A PROPOSAL to produce Sulphate of Potash (SoP) fertiliser from hypersaline brine at Lake Wells, a remote WA salt lake, has been approved by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).
The Australian Potash Ltd (APC) proposal, 160 kilometres north east of Laverton, last week became the third of five remote WA salt lake SoP fertiliser project applications to be approved by the EPA.
Also last week, the EPA agreed to assess by public environmental review - the first public review of a SoP project - Agrimin Ltd's Lake MacKay project on the WA-Northern Territory border, 490km south of Halls Creek and 510km east of Alice Springs.
The EPA reviewed APC's Lake Wells proposal and two previous SoP proposals without public review, based on scoping documents prepared by the proponents.
In relation to APC's proposal, it recommended Environment Minister Stephen Dawson sign the approval which stipulates a number of conditions relating to protecting potentially undiscovered salt-tolerant succulent plants and other vegetation when bore, evaporation pond, mine camp and processing infrastructure sites are cleared.
APC must also protect above and below-ground significant animal species habitat, including habitat for stygofauna - animals that live permanently underground in water.
It must also monitor and manage the impacts of its operations on surface and underground water reserves and on indigenous heritage sites as part of the EPA approval.
The recommended approval covers a 10 megaWatt power station, accommodation camp, bore field, wastewater treatment plants, airstrip and production of up to 150,000 tonnes of SoP fertiliser a year through the abstraction, evaporation and processing of potassium and sulphate-rich brines found in the paleochannel aquifer of the Lake Wells development envelope, the EPA said.
In May it approved amendments to APC's scoping document which reduced the overall development envelope from 27,687 hectares to 13,951ha and reduced the maximum abstraction rates from the brine aquifer and from the potable water bore field.
EPA chairman Dr Tom Hatton said conservation of the site's biological diversity and ecological integrity were particularly relevant to this assessment.
"There is potential for previously unknown species of Tecticornia (salt tolerant succulent) to exist in the development envelopes," Dr Hatton said.
"The EPA has recommended conditions to avoid impacts to potentially new species."
Dr Hatton said because the proposal had the potential to impact social surroundings in the Lake Wells region, the EPA had also recommended the development of a cultural heritage management plan.
APC managing director and chief executive officer Matt Shackleton said the company was very pleased with the results of more than two years' of discussions between its team of consultants and the EPA.
"In any minerals project development, this (EPA approval) is a seminal step and one which the APC team can be rightly proud," Mr Shackleton said.
"Our typically thorough approach to the approvals pathway is reflected in the very positive liaison we have enjoyed with the EPA over the past two years and in the concise and effective list of conditions we will adhere to through development and production," he said.
The EPA's report to the Environment Minister is now open for a public appeal period which closes next Monday, September 21.
Mr Shackleton said 75 per cent of APC's forecast output of SoP fertiliser at Lake Wells was already covered by binding "take or pay agreements" and negotiations are continuing with potential clients in North and South America.
He said with completion of a definitive feasibility study confirming a 30-year Lake Wells project life, engineering and project financing was now being finalised.
While it has not nominated a specific time frame to production, it is understood APC is targeting early 2022.
Its trademarked K-Brite fertiliser will be trucked from Lake Wells to Geraldton port for export.
In relation to the Agrimin (AMN) Lake MacKay project and based on a draft scoping document, the EPA said, "several preliminary key environmental factors are complex".
"Detailed assessment is required to determine the extent of the proposal's direct and indirect impacts and how the environmental issues could be managed," the EPA said.
It determined AMN's application will be assessed by public environmental review.
Approval for off-lake clearing of up to 1400ha and "disturbance" of up to 15,000ha on lake through trenches and evaporation ponds construction is being sought.
AMN is expected to follow APC into production, trucking its fertiliser product 785km to Wyndham port.
In June Mr Dawson granted Reward Minerals Ltd (RWD) environmental approval, allowing works on up to 7776ha on and to the immediate north of Lake Disappointment, a 33,000ha salt lake near the junction of the Canning Stock Route and Talawana Track, about 340km east of Newman in the Little Sandy Desert.
A drawn out environmental approvals process took four years to complete and included an appeal by the Wetlands Conservation Society against an EPA draft decision to recommend approval.
The only other prospective WA SoP producer and exporter to have obtained environmental approval for its project is Kalium Lakes Ltd (KLL).
As previously reported, KLL was on target to become Australia's first commercial SoP producer by the end of this year, until it discovered a $61m shortfall in funding caused partly by cost over-runs and underestimated difficulty in getting its Beyondie project, also in the Little Sandy Desert but 160 kilometres south east of Newman, into production.
Current front runner in the race to be Australia's first SoP fertiliser producer and exporter, Salt Lake Potash (SO4) with its fast-tracked project at Lake Way, 25km south of Wiluna, has yet to obtain environmental approval for its full project.
SO4 is conducting a series of studies into the likely impact on waterbirds, plants and animals - including stygofauna - and has been liaising with the EPA.
Provided there are no unforeseen problems, SO4 expects the EPA to recommend Mr Dawson grant environmental approval later this year.