The first shipment of mineral sands from a controversial mine site in Western Australia's Kimberley region has landed in China as the project faces increasing scrutiny over its environmental impact and protection of Indigenous cultural heritage.
Sheffield Resources confirmed to the ASX on Monday the maiden shipment from Port Hedland of mineral sands from its $484 million Thunderbird mine site, despite last-minute intervention from WA Aboriginal Affairs minister Tony Buti after he was advised of a sacred Indigenous object on the site.
Mr Buti confirmed to Joombarn-buru Aboriginal Corporation chairperson Daniel Roe in late December a partial suspension of section 18 approvals for certain works, which traditional owners say will also cause environmental damage and little tangible benefit to Native Title holders.
"The partial suspension applies to the area within a 25-metre radius of the identified (object)... the consents remain in effect for the remainder of the land subject to those consents," he wrote to Mr Roe of the part federally-funded project.
"This partial suspension remains in effect until I have made a decision pursuant to section 18(6A) of the Act. In making a decision to exercise my powers in response to new information, I will consider any submissions from Joombarn-buru Aboriginal Corporation and from Kimberley Mineral Sands."
JbAC said it had alerted project operator Kimberley Mineral Sands of potential cultural heritage value at its Thunderbird site, where one of the largest high-grade mineral sands deposits of the past 30 years was discovered.
KMS, a 50:50 joint venture with Sheffield Resources and Chinese investment company Yansteel since 2020, began operations at the Thunderbird site in October 2023.
Production was ahead of schedule for the final 2023–24 quarter, with additional bagged shipments prepared and bulk shipping from Broome commencing during the three months to December 2023.
"Kimberley Mineral Sands completed a maiden product shipment comprising approximately 300 metric tonnes of bagged non-magnetic (zircon) concentrate over the weekend," Sheffield Resources told the ASX on Monday.
The joint venture operation in WA's North West has received $160m from a Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility loan, which told National Indigenous Times last month it was aware of Traditional Owner concerns.
"It is the expectation of NAIF that projects we support will have tangible benefits to the local communities and demonstrate an actual contribution to Indigenous engagement outcomes in participation, procurement, and employment. All projects financed by NAIF are required to have an Indigenous Engagement Strategy," a spokesperson said.
The federally-funded project has come under criticism of late for its social and environmental impact, a 15,000-litre diesel fuel spill at an accommodation village near Broome in September, and a misleading statement from KMS that claimed the Kimberley Land Council had consented to section 18 approvals for land clearing and other works at the site.
Mr Buti's partial suspension of section 18 approvals last month came a day after Mr Roe reiterated the urgency of protecting and verifying the cultural object, after initial concerns were raised in October.
"An object of high significance... has been located within the registered site boundary of Mount Jowlaenga," Mr Roe wrote in late December.
"JbAC note you advised KMS have been granted consent on two occasions for works within tenement MOV/459 that intersects Mount Jowlaenga in 2019 and 2021.
"As noted, the object was found recently by a Traditional Owner and was not known to have existed within Mount Jowlaenga in 2019 or 2022, and therefore could not have been considered when making a decision in relation to the 2019 and 2022 section 28 consents."
National Indigenous Times understands a senior Traditional Owner said the sacred object could not be touched or moved, with JbAC advising it was of such significance, a senior men's and senior women's gathering is required to assess it.
KMS chief operating officer Michael Rose told NIT last month it was "aware of the object and reported it ... as per the requirements of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972".
"KMS has placed a 25m-buffer zone around the object and further protection with a 1.5m-high earthen windrow," he said.
In November KMS confirmed the role of its chief executive Stuart Pether and three other Perth-based employees were made redundant as the project moved into "operational phase".
That followed demonstrations from Traditional Owners and other locals against the Thunderbird project's impact on heritage sites, and allegations KMS was clearing land without heritage surveys and environmental approvals.