By Claire Stephenson
Impacts on groundwater resources are regulated under both Commonwealth and State legislation. A key piece of Commonwealth legislation that aims to protect groundwater resources is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The EPBC Act captures biodiversity commitments from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and outlines measures to protect listed Ramsar wetlands and World Heritage areas. These are referred to in the EPBC Act as matters of national environmental significance (NES). Water resources are also covered by the EPBC Amendment Act 2013, in relation to coal seam gas (CSG) and a large coal mining developments.
The EPBC Act relates to activities conducted across Australia; however, each State and Territory also has its own environmental legislation. In Queensland, key environmental legislation includes the:
- Environmental Protection Act 1994 (EP Act): to protect environmental values and ensure sustainable management of an environmentally relevant activity (ERA). These activities include an agricultural ERA, geothermal activity, greenhouse gas (GHG) storage activity, mining or petroleum. The EP Act outlines key environmental values and categorises the risk or level of harm caused to the environment as material or serious.
- Water Act 2000 (Water Act): outlines how water resources are vested in the State, and the act covers water resource planning, water access licensing and tradeable rights.
- Sustainability Planning Act 2009: aims to achieve ecological sustainability in planning and developments. Developments under the act include buildings, civil infrastructure and vegetation clearing.
In 2014, the Newman government amended the Water Act, as part of the election commitment for ‘red tape reduction’ and to encourage economic development in regional Queensland. This included changes to the Water Act with introduction of the Water Reform and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2014 (WROLA Act). The WROLA Act aimed to phase in a streamlined water management framework. This included changes to the Water Act (Chapter 2) regarding licensing requirements within regulated areas, and giving new mines a limited statutory right to take groundwater they intercepted. This groundwater is referred to as ‘associated water’.
With a change in government in 2015, we saw another change in election commitments regarding groundwater management. In November 2016, changes to the WROLA Act were made with the introduction of the Water Legislation Amendment Act 2015 and the Environmental Protection (Underground Water Management) and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2016 (EPOLA Act), which came into effect on 6th December 2016. The EPOLA Act amends the EP Act and Water Act (Chapter 3), and aims to strengthen the powers of DEHP in the environmental assessment process, as well as approval commitments to groundwater management. There are considerations in the new legislation for projects that proceeded through the approvals and application process prior to the changes. For future projects, these changes will involve:
- greater requirements for proponents of mine applications in regards to the collection of baseline data and environmental assessment;
- strengthening ‘make good’ obligations by giving landholders greater rights where scientific uncertainty exists, and onus of the proponent to pay reasonable costs associated with engaging a hydrogeologist to assist in ‘make good’ negotiations;
- linking the EP Act and Water Act means approval of groundwater impact predictions will need to be verified and updated within an underground water impact report (UWIR) three years following approval, or at a frequency prescribed by the chief executive. This already applies to petroleum leases, but now extends to mineral development lease (MDL) and mining lease (ML) applications, and can apply to an existing MDL or ML; and
- increased public consultation and allowance for third party appeals during application of a groundwater licence within a regulated area, in relation to predicted mine dewatering volumes.
AGE has significant experience in groundwater assessments and management across Australia. We can assist you with any queries you may have regarding these legislative changes, and how they may affect you. Enquiries can be directed to [email protected].