Support Your EDO NSW – It’s Workplace Giving Month

MEGAN KESSLER*

In light of our recent funding challenges and to celebrate Workplace Giving month, EDO NSW recently made the decision to start a Workplace Giving program.

Workplace giving (or payroll giving) provides employees with an opportunity to make tax deductible donations to charities out of your regular pay. This means that even a small regular donation can make a big difference when combined with other regular donors.

For employers, workplace giving can provide a low cost, administratively simple way to create community-business partnerships through mobilising significant funding and volunteer involvement.

For EDO NSW, workplace giving provides long term, stable funding for core programs. This funding requires little administrative cost meaning your donation gets to where it is needed more. EDO NSW’s workplace giving program is designed to support our work in:

  • Free environmental law hotline which takes nearly 1,500 calls a year.
  • Community workshops and seminars that focus on increasing the community’s knowledge of environmental legal issues on topics such as planning reform, pollution, mining and coal seam gas, coastal protection, and threatened species. We have run 95 workshops across NSW in the past three years.
  • Rural and regional work including support to communities on key issues like native vegetation, water plans, coal seam gas, mining, private conservation and local planning.
  • Indigenous programs providing unique support to the Aboriginal community on culture and heritage issues.
  • Educational resources including legal guides and Fact Sheets to help the community better understand their rights and responsibilities under environmental legislation.
  • Policy and law reform work that involves input to major legal reforms that will affect the environment the NSW.
  • Court cases and mediation which has led to many important environment cases on behalf of communities from the cities to the bush.

Workplace giving is an effective way to make a big difference in the community and it has enormous potential. If just 10% of the Australian workforce donated $5 pre-tax a week through workplace giving, an extra $300 million per year would be raised for the community sector.

If you or your organisation is interested in partnering with EDO NSW on Workplace Giving, we’d love to hear from you. For more information on Workplace Giving and Workplace Giving Month visit the Australian Charities Fund.

*Megan Kessler is the Scientific Director at EDO NSW.

ACF WPG Month 2011_Circle Mark

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EPA requires BHP to stop polluting the George’s River

ELAINE JOHNSON*

Nine months after Macarthur Bushwalkers filed its case against BHP seeking orders to stop alleged pollution of the Georges River in the Illawarra, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has required BHP to implement a program of works to protect this valuable river system.

While the Court case has been stalled pending the EPA’s decision, the notice issued to BHP by the EPA just before Anzac Day is a great outcome for the community and the environment, in more ways than one. Not only has the EPA decided that BHP must stop polluting, but in the process, the EPA actively engaged with the public, seeking written submissions and meeting with community representatives face to face.

The litigation
EDO NSW filed the case against Endeavour Coal and Illawarra Coal Holdings, subsidiaries of BHP Billiton, on behalf of the Macarthur Bushwalking and Cycling Club (MBCC). Illawarra Coal owns and operates BHP’s underground coal mine West Cliff Colliery, near Appin, and Endeavour Coal holds the environment protection licence for the mine.

MBCC brought the litigation because the community was concerned that a range of chemical toxicants including arsenic, zinc, copper, aluminium and nickel were being discharged into the Georges River from the West Cliff Colliery via Brennans Creek at levels well above the Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council (ANZECC) Guidelines for healthy river systems.

The Georges River is vitally important to the Botany Bay Catchment. Its headwaters are located 60km south-west of Sydney in the town of Appin, and the river flows past BHP’s West Cliff Colliery, north towards Liverpool, then east towards Sydney before discharging into Botany Bay.

MBCC alleged that pollution from BHP’s mine had been discharged into the Georges River via Brennans Creek for more than 10 years, since January 2002. MBCC argued that the pollution wasn’t authorised by BHP’s environment protection licence, and was therefore in breach of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 which prohibits the pollution of waters.

