly available. Relevant stakeholders cannot provide substantive commentary to the Territory Government when the most important up to date information is unavailable. Critically, ALEC has a number of questions that cannot be answered, including:

  • To what extent will groundwater-dependant ecosystems (GDEs) be impacted by this water extraction licence?
  • How have GDEs been identified and accounted for (i.e. remote sensing only, or has
  • there been research conducted on site)?
  • How much water is available in the Reaphook paleovalley?
  • How much groundwater depletion will occur and how will the groundwater resource respond to extraction?
  • What, if any, threatened species or ecological communities are in the impacted area?
  • Who conducted the groundwater model?
  • What is the rigour and precision of the groundwater model?

Water licences are in the public interest

The Arafura licence is clearly relevant to the public. It is a large water licence occurring in a region where currently no other water licences operate, and outside of a water control district.  This increases the need for a precautionary approach.  For the public and key stakeholders to provide meaningful comment, they need to be informed about the development, its geography and its potential impacts.

This licence highlights key issues with water resource management in the Northern Territory. In areas without water allocation plans there is a substantial deficit of knowledge that exists publicly. In addition, there can be substantial variation between what information is included in relation to water licence applications across the Northern Territory.

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