The 2003 landmark Nathan Dam case was a significant win for EDO and our clients the Queensland Conservation Council and World Wide Fund for Nature – not only did it help protect the Great Barrier Reef, but it had a major influence on how environmental assessments for projects are undertaken.

Teeming with extraordinary diversity and exuberant beauty, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is a natural treasure of global significance. But it is also the receptacle for pesticides, nutrients and sediment washed from hundreds of kilometres inland that poison and smother sensitive marine life.

In 2002, Sudaw Developments Limited applied for approval from the Federal Environment Minister to build and operate a huge 880,000 megalitre dam on the Dawson River in central Queensland. The water was to be used by industry, people and farms.

Conservationists anticipated that chemical runoff from the crops would pollute the Reef. Although the Federal Environment Minister acknowledged this threat, he refused to include it in his assessment of the dam under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). He decided that assessment would be limited to just the direct impacts of the dam’s construction and operation.

EDO advised Queensland Conservation Council (QCC) and WWF Australia that they had a strong basis for challenging the Minister’s exclusion of indirect impacts in the Federal Court. The clients were warned that if they lost the case and a subsequent appeal, they might be liable for costs. The case went ahead in September 2003.

Justice Susan Keifel found that the Minister had erred, and that he should take a wide approach to considering impacts for assessment, extending to the “whole, cumulated and continuing effect” of an activity. The Minister appealed against the decision, but the three justices of the Full Court unanimously dismissed the appeal. They also ordered that the Minister pay QCC’s and WFF’s legal costs.

Sudaw developments still proposes to build a dam on the Dawson River, however the water is intended for industries such as mining and not agriculture.

EDO congratulates QCC and WWF for taking on this important case. As well as preventing a new source of pollution on the Great Barrier Reef, they have broadened the way federal environmental assessments are done.

The Nathan Dam case showcases the ability of EDO to not just protect our most precious wild places, but to advance the law for the protection of our environment in general.