The EPA’s decision
Just ten days after the case was filed in Court, the EPA issued a media release advising that it was looking to place limits on BHP’s licence with respect to salt and metals being discharged into Brennans Creek. This was formalised in September 2012, when BHP applied to vary its licence seeking limits for a number of key pollutants alleged in this case including aluminium, nickel, zinc, copper, arsenic, lead and salinity. BHP’s licence variation application, if granted, would effectively authorise much of the pollution alleged in the Court case. This meant that MBCC’s case was put on hold while the EPA made its decision.

After nine months of consultations and negotiations with BHP and the community, on 24 April 2013 the EPA determined BHP’s application by issuing a licence variation notice which sets limits for a range of pollutants including those alleged in MBCC’s case. In other words, the notice authorises that pollution. Because of this, MBCC’s case may not be able to continue.

However, the EPA also took the important step of requiring BHP to stop polluting. Under its licence, BHP is now required to carry out a program of works to achieve 95% species protection in Brennans Creek and the Georges River by December 2016. The EPA has also required ongoing monitoring of ecological impacts during this period while the works are being constructed.

The EPA’s notice states that the requirement that BHP stop polluting is to ‘ensure that measures are taken to protect the environment from harm’, and ‘to protect or restore the environmental values’ of Brennans Creek and the Georges River affected by the discharge that has already occurred. This is in effect one of the key remedies that MBCC was seeking through the Court case – orders to stop the alleged pollution – and as such represents a win for the community.

Community participation in pollution licensing – a precedent
Aside from the environmental outcomes achieved, it is important to consider the way in which the EPA came to its decision in this case.

Traditionally, licensing decisions have been made between the regulator and the licensee, with little (if any) public involvement. However, in this case, the EPA consulted with the public on BHP’s application, accepting public submissions, and meeting with community representatives to hear their views and receive advice from independent experts.

The EPA’s decision to involve the public in this licensing process serves as a valuable precedent for other licensing decisions, particularly where there are real concerns about actual or potential environmental harm, as was the case here. In this case, submissions made to the EPA included independent expert reports containing the results of water monitoring, assessment of ecological impacts and feasible treatment options. This case demonstrates the public’s ability to constructively contribute to licensing processes, and should encourage the EPA to open up its doors to the community when major decisions are being made about how to deal with pollution.

*Elaine Johnson is a Solicitor at EDO NSW

Image: Woolwash by Ken Hall, Australian Photography Tours (copyright)
Woolwash by Ken Hall, Australian Photography Tours (copyright)

Court applies fresh approach to weighing of economic, social and environmental impacts

NATASHA HAMMOND-DEAKIN*

Last week Preston CJ, Chief Judge of the Land and Environment Court handed down a significant judgment on a coal mine extension project. Warkworth Mining Limited, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, had been granted approval to expand its coal mining operations near the small village of Bulga. The Court’s decision to overturn this approval has attracted considerable attention and concern about its implications.

The case
The Warkworth mine had previously been expanded in 2003. As part of that expansion approval, Warkworth agreed to protect a significant local landform, Saddleback Ridge, which provides a buffer between Bulga village and the mine. Warkworth had also agreed to protect significant remnant vegetation including endangered ecological communities in perpetuity.

In 2009 Warkworth sought approval for a further extension. That extension, which was ultimately challenged by the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association (the Association) in Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association Inc v Minister for Planning and Infrastructure and Warkworth Mining Limited, would result in the closure and excavation of Wallaby Scrub Road, the clearing of approximately 766 ha of four types of endangered ecological communities protected under threatened species legislation, and the removal of Saddleback Ridge. This extension was approved by the Planning Assessment Commission under delegation from the Planning Minister in 2012. However, following the Association’s challenge, the Court overturned this approval, disapproving the extension due to its significant and adverse impacts on biological diversity, and the adverse noise, dust and social impacts on Bulga.

