Equinox pursues Hamersley drilling despite opposition

Equinox Resources (ASX:EQN) intends to pursue government approval for drilling and sampling work at its Hamersley Iron Ore Project in Western Australia despite resolute opposition from First Nations groups in the area.

Located 60km north of Tom Price in the iron-rich Pilbara, the Hamersley project consists of granted mining lease M47/1450, which Equinox acquired in July 2021 through a deal with Battery Age Minerals (ASX:BM8) — then Pathfinder Resources — and privately held Lockett Fe, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cazaly Resources (ASX:CZY).

A number of drilling programs have been carried out at the project by various operators since 1998, which culminated in a resource estimate — published in early 2020 — measuring 343.2 million tonnes at 54.5% iron.

In an effort to advance Hamersley, Perth-based Equinox has filed a Section 18 application with Western Australia’s Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage (DPLH) as a method of circumventing the pushback from First Nations communities.

Equinox has said the drilling and sampling work is necessary to further define the resource at Hamersley and undertake metallurgical testing — a program of work (POW) it considers “essential” to commercialise the project.

“Equinox would like to proceed with the POW, which will enable it to obtain samples to conduct metallurgical test work, product lump and fine ore sintering assessment at respected iron and steel research institutes as well as providing samples to potential customers for assessment,” the company said in its announcement on Tuesday, 20 February.

“To achieve this, it has filed the Section 18 application.”

Under WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, Section 18 submissions allow resource companies and other operators to seek government consent for exploration and mining activities, even if native title holders have expressed their disapproval.

The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) — which represents native title holders of the 6,500km-square Muntulgura Guruma area surrounding Tom Price and Karijini National Park — has expressed its opposition to further drilling and exploration activities at Hamersley until existing heritage concerns are addressed. 

Speaking to Mining.com.au yesterday, a spokesperson for the WGAC said the group had been blindsided by Equinox’s Section 18 application.

“The WGAC learned through a media release today [20 February] that Equinox has lodged a Section 18 notice seeking ministerial approval to impact two Muntulgura Guruma sacred sites and an area of profound cultural significance to Aboriginal people throughout the Pilbara.”

“This area adjoins the iconic Karijini National Park. Over 15,000 people have signed an online petition asking Equinox to reconsider their plans to damage the area.”

‘This is extremely disappointing’

In 2012, two heritage surveys were conducted on exploration licence (E47/1617) at the Hamersley Project during which no Aboriginal sites were identified. Based on those surveys, a Native Title Deed was signed and, in November 2014, the mining lease (M47/1450) — which incorporates 100% of the Hamersley resource estimate — was granted as a partial conversion of the exploration licence.

Since Equinox acquired the mining lease, however, an additional survey was undertaken which identified two previously unknown Aboriginal sites, but which the WGAC has not yet listed on the Register of Aboriginal Sites.

“Faced with the challenge of balancing our respect for the native title holders with our responsibility to unlock value for our shareholders, we have chosen to pursue the legal pathway available to us through the Section 18 application,” Equinox CEO Zac Komur said in yesterday’s statement.

“This decision was not made lightly but is a necessary step to advance our project and fulfil our commitment to providing value to our shareholders.”

In the ASX announcement, Equinox noted it had previously sent a notice to the WGAC of its intention to file a Section 18 application. Mining.com.au understands this occurred on 15 December 2023 — the day the WGAC’s office closed for the year.

As the WGAC spokesperson noted to this news service, it’s ‘well known’ that from December to February each year Aboriginal communities take time to participate in traditional cultural practices and that the WGAC’s directors are no different.

“This is extremely disappointing given that Equinox is yet to meet with the WGAC elders to discuss their Section 18 notice through an implementation committee to be established under an agreement between them and WGAC,” the spokesperson told Mining.com.au.

“Indeed, the WGAC Board met for the first time in 2024 on 6 February and proposed to Equinox that the committee should meet in Karratha on 29 February 2024 to discuss the Section 18 notice. Equinox has apparently rejected the opportunity to engage with WGAC and the Muntulgura Guruma people through the processes provided for in their agreement.”

The spokesperson also noted that the WGAC wrote to Equinox on 13 February inviting its representatives to attend the Implementation Committee meeting in Karratha, as per the existing mining agreement.

“We nominated three WGAC representatives to meet with Equinox. This would have been the first meeting about the Section 18 notice. Rather than responding to the invitation, they have submitted their Section 18 application.”

Section 18: the loophole

WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 was put in place to recognise, protect, and preserve the state’s Aboriginal sites.

Section 17 of the Act explains that the destruction, damage, or alteration of an Aboriginal site constitutes a breach of the Act and is therefore a criminal offence. Section 18, however, offers an alternative — the legal, ministerial consent to cause damage to an Aboriginal site and the removal of the criminality which would typically exist with a breach of Section 17.

Under the Section 18 application process, requests for approval are sent to the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee (ACMC) which then submits a notice to WA’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs — currently Tony Buti — along with a written recommendation as to whether approval should be given.

Aboriginal and native title groups will then be able to make a case for the protection of sacred or culturally significant sites, and new rules implemented in November 2023 — as a result of the destruction of Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO) in 2020 — mean both exploitation proponents and native title parties now have the opportunity to review Section 18 decisions via the State Administrative Tribunal.

Should consent be given, the recipient is required to notify the state government of any new information about an Aboriginal site. Consents are also transferable should a change in landownership occur.

However, despite these amendments, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs retains the final say on Section 18 approvals.

“The Muntulgura Guruma people have not experienced this level of disrespect toward their cultural heritage from a mining company for more than a decade,” the WGAC spokesperson said.

“The WGAC believes that Equinox’s approach is entirely inconsistent with what is required under the government’s Section 18 guidelines published in November 2023. The WGAC also says that the process under its agreement with Equinox needs to be followed. We would hope that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs defends his guidelines and rejects the Equinox approach to engaging with Aboriginal people.”

Both Equinox Resources and its legal counsel, Franklin Gaffney of PBC Legal and Consultancy Services, declined to comment on this story.

However, in a separate media statement sent to Mining.com.au, Komur said: “Equinox is committed to long-term value creation in the resource sector, and we aim to work in a positive, cooperative, and consultative manner with all of our key stakeholders, wherever we operate.”

Write to Oliver Gray at Mining.com.au

Images: Equinox
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Written By Oliver Gray
Originally from Perth, Oliver has a keen interest long-form journalism. He has written for a number of publications and was most recently Contributing Editor of The Market Herald’s opinion section, Art of the Essay.