Submission made on 2013 EPBC Act amendement

Published 25 February 2016

Members of EIANZ’s Special Interest Section for Impact Assessment prepared a submission to the Australian Government’s Independent Review of the 2013 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) amendment - Water Trigger.  

The “water trigger” refers to the inclusion of Australia's national environment law, the EPBC Act to provide that water resources are a matter of national environmental significance, in relation to coal seam gas and large coal mining development.

The trigger was introduced in mid-2013 in response to significant community concerns about the effects of these types of projects on water resources and was adopted on the proviso that the trigger would be reviewed after two years in operation.  

A key aspect of the “water trigger” was that the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) would have formal responsibilities to provide advice to Australian and State/Territory governments regarding the adequacy of environmental assessments prepared under the water trigger, and appropriate conditions to be attached to approvals.
In our submission, we raised several key issues:

  • Sound management of water resources is critical for Australia, particularly given both climate change and population growth.  Sustainable management of water resources underpins Australia’s economy, is essential for human health and wellbeing, and is required to deliver Australia’s international commitments in terms of protecting and enhancing biodiversity, wetlands and World Heritage Areas.  Robust and rigorous environmental impact assessment of impacts of development proposals on water resources is a critical safeguard.
  • EIANZ does not see any particular need to exclude the water trigger from bilateral agreements but notes that conflicts of interest may arise where regulatory agencies or Ministries have dual responsibilities for assessing impacts of proposals on water resources and selling rights to water resources
  • EIANZ considers that the scope of the water trigger, being restricted only to coal seam gas and large coal mining projects, is too narrow, and ignores the potential individual and cumulative impacts on water resources from other mining activities and large dams, irrigation schemes and other large scale or intensive agricultural activities as well as impacts of urban development
  • EIANZ also considers that determination of significance should follow the approach used for other MNES, that is should have regard both to the nature and scale of the impact as well as the environmental value of the potentially affected resource. 
  • EIANZ sees a strong role for the Commonwealth, and particularly the IESC in continuing to promote best practice impact assessment and management of impacts of development on water resources.  EIANZ is concerned that IESC reviews of EIS documents continue to identify significant gaps and weaknesses and that ongoing oversight by an independent, expert body is warranted. 
  • EIANZ suggests that central collection of data on water resources would assist in monitoring the overall status of water resources and checking and validating the actual impacts of particular developments and effectiveness of mitigation measures.  A central data repository might also reduce baseline data collection effort by individual proponents, leading to more efficient environmental assessment timeframes. 
  • EIANZ notes that it is not possible to answer questions regarding the overall effect of either the water trigger or IESC in terms of improved management of, and reduced impact on water resources as (a) insufficient time has elapsed to allow a proper validation and follow up study to be undertaken and (b) the narrow scope of the water trigger excludes a range of other activities that might contribute to cumulative impacts on water resources. 

The full submission is available here →