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Estimates – Federal approval of Mangles Bay Marina - Scott asks why the Little Penguins, and social and economic impacts NOT considered?

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 23 Oct 2014

Monday, 20 October 2014 Senate



Senator LUDLAM: Okay, I will do that. I will get started then. You might need to take some of these on notice. I am asking about Commonwealth assessment of the canal estate down at Point Peron, which was assessed by you guys and by the minister on a couple of grounds. But one of the grounds it was not assessed on was the little penguin, or fairy penguin, colony that is quite close by. Can you just confirm for us that that is a federally listed marine species under your act?

Dr Banks: The little penguin is not a listed species.

Senator LUDLAM: It is not at all? It is on no Commonwealth list? Do you need to go back and check that for us?

Dr Banks: The advice I have is that where it may have been relevant is if we are assessing this project in relation to Commonwealth marine, as a provision.

Senator LUDLAM: And it did not occur to you that dumping of dredge spoil, dredging and harbour works might affect the marine environment?

Dr Banks: There was a controlled action decision that was taken on 27 October 2010. The controlling provisions of the approval were wetlands of international importance, threatened species and ecological communities and migratory species.

Senator LUDLAM: I am aware of what you did consider controlled actions. I am very curious to know why you did not consider that species to be assessable as well.

Dr Banks: The three controlling provisions that I just referred to were the controlling provisions where there was considered to be a potential for significant impact.

Senator LUDLAM: Why was there not considered to be potential for impact on the marine environment that might have then impacted on that species? That is what I am trying to get us to.

Mr Knudson: Given that the decision that you are referring to would predate Dr Banks's time in this role, I think it is probably best that we take that on notice and come back to you with a more complete answer.

Senator LUDLAM: Thank you. I think you are well aware of what I am after. On what basis of evidence of any kind did you determine that that penguin would not be included in the assessment? That would be greatly appreciated.

How do you evaluate social impacts of a proposal? Are you aware that it is dead-set unpopular down there? You are required to evaluate social impacts under the act. How is that done?

Mr Knudson: The consideration of both social and economic impacts comes at the end of the assessment process; the minister making a determination at the end of an assessment, after having taken a look at the full avoidance, mitigation and offsetting provisions proposed in a decision, whether the residual impacts that are left are considered acceptable. In making that determination, the minister can take into account social and economic considerations.

Senator LUDLAM: He must take those into account, though. That is in the act. So when you have a project that is really deathly unpopular with the local community, how does that factor in to your assessment?

Senator Birmingham: Are you suggesting the federal government run environmental approvals by popularity?

Senator LUDLAM: What is meant by social impacts? If the community down there loathe it and want it to not happen, how does that factor in? If it does not, it does not, but how would you—

Mr Knudson: As a regular course of business we always provide a summary of the public comments provided on any proposal, indicating the number of individuals for—or submissions in favour of a proposal—and those against.

Senator LUDLAM: In this case there were vastly larger numbers of submissions against it. You did not raise the economic impacts, as well. There is an unsubstantiated claim of $1.3 billion in economic benefits. There is no business case. The proponent is a two-dollar shelf company, which I think poses the same kind of economic liability as the developers of the development down at Busselton where the taxpayers have just had to pick up $30 million costs of rehabilitation. How do you evaluate economic impacts as being positive?

Mr Knudson: Again, that is not core to our regulatory responsibilities. That being said, to the extent that economic information is provided by a proponent, which is quite common, in their environmental impact assessment, we include that to the minister so that that is there for his consideration.

CHAIR: Senator Ludlam this will be your last question.

Senator LUDLAM: We will come back after dinner.

CHAIR: You can negotiate with Senator Urquhart.

Senator LUDLAM: Do you simply pass on whatever the proponent has given you or do you subject it to some kind of critical analysis or thought?

Mr Knudson: Again, as environmental regulators our primary focus is not on validating economic information provided to us by individual proponents. Nonetheless, any information that we have, that we consider is relevant, will be included.

Senator Birmingham: The matters that you are raising are overwhelmingly matters for the judgement of state or local government approval bodies and planning bodies in making their determinations of the merits. As Mr Knudson has outlined, the hierarchy of needs assessed under the EPBC Act is very clearly that environment and heritage considerations of matters of national environmental importance are the primary consideration.

