For many years groundwater impacts have been a crucial part of the environmental assessment of proposed mines in Queensland but, without state government action, the public could lose the right to have its say on what happens to this precious resource.
Groundwater is the lifeblood of Australia’s communities, farms and ecosystems. As one of our largest freshwater resources, our groundwater serves our most vulnerable regions throughout the year, and is the dependable water source we turn to in times of drought and bushfire.
But in August 2019, farmers and landholders on Queensland’s Darling Downs, the Oakey Coal Action Alliance, received an alarming decision from the Court of Appeal. The Court held that impacts to their groundwater were not relevant to the environmental authority assessment of the New Acland Stage 3 coal mine expansion.
This was a devastating decision for these farmers, who have spent over ten years defending the future of their groundwater resources from this mine expansion. The farmers won in the Land Court, receiving a decision recommending refusal of the expansion, mainly on the basis of groundwater impacts.
What’s worse, this decision is the opposite of what the Government intended in their legal drafting. The Department of Environment and Science have clarified it was their intention that groundwater should, as always, be considered in the environmental assessment of coal mines, as stated in their submissions to the court. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal disagreed with that interpretation of the legislation, and this decision has put the groundwater supporting agriculture at serious risk.
It’s not only groundwater around the New Acland mine expansion that is at risk – this decision makes groundwater impacts irrelevant to many other mines in Queensland and potentially even brings into question the validity of groundwater EA conditions in existing approvals.
The mine expansion will now have to undergo their environmental authority assessment process again. But without urgent law reform, the Court and the Department can’t consider the groundwater impacts from this mine against the principles of ecologically sustainable development including essential tests such as the precautionary principle and intergenerational equity, which are so important for sustainable long term agriculture.
Impacts to groundwater were a fundamental consideration in the original Land Court hearing, with the Court recommending refusal in large part due to the uncertainty and significance of those impacts breaching the precautionary principle and intergenerational equity.
Without urgent State Government legislative changes to clarify that impacts to groundwater are, and always have been, a relevant matter for assessment of an environmental authority, the Land Court and Department will not be able to consider the significant impacts posed by the mine to groundwater against the principles of ecologically sustainable development.