A polycentric problem
The Court has brought a fresh perspective to the fraught process for decision makers of assessing and determining a project application. The Court stated that the range of interests affected, and the complexity and interdependence of the issues means that decision-making involves a polycentric problem, or a complex network of relationships with interacting points of influence. The resolution of one issue will have repercussions on the other issues, and the other issues may change in nature and scope depending on how the first issue is resolved. This means that the decision maker must determine the relevant matters to be considered in deciding whether or not to approve the project, and also subjectively determine the weight to be given to each matter and balance those weighted matters.

Weighing economic considerations
The Court has analysed for the first time the economic modelling and evidence put forward in support of a large mine. The Court criticised elements of Warkworth’s modelling, in particular Warkworth’s attempt to put a value on non-market elements such as endangered ecological communities and social impacts. The Court stated that economic analysis, such as a cost benefit analysis, is of limited assistance to the decision making process here, which requires consideration and balancing of economic, environmental and social factors. Ultimately the Court found that the economic benefits of the mine were outweighed by the negative impacts on social and environmental factors.

Like-for-like required for biodiversity offsets
The Court has applied NSW government guidelines requiring biodiversity offsets to provide flora and fauna species that are ‘like-for-like’, in that the offset must protect the same species that are being impacted by the development. This is in contrast to the approach increasingly taken by government in accepting biodiversity offsets that do not require such a high standard of protection for threatened species.

Social impacts of open cut coal mines
The Court has for the first time recognised the detrimental social impacts of the noise and dust conditions routinely imposed by the Minister to mitigate the impacts of large mines, in particular conditions providing for the acquisition of properties in the ‘zone of affectation’ most impacted by noise and dust.

What does this mean for future decisions?
This case may prove to have profound implications for the assessment of major developments, and no doubt will be scrutinised closely by industry and lawyers alike. In particular, it is likely that the case will transform the approach taken to, and methodology underpinning, the economic assessment of major projects.

N.B. Warkworth has appealed the Court’s decision.

*Natasha Hammond-Deakin is a Senior Solicitor at EDO NSW

Image by Stephen Bell.
Warkworth by Stephen Bell

Fullerton Cove judgment highlights need for CSG law reform

ELAINE JOHNSON*

Just before the Easter long weekend, the Land and Environment Court dismissed a case brought by residents against Dart Energy’s coal seam gas pilot project in Fullerton Cove near Newcastle. The Court lifted an injunction on drilling that had been in place since September last year, allowing Dart to proceed with drilling their wells. However, five days later, Dart announced that it would suspend its project due to proposed new controls for CSG at State and Federal levels, including the NSW Government’s recent restriction on CSG within 2km of residential areas, and the Commonwealth’s EPBC Act water trigger.

The case
The Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group (FCRAG) brought the case because they were concerned that the Department of Trade and Investment did not consider any groundwater assessment before granting approval for the project. The project site is located on a floodplain, and includes 12 months of continuous gas and water extraction from CSG wells drilled to depths of 800-900 metres.

FCRAG were also concerned that there had not been proper assessment of ecological impacts, given the site is next to the Hunter Estuary Reserve, an internationally listed wetland which is home to many migratory birds. They also argued that a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was required, including mandatory public consultation, which had not been prepared for Dart’s project.

In September 2012, the Court granted an interim injunction against Dart Energy stopping it from drilling the gas wells until the full case was determined. It was the first injunction granted against a CSG company by the NSW Land and Environment Court.

The main case, decided on 28 March 2013, tested the rigour of the assessment process under Part 5 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW) (EPA Act) for CSG pilot production.

What the Court said
The Court found that the requirement under Part 5 of the EPA Act for the Department to consider environmental effects of the CSG pilot project ‘to the fullest extent possible’ did not include consideration of a groundwater assessment. This was despite the fact that the pilot project included 12 months continuous gas and water extraction, with an option to extend to 2 years.

Justice Pepper found that the Department’s failure to obtain or consider any groundwater assessment before approving the pilot project under Part 5 of the EPA Act did not amount to legal error. In making this finding, her Honour took into account several factors, including that it was a pilot project only, and that the Department had knowledge of the geology of the area generally.