Senator LUDLAM: The only reason I am—

CHAIR: Senator Ludlam—

Senator LUDLAM: We will come back after dinner, perhaps.

Senator URQUHART: I just have one question which I raised in the first session to the department. It was in relation to the current levels of staffing in the environmental assessments and approvals areas. You asked me to come back at this time.

Senator Birmingham: I saw that Mr Knudson had it at the table before.

Senator URQUHART: Great; you are all ready for me.

Senator Birmingham: He just has to find the right page.

Senator URQUHART: My question was that I believed it was 236 at 30 April 2014. Can you confirm that this is still the number or have some of these been captured in the VR?

Mr Knudson: In relation to the staffing figures, I have had some numbers pulled together for this session so that it was comparing numbers with a similar point last year. In terms of the levels of people in the assessment area—understand that the division is larger than that—we had, last year, 79.1 paid FTE working on assessments, and this year we have 80.1 staff on a total paid FTE average from July to 30 September.

Senator URQUHART: My question was that I understood there were 236 at 30 April 2014. Is that still correct or not? That was in the assessment and approvals area—both areas.

Mr Knudson: You are talking about the overall levels for the division. In terms of staffing levels overall for the division, for 2013-14, there were 210 staff, and in 2014-15, based on our estimates of the first three months, we are at 175.

Senator URQUHART: So at 30 April 2014, was there 236?

Mr Knudson: What I think you are referring to was the budgeted staffing level—so the amount that we could have had. The figure I have for that was 233. But when you actually take a look at the paid ASL, we were 210.

Senator URQUHART: The difference between 210, that is what you have got now. Is that

Mr Knudson: No, the 210 was the paid ASL over last year on average.

Senator URQUHART: So the 2013-14 financial year.

Mr Knudson: That is correct.

Senator URQUHART: For the 2014-15 financial year, it is 175.

Mr Knudson: That is correct.

Senator URQUHART: That reduction is as a result of the VR?

Mr Knudson: That is partially the result of the VRs.

Senator URQUHART: How many of those would be part of this?

Mr Knudson: Out of the division, we have 27 individuals who have requested VR. Of those, 17 have left the division at this point and another 10 are expected to follow shortly.

Senator LUDLAM: It is just another metro environmental decision. Could you just confirmed for us that federal assessment of the Roe 8 highway extension in Perth's southern suburbs has not yet commenced?

Dr Banks: What I can confirm is that there was a controlled action decision taken on 7 September 2009 in relation to the Roe Highway extension. The assessment has been undertaken through a bilateral agreement. The state assessment has been completed and we are currently awaiting the outcomes of the appeals process. When that process is complete, then we will finalise the approval.

Senator LUDLAM: How is the department treating the 25 projects that were approved by the WA EPA that was subsequently found to have been made with conflicts of interest? Does that make any difference at all to the way which you consider a process? Because, for example, the Roe Highway assessment was one of those that was wrongly approved, I guess you could say.

Dr Banks: In terms of those 25 projects, for any that have been approved by the Commonwealth, we went through all the assessment approach and the documentation available and provided. All legal considerations were considered in any approvals that were taken.

Senator LUDLAM: I have no idea what you just told me then. Let's just come to the Roe Highway one. You have not initiated assessment yet and you will not until it has worked its way through the WA process, but are you aware that that project was one of the ones that was improved with a conflict of interest by the EPA?

Dr Banks: I will take it on notice.

Senator LUDLAM: You either were or you were not.

Dr Banks: I am not aware on that one.

Senator LUDLAM: Will there be any additional oversight or review for those projects in particular?

Dr Banks: We will ensure that all legal considerations, as part of the Commonwealth approval process, are met in making our recommendation on whether to approve the project or not.

Senator LUDLAM: In this case, we have got hard evidence that it was not met. That is in this one and in 24 others. How would you do that?

Mr Knudson: As I was mentioning earlier on, what we consistently try to do is to make sure that we take into account the state assessment and their conditions so that that informs us in terms of determining what sort of residual conditions, if any, are required. In this circumstance, we would want to take a look at where the state is in terms of its assessments and ensure that, if there are any impacts on how we would be completing an assessment, that is taken into account appropriately. As Dr Banks talked about, we will be taking a look at the process very closely.

Senator LUDLAM: I will leave it there, thank you.

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