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States won’t dob themselves in – why trust them?

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Larissa Waters 4 Jun 2015

Senator WATERS: Can we go now to the issue of Port Melville. Wow! All of a sudden we have a port and nobody got told. Apparently the federal environment department did not know about it, nor did they permit it. I understand there was an investigation ordered by the minister into the matter. Can you tell me what that investigation has concluded?

Mr Gaddes: Just to correct some facts before we kick off: we were aware that there was a port at Port Melville. It is associated with the large forestry development in the Tiwi Islands. So it has been there for a significant number of years. It was first developed at some stage in or around 2003. We were also aware back in 2013 that there was some activity at that site. So we did have some visibility over what was going on in the Tiwi Islands in that respect. We were asked by the minister—I have not got the exact date; it was in or around early May—to investigate it as a matter of priority. So we took a number of officers off other cases to resolve this matter quite quickly. We had a look at the terrestrial impacts on the site that had occurred to date. Then, based on the information that we could get from the proponent and from the territory, we looked at what potential impacts might continue to occur if that development is finished and is made operational. We formed a view that the terrestrial impacts to date had not had any significant impacts on matters of national environmental significance, but that the operational aspects of a port and the expansion of a marine supply base from that location had the potential to significantly impact on matters of national environmental significance and that needed to be referred for assessment.

Senator WATERS: Has that occurred?

Mr Gaddes: No. We are currently discussing the contents of the referral with the company. We prefer to spend a bit of time before referral making sure that the company provides us with all the relevant information. That then enables the company and the department to go through a more streamlined process rather than they supply inadequate information early on and then we have to seek more information on the way through. So we are investing a little bit of time over this couple of weeks to make sure all the referral information is quite clear and is provided. It means that we can do an adequate assessment.

Mr Knudson: The proponent has written to the department indicating their intention to refer this project to us for assessment.

Senator Birmingham: Because there has been some confusion about this issue, it is very important to be crystal clear that the existing facilities that are there were inspected back in 2013 and it was deemed that approval was not required for the construction or placement of that floating wharf pontoon at that time for the purposes that were being undertaken. Obviously in relation to new activities and new requirements, the government has made it quite clear as to what obligations would have to be fulfilled.

Senator WATERS: So you are currently discussing with the proponent the scope of the referral and how they will then submit that to you. Is there any scope for that approval not to be issued, given that the thing already exists?

Mr Gaddes: The operational aspects of the marine supply base? There would be. My colleagues can probably provide more detail about the assessment process.

Senator WATERS: What could you do, is what I am trying to get at.

Mr Gaddes: What could we do?

Senator WATERS: Yes.

Mr Gaddes: I have to be a little careful because we have not received the referral yet, so the matter is still technically open, even though we have a commitment from the company to refer. We would go through and look at the sorts of things that could occur on that site which may have a significant impact on our protected matters—so turtles, dugongs and blue whales, and the habitat for turtles and dugongs; so sea grass and things like that. Our primary concerns from our preliminary investigation were around a large fuel bunkering facility. We would make sure that the company has the relevant assessments and mitigation activities around those activities so that they are not going to have unacceptable impacts on our protected matters. You might look at what sorts of plans and processes and emergency procedures you have in place around the operation of the fuel facility and what are your methods for making sure there are biosecurity considerations for things coming in and out of the port. You would generally look at the impacts around shipping movements: where are the sensitive areas, where do you want the ships to go or not to go and how you are going to look at those sorts of impacts. In the back end, under conditions and approvals and post-approval management plans: how are you going to measure the impacts, mitigate them and adaptively manage them over time? There is plenty of scope to manage this activity.

Senator WATERS: Thank you; that is helpful. With the fuel storage, given that the storage tanks, I understand, have already been installed, could you require them to be moved, for example? It seems that you are coming in incredibly late in the piece.

Mr Gaddes: We would require the management of that fuel storage. If it were built to Australian standards it would have a range of things already in place that would manage the risks to that. Through the assessment process they might need to make some changes to the construction or to the operation of it. For example, for fuel storage you would generally ensure that you have a bunding around the fuel storage which could contain a significant spill. So if they haven't done that then they might need to go and do that before they can operationalise that fuel storage. There is still a range of opportunities to intervene.

Senator WATERS: Can I clarify—

Mr Thompson: The officer is giving a generalised and hypothetical answer to a generalised question.

Senator WATERS: Yes, I understand. Just to clarify, Mr Gaddes, you said something and then the minister added something that perhaps I missed. Perhaps he said it and I did not jot it down. You said that you were aware that there was a port, and it was developed in 2003. Then the minister added that someone had inspected in 2013 and decided that no approval was required. Can you just run me through that again?

Mr Gaddes: We had officers who went and had a look in 2013.

Senator WATERS: As well as in early May this year; two investigations?

Senator Birmingham: In terms of the time lines you were just talking about, there was, as I understand it, back in 2001 approval to establish the hardwood plantations on western Melville Island and in 2003 construction of port facilities, which were in 2007 significantly damaged by a cyclone event. Essentially there were no operational port facilities subsequent to that 2007 cyclone event. In 2013 there were repairs to the wharf, which I understand involved putting in a new floating wharf pontoon. They were, I am advised, inspected by officers of the department in October 2013, who determined that approval was not necessary and that the activities being undertaken at the wharf have not been in contravention of the EPBC Act. It is important to note that those activities allow the traditional owners on Tiwi to export woodchips, which of course is the intended purpose of the plantations that were built there in 2001. There are significant management difficulties in terms of managing the landscape and the biodiversity without effective management of those plantations and the ability for the traditional owners to generate what I am told is up to $200 million in revenue and create significant numbers, around 100, of local jobs. We have been very clear that, if there is an expansion of activity of those port operations to operate more as a marine supply base than simply as the export facility for those woodchips around that plantation, that may trigger certain activities. The department has been very clear to the proponents in that, which is what officials have been mostly talking about and I guess is the current matter. It is important to understand the history—that there was a port there for a while, a cyclone knocked it out, and a new port was put in.

Senator WATERS: Thank you.

Senator Birmingham: It was all found to be compliant with the EPBC Act. It is only more recent activities that have brought questions around the matter which the department has been engaged in.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. So there were two investigations, one in 2013 and one in early May?

Mr Gaddes: One that started in late 2014 and finished in early May.

Senator WATERS: I thought you said the minister had asked for the investigation in early May.

Mr Gaddes: As a matter of priority. So we escalated the priority of that to resolve it.

Senator WATERS: So it had been underway from before then but the minister said, 'Hurry up'?

Mr Gaddes: We had some awareness of it and we were receiving information from the state and from the proponent over that period.

Senator WATERS: It started in late 2014. What was the genesis for it starting? Who asked for it to start?

Mr Gaddes: We became aware of that matter from a question on notice from Senator Peris.

Senator WATERS: So the Northern Territory government did not mention that someone was seeking to expand the activities out of the port, that required one of us here to mention it to you, the department?

Mr Gaddes: We had had some knowledge of activities at the site. That was why we inspected it in 2013. I suppose the new piece of information that came to us in late 2014 was around the fuel bunkering and that triggered a new investigation.

Senator WATERS: The Northern Territory government had not informed you that that was now a new activity being undertaken on the site?

Mr Gaddes: I would have to take that one on notice. It starts to get quite detailed.

Senator WATERS: That is why we are in estimates.

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