The Western Australian Government has issued Alcoa a strict exemption to allow the company to continue to operate while awaiting environmental approvals, in an effort to preserve local jobs. 

Alcoa’s mining, refinery and associated activities approvals are managed through a 60-year-old State Agreement – unlike other resources projects in Western Australia, which are wholly regulated through the Environmental Protection Act 1986 and the Mining Act 1978.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is currently determining whether to assess Alcoa’s current and proposed mining activities in the Darling Ranges, following third party referrals earlier in 2023. Under the EP Act, a decision to assess would require Alcoa’s mining activities to cease immediately – putting thousands of jobs at risk. 

Alcoa’s operations directly employ almost 4,300 Western Australians, as well as a further 1,700 contractors at its bauxite mines and alumina refineries in Perth, Peel and the South West. In 2022 Alcoa spent over $1.5 billion on contracts with local suppliers.

To protect local jobs while ensuring Alcoa complies with environmental standards, the State Government has issued a conditional exemption for Alcoa under Section 6 of the EP Act. 

The exemption allows Alcoa to continue mining operations if the EPA determines an assessment is required, while imposing strict controls on Alcoa’s activities. 

The conditions of the exemption limit the physical areas in which Alcoa can explore, clear and mine, and require regular compliance reporting to the State Government. Any breach of conditions would see the exemption immediately cancelled, and the State Government retains the right to withdraw or amend the exemption at any point. 

At the same time, the State Government will approve Alcoa’s 2023-2027 Mining and Management Program (MMP), under its State Agreement. 

The new MMP approval reinforces the EP Act exemption conditions, and includes a range of additional conditions, including: 

  • Reconstituting an independent committee to provide expert advice on hydrology matters
  • Requiring a staged exit and rapid stabilisation and rehabilitation of critical risk areas
  • Immediate hand back of more than 1,200ha forest previously approved for clearing, and an 800ha cap on annual clearing approvals
  • Requiring Alcoa to publish its MMP and associated reports, in the interest of transparency

In addition to these conditions, Alcoa must also commit a $100 million financial guarantee to help fund the State Government’s response in the unlikely event of an impact to Perth’s drinking water dams.

The Alcoa Transitional Approvals Framework is expected to be a short-term measure while Alcoa moves to contemporary regulation under the EP Act.

Western Australian Premier, Roger Cook, said that every project in Western Australia should be subject to the same rigorous environmental approval system, but legacy issues mean Alcoa is yet to move to contemporary approvals. 

“Alcoa is a major employer and contributes significantly to our regional economies, so it’s important we safeguard local jobs while this transition to a modern approvals framework takes place,” Mr Cook said. 

“This transitional framework allows us to support local jobs while strengthening protections for our environment, and lays the groundwork for a long-term approvals regime for Alcoa that meets modern standards.”

Western Australian Minister for the Environment, Reece Whitby, said that along with the Western Australian public, the State Government has high expectations for Alcoa to meet its environmental obligations.

“We’ve made it clear to Alcoa that protecting Perth’s drinking water remains paramount,” Mr Whitby said. 

“By allowing Alcoa to continue operating while limiting where it can mine, clear and explore, we are ensuring the state’s high environmental protection standards are upheld.”

Alcoa Vice President Operations for Australia, Matt Reed, said that the decisions provided a balance between protecting local jobs and businesses while enhancing environmental protections. 

“We are absolutely focused on operating in line with these new requirements and evolving community expectations,” Mr Reed said. 

“They mean we can continue to build on our 60 years of economic value creation, employment, and community support in Western Australia while transitioning to more contemporary approvals.”

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