Blessing or poisoned Chalice?

The impending summer is turning the surrounding hills from an emerald green to a wheat yellow. The Avon River snakes across the valley and defines the town of Toodyay, where buildings which have withstood the test of time line the main street.

A café front is plastered with vibrant posters and a series of mouth-watering sandwiches and snacks are on sale behind the glass. Amongst the lunchtime buzz, Alison Wroth sips coffee as she describes the economic situation of the town. As a fifth generation member of the town’s farming families, her connections to the area and its people run deep.

Wroth has seen how the town struggles to keep its residents, particularly young people, and welcomes a plan by exploration company Chalice Mining Limited to set up in Toodyay.

She understands both sides of the economic versus environment lifestyle debate and believes her town needs industry.

“Once the youth leave schools, they’re out of here,” she says.

Alison Wroth

Chalice would offer such a wonderful opportunity to keep the youth in town.

As an Australian-based exploration company, Chalice surveys for underground minerals and metals in several districts. Although the company has multiple projects around the country, it claims the Julimar nickel-copper Platinum Group Elements project is considered as “Australia’s first major palladium discovery” which potentially has an “exceptional scale mineral system”.

In the world’s craze for renewable technologies, ‘green’ minerals such as palladium, cobalt, nickel and lithium are essential for batteries, electric cars and even wind turbines.

With the discovery, Chalice has set its sights on Julimar State Forest and Toodyay.

Toodyay Shire president Rosemary Madacsi is well-aware of the Chalice’s exploration and potential mining operation. She speaks confidently about the timeline and the project’s potential.

“I think it’s very unlikely that it wouldn’t be [a successful venture]. All the exploration data clearly shows that there are significant deposits of green minerals there.

“There’s also the political climate and other aspects which you have to consider. The West Australian government is certainly very favourable to the mining industry.”

Western Australia had a 5.6-billion-dollar surplus in the first financial year of 2020, mainly due to the state’s mining industry.

But where is Toodyay’s future situated in all of this?

Back in the café, Wroth explains why her town should embrace this exploration project.  As a soothing wind blows, she recalls Toodyay’s former timber and tree sap extracting industry.

“When I left town, there was nothing. And there’s still nothing, and that’s it, fair and square.”

Alison Wroth

“In the late 1970s, when the industrial extracts closed down, everyone thought ‘that’s it, the town’s done’, they thought Toodyay was going to become a ghost town.

“A lot of young men worked out there and when that had to close, that was our major industry and our industrial area. All the other income came from farming.”

Wroth witnessed how her town gradually transitioned from extractive industries to tourism and upon returning from university, she even worked at a local tourist attraction, Connor’s Flour Mill.

“Way back then, about 20 years ago, you could shoot a shotgun down the main street and you wouldn’t hit anybody, because tourism just wasn’t that popular. Now — golly!

Just as she pauses, a group of tourists stops and inquisitively inspects the lunch menu of another eatery on the town’s main street. She drops her voice a notch lower.

Alison Wroth’s thoughts on moving forward. Audio: Daniel Yong.

“With Chalice, I truly believe that we really need it, and I don’t think they will hurt the community at all. They’re buying up farming properties for their workers, they’re buying all their groceries here, they’re supporting community groups through sponsorship.

“We’ve always needed to progress and develop. We can’t put up the drawbridge, they did that years ago and we became stagnant. You can’t say no to development.”

But Wroth believes the exploration project’s path may be a rocky one. “I’m sure that you’ll be getting far more people who are against Chalice, than for.”

What are the dissenting groups and individuals saying?

Two puppies play on the grass outside a Gidgegannup farmhouse, as sheep graze in an adjoining paddock.

Ieva Tomsons watches on.

Tomsons has been a committee member of the Avon Hills and Mining Awareness Group for seven years. She explains the group’s role within the local communities.  

AHMAG scribe and long time committee member Ieva Tomsons. Photo: Daniel Yong.

“AHMAG started seven years ago, in response to Bauxite mining in Gidgegannup, Wundowie and Toodyay. But the Bauxite mining company retreated with the drop in Bauxite prices. So, we switched our attention to all open-cut mining within a 100 km- radius of Perth.

“The greatest concern now, is the impact on the environment, in particular the Julimar State Forest, where there is a very healthy population of chuditch. If it’s an open cut mine as well, people lose their lifestyles. They don’t buy to live next door to a mine.”

Chalice declined to comment or to be interviewed. However, the company’s presentations say environmental concerns have been at the forefront of their exploration project.

But the members of AHMAG are not convinced.

Just a day earlier, Tomsons was meeting with the group’s newest members in Toodyay. It seems like time has been paused in the early 20-century style office. Four Dell computers and a colossal printer are the only evidence of modern technology.  A small group gathers around a rectangle table and begin chatting enthusiastically about the AHMAG.  

It’s a transitional period for the group, as executive members are stepping down from their positions. Tomsons says AHMAG is “entering another phase”, as residents from surrounding towns are signing on to the group.

“We’re basically regrouping for the next phase of the fight.”

AHMAG’s newest members are on the left, current committee members are on the right. Left to right: Jim Maher, Gary Edwards, Sandra and Peter Harms. Photo: Daniel Yong.