The Court also found that even though no ‘7-part test’ for threatened species and ecological communities was carried out, it was sufficient for the Department to have ‘general regard’ to the 7-part test for threatened species.

Finally, the Court found that this pilot project was not likely to have a significant effect on the environment and therefore no EIS was required.

What does this decision mean for other CSG projects?
Pilot production can have the same kinds of environmental effects as full-scale production, albeit on a smaller scale. The Court’s finding in this case highlights significant problems with leaving the assessment of those impacts up to Part 5 of the EPA Act for CSG pilot projects. This is particularly problematic because most CSG exploration (including pilot production) involving five or fewer wells is assessed under Part 5.

In this case, Dart gained approval for 12 months’ continuous gas and water extraction, with an option to extend up to two years. The Court’s finding that no groundwater assessment is required by Part 5 in such circumstances is significant. It raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the EPA Act in protecting groundwater resources when it comes to CSG pilot production.

The project site is next to the Hunter Estuary Reserve, home to many protected migratory birds, and contained identified endangered ecological communities. The Court’s further finding that it wasn’t necessary for 7-part tests to be carried out for those species and communities also highlights serious deficiencies in the Part 5 environmental assessment process for biodiversity.

The judgment confirms that Part 5 of the EPA Act is unable to properly deal with assessment of CSG pilot projects, particularly when it comes to groundwater. If CSG pilot production can be approved under Part 5 without a groundwater study, it is difficult to see how the community can have any confidence that groundwater impacts are being rigorously assessed, or indeed at all. It is important that the new planning system addresses these deficiencies.

*Elaine Johnson is a Solicitor at EDO NSW

Image: Tawny Sunrise by Su Walker

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Update on EDO NSW funding situation

Jeff Smith

Last week I sent our clients and supporters an email to let you know that EDO NSW faces unprecedented threats to its funding and its ability to provide you with legal services in your work for the environment. We’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people expressing their concern at these threats and their support for the work of EDO NSW. On behalf of the office, I would like to thank everyone who has taken action on this issue by contacting MPs, speaking out in the media, and spreading the word. We have people writing articles, making calls, donating and even creating a petition on our behalf (perhaps you’d also like to sign on). Thank you all.

Updates on this situation will be provided in future issues of our Bulletin, on our Blog, and via our Facebook and Twitter accounts. You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for further updates and links to media coverage. With your support, we’ll be doing our best to ensure that we can maintain our services to help you to help the environment.

EDO NSW Under Threat

Jeff Smith*

Today EDO NSW took the extraordinary step of contacting all our clients and supporters and asking them to speak up in support of EDO.

We don’t take this step lightly but our future as it stands is incredibly dire. We only have confirmed funding from our major funding source, the Public Purpose Fund, until 31 March next year.

Without a longer term commitment we face the prospect of drastically reducing our services to you. Services that we’ve been providing for nearly 30 years. This includes our popular free environmental law hotline, our workshops on topics such as private land conservation, publications including an upcoming guide to mining law and advice on policy issues like the current planning reforms.

Our record of work in public interest environmental law is something of which we are very proud. In recent years our notable cases have included: protecting the heritage-listed hamlet of Catherine Hill Bay, near Newcastle, from a massive subdivision; assisting farmers on the highly productive Liverpool Plains near Gunnedah, who are contesting coal mining expansion; supporting a coalition of citizens concerned about the public health implications of contamination of the $6 billion Barangaroo site on Sydney Harbour; and helping residents of the Blue Mountains to expose pollution from a State-owned power station discharging into Sydney’s main water catchment.

EDO NSW has a history of providing our services without fear or favour and free of the politics of the day. We want to ensure we can continue to support your efforts in defending the public interest and the environment.

If you believe in the work we do, please visit our website to find out how you can help.

*Jeff Smith is the Executive Director of EDO NSW.