Evidence by Environment Department to Senate Estimates Environment and Communications Legislation Committee about Whitehaven Coal’s plan to fell the critically endangered Leard State Forest for a coal mine
Senator WATERS (Greens, Queensland): Can I move now to the Maules Creek coalmine approval. Can the department table a copy of the independent review into the offsets issue?
Mr Tregurtha : Under condition 10 of the Maules Creek approval, the proponent is required to provide the minister with verification, through independent review, of the quantity and condition class of the box gum woodland and ecological communities before 30 December 2013.
Senator WATERS: Yes, and that was provided on the 27th. Can that be made public?
Mr Tregurtha : That report was provided on 27 December.
Senator WATERS: Sorry to cut you off, but I am just conscious of the time. Can that be made public?
Mr Tregurtha : Under condition 10 of the approval, the findings of the independent review must be published on the proponent’s website by the proponent. It is the standard practice of the department with management plans and things of this nature that the proponent would publish those on their website.
Senator WATERS: They still have not done so, and it has been almost two months. Is the department doing anything to ask them to hurry up, or can the department put it on its own website?
Mr Tregurtha : The department would not put it on its own website, Senator. In terms of the timing of the publication, condition 10 does not specify a timeframe for the publication of that report.
Senator WATERS: Okay, so if it is an independent review, why is it up to the proponent to publish it on the proponent’s website?
Mr Tregurtha : It was up to the proponent, under the condition, to commission the independent review, and have it taken—
Senator WATERS: It does not sound very independent to me.
Mr Tregurtha : The reviewer was required to be approved by the department prior to the review taking place, Senator.
Senator WATERS: Okay, but you cannot publish the report?
Mr Tregurtha : The department is continuing to undertake its consideration of the report at this time.
Senator WATERS: There has been a number of other reports, including by, probably, a properly independent ecologist, John Hunter, who found that there is only less than five per cent of the relevant ecological community in the offsets. Would a project which wipes out hundreds of hectares of nationally significant habitat normally meet the department’s offsets policy?
Mr Knudson : The offsets policy would take an ecological calculation of the residual impact after having looked at avoidance mitigation options and, taking a look at what is left in terms of that impact, then compare that against what is proposed in terms of an offset. So as long as the offset is sufficiently robust to deal with whatever the residual impact is, then that would meet the intent of the offsets policy.
Senator WATERS: Sure. And I would suggest that five per cent is not robust. But that brings me to my next question: how close is the department to finalising its investigation into whether it was misled about those very offsets?
Mr Gaddes : That would sit in my area. We spoke about this one previously. We had hoped to have this matter resolved by now. As you are aware, criminal matters can take some time, and this is a serious one for us to investigate. We have recently received new information that you just spoke about from the Northern Inland Council for the Environment, and we are also looking at the results of the independent review. We will not be able to finalise our investigation until we have fully considered those two reports.
Senator WATERS: It is good to know that you are examining all of those reports. Are you conducting any of your own on-ground investigations?
Mr Gaddes : We would not do any on-ground investigations; if we went through those reports and there was sufficient cause for concern, we might go and get those reports peer reviewed by a purely independent authority from a university, or somewhere like that, to give us some idea about the veracity of the information in each of the reports.
Senator WATERS: And do we have a timeframe on when we can expect the finalisation of your investigation?
Mr Gaddes : As I said previously, it depends on the number of investigations and the timelines associated with those other investigations. We would hope to get it resolved within a matter of months.
Senator WATERS: Okay, great. Apparently on 4 November, some of the traditional owners submitted emergency applications for the protection of heritage sites that would be affected by that coal mine. My understanding is that, as of a few days ago, those applications still had not been processed. I also understand that, sadly, on 10 February, there was some evidence with aerial photographs that the sites identified in the applications had been bulldozed.
Is the department aware of that? What is taking so long and what can be done to stop any further destruction of these sites before they are even assessed?
Dr Dripps : If you are referring to the application under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, that is managed by a different area of the department. They are not here at the moment. As you would be aware, the administration of that act requires extensive recourse to natural justice for all the parties involved, which can unfortunately, in some cases, result in quite a delay in the administration of the act.
Senator WATERS: It does not seem like there is much natural justice if the site has been bulldozed already. When can I re-ask those questions? What session does that fall under?
Dr Dripps : We can take that question on notice. It is covered by the heritage area.