Farmers have raised concerns about a proposed mineral sands mine in Far West NSW.
RZ Resources' Copi mineral sands project raises concerns for NSW farmers
Goat farmer Shane Vagg says he can't trust mining company RZ Resources.(ABC Rural: Else Kennedy)

Farmers in Far West New South Wales say a mining company’s failure to provide key documents on radiation risk and its history of breaching mining rules should be enough to stop its proposed $1 billion mineral sands mine.

Farmers Shane and Ferna Vagg, whose land has been subject to exploration drilling by RZ Resources, said the company could not be trusted to manage a large mining operation responsibly after it was found in 2021 to have lied to the NSW mining regulator and in 2023 was found to have flouted mining rules.

The Brisbane-based company claims to have discovered a trove of valuable mineral sands south of Broken Hill — a deposit that includes rare earth elements, zircon, rutile, leucoxene, ilmenite, monazite and xenotime — valuable for their use in renewable energy technologies and medical devices.

RZ Resources plans to mine the deposit over 17 years, creating 240 ongoing jobs during operation and a net present value of $1 billion over the life of the project, according to the company’s Environmental Impact Statement, submitted to the NSW government in May.

A woman and man stand side by side with an arid landscape behind them. They are wearing broad brim hats and long sleeve shirts.

Ferna and Shane Vagg do not want the project to go ahead.(ABC Rural: Else Kennedy)

Breaching rules

The Vaggs, who farm goats on a station between Wentworth and Broken Hill, said the prospect of RZ Resources operating a mine 1.3 kilometres from their home was “terrifying”.

“If they couldn’t do the right thing as an exploration company, I have a great fear that they won’t be able to manage that if they ever become a big operation,” Mr Vagg said.

“You can’t trust them and you don’t have any faith that they’ll abide by the rules.”

Shane holding a rock

Mineral sands in far west NSW contain valuable rare earth elements.(ABC Rural: Else Kennedy)

Documents obtained under the NSW Government Information Public Access Act show RZ Resources received an official caution and a penalty notice from the NSW Resources Regulator in 2021 for providing false and misleading information to the regulator.

The documents show the company made a written statement to the NSW Resources regulator in 2020 claiming it had plugged and rehabilitated drill holes on a property neighbouring the Vaggs.

“All work pertaining to the landholders (sic) requests for rehabilitation of tracks has been successfully completed and is (sic) verbally happy with what has been repaired but no written approval has been requested,” the company wrote.

Four months later, the regulator met with the affected landholder, who told inspectors he had never been consulted by the company.

A drill rig surrounded by white vehicles in an arid environment, pictured from the air.

RZ Resources plans to mine mineral sands in far west NSW.(Supplied: RZ Resources)

During a site inspection the regulator found drill holes on the property that hadn’t been rehabilitated.

The incident wasn’t the company’s only breach of mining rules.

In 2023, the resources regulator found the company had breached mining rules 22 times while exploring for mineral sands in 2020.

The list of breaches included drilling to unapproved depths, using unapproved machinery, failing to have an adequate community consultation strategy, failing to rehabilitate land, failing to consult with landholders, digging sump and burying soil without approval, and failing to comply with requests for information.

RZ Resources signed an enforceable undertaking with the regulator in response to the findings, agreeing in 2023 to pay $160,000 to compensate the community and improve its practices.

A man in a checked shirt looks into a hole in the ground approximately 40cm in diametre.

Shane Vagg claims RZ Resources failed to properly plug drill holes on his property.(ABC Rural: Else Kennedy)

Radiation risk

The company has submitted an environmental impact statement for public exhibition as part of the mining application process.

But a radiation health expert who has viewed the documents said it lacked important details about radiation risk.

A man wearing a suit is interviewed in a television studio.

Tilman Ruff says the statement lacks detail about radiation.(ABC News)

University of Melbourne school of global health honorary fellow Tilman Ruff labelled the documents RZ had submitted “extraordinarily deficient”.

“You would expect that an environmental impact statement, which really is the most comprehensive document about the project and its implications for for the environment, for people, and for public safety, that it would be a fairly comprehensive overview of all aspects of the mine,” Dr Ruff said.

“There’s barely a mention of of radiation, either for workers of the mine or for the public.

“And there are considerable possible public exposures to mine products, both in the vicinity of the mine [and along] the transport route.”

Mineral sands contain trace amounts of uranium and thorium, which are radioactive.

In a statement, RZ Resources chief operating officer John Costigan said the company’s environmental impact statement was a comprehensive document in accordance with NSW government requirements.

He said it outlined detailed plans to address all aspects of the proposed development, including handling of monazite, which was a critical mineral for the development of wind turbines and other renewable energy sources.

RZ Resources’ environmental impact statement says the company will “obtain and maintain a range of radiation-related occupational health and safety permits and approvals and would implement stringent controls and monitoring to manage the health and safety of workers and visitors”.

An industrial facility on the Brisbane river, pictured from a height. In the foreground are three silo-type structures.

RZ Resources plans to transport the mineral sands to Brisbane.(Supplied: RZ Resources)

Finances questioned

In a report submitted to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission in 2023, independent auditor Mark Jeffery from KPMG found there was a “material uncertainty” over RZ Resources’ finances.

He said it “may cast significant doubt on the group’s ability to continue its normal business activities and ensure that it operates as a going concern, and, therefore, that the group may be unable to realise its assets and discharge its liabilities in the normal course of business”.

In a statement, Mr Costigan said the company was “well advanced in progressing and securing funding and investment for the capital expenditure required for the project, in line with many other pre-production mining companies”.

A hand holding orange dirt

Rare earth elements are in high demand for their use in wind turbines and electric vehicles.(Supplied: Australian Rare Earths)

Government responds

The NSW Department of Planning, Housing and Infrastructure said RZ Resources’ mining proposal would undergo “rigorous assessment”.

The NSW government has given members of the public 28 days to respond to the 3,000-page environmental impact statement for the proposed Copi Mineral Sands Project, with submissions closing on Tuesday.

“Following exhibition, the applicant is required to address all issues raised in submissions along with government agency advice received,” a department spokesperson said in a statement.

“This includes concerns raised regarding radiation risks associated with mining and processing mineral sands.”

They said the department would consider all community submissions, along with advice by government agencies and councils, as part of its assessment.

“This will include relevant legislation, policies and guidelines before a determination is made,” the spokesperson said.

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