Jim Maher and Gary Edwards sit opposite one another. They’re two of AHMAG’s newest members and candidates for executive positions. Although Jim lives in Bullsbrook and Gary is from Chittering, both are committed to overseeing the future of the group. Maher wears a farmer’s hat, with the badge of a Wedge Tailed Eagle sewn proudly on it. A band on his hat sports red, yellow and black colours, as does a large fingerprint on the front of his shirt which says ‘It’s in my DNA!’

“It’s all about my part of protecting the community as a whole and making them aware but also my people’s standing connection of the land”, he says.

“There’s always going to be a threat to your lifestyle.”

With a warm smile, Edwards nods in agreement. He’s got other reasons to be cautious about the region’s operations as he’s one of the affected landowners who lives within a mining tenement at the western end of the mineral deposits.

The tenement is owned by Oar Resources Limited, which is exploring for the same green minerals as Chalice.   

Gary Edwards is standing his ground as this sign hangs on his property. Photo: Supplied.

“You can call me selfish, but I don’t want to see my farm destroyed. It’s not likely they’ll dig up my farm, but they’ll certainly dig up my neighbour’s, and their neighbours.

“The mining companies are moving closer and closer to high population areas. Where does it stop? In my case, I just want to wind up as many people as I can to get them aware of what’s going on.”

“It’s basically total destruction of the countryside, it’s as simple as that.

Edwards and Maher have other concerns for the dynamics of their towns as well. If a mining operation goes ahead, Edwards worries about the consequences for the community.

“It polarises communities,” he says. “There are those who make an income out of it and those that don’t get anything out of it. You can go to Karratha, which is essentially a mining and oil and gas town, and the people who live there are struggling to survive.

“They’re struggling to live there because the cost of living has gone up by so much, purely because the people who move into the town have a very high income.”

Residents in Karratha have voiced their worries about increasing property prices and how they are forcing locals to move out.

Chalice Mining has high hopes for this project. Infographic: Daniel Yong.

Despite their protests for mining near urban areas, neither Maher and Edwards are opposed to mining in greater WA. Maher speaks first.

“There must be mining, there’s got to be mining, there’s no doubt about that. We’re not saying there shouldn’t be. It should be done in a more discrete and isolated area.

Jim Maher

“The important thing is to not denigrate the miners.”

Edwards agrees.

“We’re not anti-mining. It’s just that there are places where there’s less impact on the environment and people. It’s not that it’s a mine, it’s where the mine is. It’s the long-term impacts of the mine.”

As an Aboriginal person, Maher has an additional perspective.

As a retired park ranger and Indigenous man from the Wurundjeri country in southern Victoria with close ties to the Yindjibarndi elders in the Pilbara, he’s encouraging people to think about this country’s heritage sites and beauty.

Jim Maher has nicknamed this as the ‘Wedge-Tailed Eagle Rock’. The eagle is his totem animal. Photo: Daniel Yong.

A gravel driveway leads steeply to Maher’s house, which offers an exceptional view over the lush valley of the Darling Scarp. A kangaroo with a joey greets him in the backyard as it eagerly waits for some afternoon bush tucker.  

He’s managed to get representatives from the three Indigenous countries which have been affected, the Balardong, Yued and Wadjuk people, to work together in AHMAG.

“We have some very intelligent [indigenous] people in reasonably well-paying jobs and they’re still culturally well-connected,” he says. “With their expertise and their ability to bring their families along, hopefully we’ll get a reasonably good result.”

Jim Maher’s regular customer. Photo: Daniel Yong.

Maher looks out onto his rock-strewn backyard and speaks about precious indigenous sites which are currently under a mining tenement by Oar Resources. Some of them are located very close to home.

“My wife found a grinding stone in the front paddock here. The old story behind that is, they never carried the grinding stone with them, because the next time they came back, it would be here,” he says.

“This area was well used by the Indigenous people. There’s a lookout on the property next door and it would have been a communication point.

“There are special sites all through Bullsbrook and in the Chittering Valley. When you walk through the area, you feel it. You really feel it. To hear the birds and all the insect population going… it’s like a symphony.”

Toodyay shire president Rosemary Madacsi agrees on the importance of preserving nature and being aware about the local environment.

“We’ve moved from an acceptance of the environment as just something we take for granted to a very proactive approach to our environment in conservation and restoration.

Rosemary Madacsi

“This fits in very much with the psyche of our community.”

Apart from members of the local government, other residents are actively watching the developments unfold as well.

Birds chirp and children laugh at a park just outside town where Doug Blandford admires the flowing Avon River. As a retired environmental earth scientist, he knows a thing or two about developing policies for environmental preservation in mining operations.

Blandford voices his concerns over a potential lack of project regulations. Audio: Daniel Yong.

“Chalice are trying to do the right thing as it’s a state forest.”

He understands the company is going to use low-impact drilling rigs with tracks over standard rubber tires for explorations.

“The bearing pressure on the ground is greatly reduced, compared to a rubber tyre. So that’s a point in their favour.”

He is also keeping a close eye on how the company handles the environmental impacts of the project.

“Companies like Chalice, they’re all gung-ho upfront with their community presentations and they’re doing a good job with all that. But the proof of the pudding will be down the track, in the quality of their impact statements.

“If I’m not happy with it, then I’m tearing it apart.”

Back in town, Madasci reiterates her priorities on the exploration project. Video: Daniel Yong.

Categories: Community, Environment, General