Hitting 'rock bottom': Prospect of big revamp of NSW environmental controls

Hitting 'rock bottom': Prospect of big revamp of NSW environmental controls


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NSW Premier Mike Baird (near microphone) and Planning Minister Rob Stokes during a visit to the Hunter Valley in 2015. Photo: Marina Neil

NSW Premier Mike Baird (near microphone) and Planning Minister Rob Stokes during a visit to the Hunter Valley in 2015. Photo: Marina Neil

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State could be in for largest reform of how major projects get assessed in two decades.

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The Baird government is about to embark upon the biggest overhaul in decades of environmental planning rules that affect major coal mines and infrastructure projects.

A discussion paper, to be released on Monday, will aim to change planning procedures to minimise the legal battles and community division that have convulsed towns such as Berrima, Bulga and Narrabri in recent years.

The paper, to be followed by draft guidelines early next year, will seek public input to help build confidence in assessments involving projects "where the impacts can be large and experienced over many years", said the NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes.

Alan Jones joins protesters against the Rio Tinto mine near Bulga in the Hunter Valley. Photo: Ben Rushton

Alan Jones joins protesters against the Rio Tinto mine near Bulga in the Hunter Valley. Photo: Ben Rushton

"We need to ensure the community is involved in the assessment at the earliest practicable stage to improve the quality of engagement between all participants," Mr Stokes said.

The scope of the paper includes the possibility of consultants having their work scrutinised by their peers, and other rules to make miners and developers more accountable. These may include public access to documents and the introduction of more uniform compliance procedures so developers' compliance with their environmental commitments can be more easily identified.

The intent of the changes, which could form the most significant overhaul since the late 1990s, was welcomed as a step "in the right direction" by Sue Higginson, principal solicitor with the NSW Environmental Defenders Office.

"The integrity of Environmental Impact Assessments hit rock bottom in NSW with the proliferation of applications for new and expanded coal mine operations," Ms Higginson said.

Anti-CSG fracking protest outside AGL's head office in North Sydney in 2014. Photo: Louie Douvis

Anti-CSG fracking protest outside AGL's head office in North Sydney in 2014. Photo: Louie Douvis

"We saw all sorts of spurious claims in EIA documents over and over, particularly playing up the economic benefits of projects and playing down the significance of long-term impacts on the community and the environment, particularly about threatened species and water."

Stephen Galilee, head of the NSW Minerals Council, said the state's current process was already "one of the most rigorous in Australia".

"However, there is considerable scope for improvement to provide a more certain, streamlined and consistent EIA process, whilst continuing to provide a high level of protection to the environment and our mining communities," Mr Galilee said.

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