Is the EPA consistent in its assessment

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At the recent Goldfields Environmental Management Group (GEMG) workshop, Andrew Mack, Associate Director with the Talis Consultants asked the question: is the EPA consistent in its assessment of large scale projects? This question should be viewed in concert with the recently released Independent Legal and Governance Review into Policies and Guidelines for Environmental Impact Assessments under the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (WA) by Quinlan et al. (2016).

The aim of the Talis review was to ‘benchmark’ a number of EPA assessments against each other based on their location (selected on the basis that they were located in areas considered to be environmentally sensitive) and assessment process (i.e. Assessed at Public Environmental Review (PER) or Assessment on Proponent Information (API) or ‘Not Assessed’). Specifically, Talis examined eight projects recently assessed by the EPA for the following details:

  • Level of assessment;
  • Outcome and justification of the assessment;
  • Nature/characteristics of the proposal;
  • The value of the environment within the project area;
  • Level of impact project has on the wider environment and its environmental value; and
  • Whether the Factor of ‘landform’ was considered during the EPA’s assessment process.

The eight projects examined were:

  • Jackson 4 (J4) – (Polaris Metals Pty Ltd);
  • Koolyanobbing Iron Ore Project – Mt Jackson J1 Deposit (Cliffs Asia Pacific Iron Ore Pty Ltd);
  • Nova Nickel Project (Sirius Gold Pty Ltd);
  • Koodaideri Iron Ore and Infrastructure Project (Mount Bruce Mining Pty Ltd);
  • Wiluna West Iron Ore Mining (Golden West Resources);
  • Christmas Creek Iron Ore Expansion (Fortescue Metals Group);
  • Gorgon Gas Development – additional construction laydown and operations support area (Chevron Australia Pty Ltd); and
  • Iron Hill Deposit (Mount Gibson Mining Ltd).

All information was sourced from EPA documentation, publicly-available proponent documentation, websites for the formal assessment process and the EPAs Statement of Reasons and any other relevant publicly available information. A summary of these assessments is in Table 1 below (click to enlarge).

Table 1. Assessed projects (click here to enlarge)

Table 1_Page_1

The objective of this work was not to criticise the EPA’s process across each discrete project. Nor was it to question the conclusions reached by the EPA on the level of assessment set. Rather, the critical aspect of the whole process was to review the issues that the EPA took into consideration within its processes, attempt to understand the approach taken between projects and to determine whether there was a clear and consistent approach taken by the EPA that would stand up to scrutiny. The primary finding was that ‘uniformity in approach was not present and that there were significant differences in how environmental issues are being evaluated and considered by the EPA. There were divergences in terms of approach employed by the EPA, with consideration of certain factors for some projects and not for others’.

Of interest are Mack’s (2016) comments (pp 4 and 5) on the EPAs assessment of projects containing:

a banded ironstone formation (BIF):

the issue of development within areas of BIF arises through a number of projects, but how this is considered varies considerably, particularly in light of the EPA’s views pertaining to mining within BIF environments and recently upheld appeals in this regard. The Jackson 4 project, Mt Jackson J1 deposit, Christmas Creek and Iron Hill projects all involve impacts to BIF and yet were all allowed to be considered through an assessment process by the EPA. It is worth noting in this regard, the potential impacts from each of these. Of particular interest is FMG’s Christmas Creek project which incorporates mining within areas of BIF that are not yet well-understood, but such consideration of such impacts was not apparent within the EPA’s overall review of the project.

and on Landform:

The EPA’s consideration of a number or recent projects and their final decision very much focussed on landform as the overriding factor as to why the proposals could not progress. Talis therefore felt it was important to consider this factor across the other projects identified and assessed as part of the work. Of the eight projects, only the Polaris J4 project incorporated ‘Landform’ as a relevant factor of consideration by the EPA. This is despite significant apparent changes to landforms throughout the five other projects. Such examples include:

  • Koolyanobbing – 605ha of clearing (including two pits and associated infrastructure) within the Greater Western Woodlands area;
  • Koodaideri – ~65,000ha of clearing in an area proposed for conservation tenure and in close proximity to the Fortescue Marsh and the Karijini National Park;
  • Christmas Creek – ~18,000ha of clearing within the Fortescue Marsh area (identified by the EPA as being a sensitive environment and requiring significant attention), including BIF areas which are not considered under the BIF Strategic Review;
  • Gorgon – Clearing of an additional 32ha (10% additional land) on a Class ‘A’ Nature Reserve; and
  • Mt Gibson – Clearing of 75ha for a pit, Waste Rock Dump and associated infrastructure within BIF ranges (with 72ha of the BIF PEC being disturbed as part of this project).

This assessment raises serious questions about parity among assessments, and it is reasonable to now ask the questions:

  • Why is there a divergence in assessments?
  • Why are different proponent applications not being assessed on a similar and consistent basis?

A copy of the conference paper and presentation are available by clicking the links.

We would like to thank Andrew Mack for permission to summarise his conference paper.

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Images – top: Pilbara landscape; bottom: Oedura marmorata – Marbled Velvet Gecko

Reference:

Mack, A (2016) Benchmarking the Environmental Protection Authority’s Assessment Process. Proceedings of the 2016 Environmental Management Group Workshop, 18-20 May 2016, Kalgoorlie

Quinlan, P.D., Heenan, E.M. and Govinnage, S.U. (2016) Independent Legal and Governance Review into Policies and Guidelines for Environmental Impact Assessments under the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (WA). Published 6 May 2016.

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