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The fight for Horizontal Falls

Image courtesy of Kimberley Boat Cruises

Megan Birch, ECU Reporter

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Environmental conservation companies in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia are worried about the future of the land surrounding the Horizontal Falls. Last month a Rio Tinto exploration camp and bulldozer were seen 15km from the falls.

Chantelle Roberts, Campaign Coordinator for The Kimberley Like Nowhere Else Campaign, said the bulldozer was spotted by a local tourism operator who was flying over the falls.

“It’s happening under the flight path where the tourism planes come up from Broome to go out to visit the falls, so that’s problematic for tour operators and for tourists.”

The Horizontal Falls are a natural wonder of The Kimberley Region, where, unlike a regular waterfall, the water flows through the rocks horizontally. This effect is caused by tidal currents running through two narrow coastal passageways.

The campaign team has been working since 2010 to protect the falls and the broader Kimberley coast. They have written to the government to increase the mining exclusion area surrounding the falls.

Ms Roberts said: “We would like the mining exclusion area to be increased in order to protect this tourism hot spot to make sure that people can enjoy it for the future.”

The Horizontal Falls Lalang-garram Marine Park was established in 2016 and a National Park covering the land in the surrounding the area is still under negotiation.

Ms Roberts said it came as a shock to see exploration activity so soon after the marine park was established,

“It’s somewhat of a surprise to see the bulldozers going in, in such close proximity to the falls.

“We recognise it’s not in the national park area itself, it’s just outside, but it’s just not really appropriate for somewhere to have that kind of visual disturbance or pollution risk,” Ms Roberts explained.

Rio Tinto is exploring the area for copper and nickel.

According to Bill Johnston, WA Minister for Mines and Petroleum, the mining group has been approved to undertake the land examination,

“The exploration activity in question is located 15 to 30km away from the Horizontal Falls, outside of the exemption area, and has been granted all applicable approvals from the Commonwealth and State governments,” he said.

“A condition of approval is that all exploration must be rehabilitated within six months.”

Ms Roberts said: “In allowing the exploration to take place, we recognise that copper mines, or open cut mines can have quite an enormous impact on the environment around them both visually but also potentially as a risk of contamination.”

Mr Johnston explained that if Rio Tinto finds something during exploration there is still a lengthy process to be followed in order to receive a mining lease.

He said: “Should the exploration activities result in a request for a mining lease at the site, written approval would be required from the relevant State and Commonwealth Ministers as well as the Governor General.

“Any proposal would also be subject to referral to the Environmental Protection Authority and public comment will be sought as part of the EPA process.”

According to Ms Roberts, if a mine does goes ahead the tourism industry will be affected greatly,

“This area is globally celebrated as a beautiful place in nature and also a tourism hotspot.

“We want to do everything we can to encourage responsible tourism and to encourage sustainable tourism for WA, so this is something we wouldn’t want to see damaging a tourism business.”

Ms Roberts believes that in order to protect the broader Kimberley Coast from mining they need to consider a strategic approach.

“We need to have a broader discussion, not just about one project but about what the most appropriate things to be doing in that region are.

“We’ll continue to talk to the government, to commit to protecting the area all around the Horizontal Falls for the future.”

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The fight for Horizontal Falls