Mills, Mines and Other Controversies – including the Channel Deepening Project

I have written further on the Channel Deepening Project and its assessment under the Environment Effects Act 1978 (Vic) in a recently published chapter in a book edited by my colleagues at the ANU College of Law, Tim Bonyhady and Andrew Macintosh.

Mills, Mines and Other Controversies: The Environmental Assessment of Major Projects is published by The Federation Press.

In the Chapter I argue that:

The Channel Deepening Project exposed the weaknesses in Victoria’s EIA laws. In the absence of an adequate legislative structure, the process was mismanaged and manipulated for political purposes. The result was a disjointed and unsatisfactory assessment that cost millions and left many with concerns about the project and its potential impacts on the environment and human health.

At least partly because of the perceived failings of the first EES process for the Channel Deepening Project, the Victorian Government has sought to constrain EIA processes for subsequent projects, particularly the North-South pipeline and the Wonthaggi desalination plant. For the pipeline a type of project assessment was invented and conducted that bore no resemblance to an EIA. In the desalination project, trial works were exempt from assessment and the policy support and need for the plant were specifically excluded from the EES process. The steps the government has taken in these and other projects have limited community involvement and undermined the role of independent adjudicators. Ironically, these aspects of the EIA process did not derail the Channel Deepening Project assessment. They helped to underscore the failings of  parts of the assessment, highlighted faults with aspects of the project, and ultimately led to a more rigorous assessment.

Reform is overdue. No longer should the process be one where proponents and objectors offer themselves to a political game where only the politicians can and do win; and more than occasionally a proponent succeeds, battle-scarred. Changes need to be made to ensure the EIA process meets the commonly agreed objectives of rigour, transparency, fairness and participation.

The introduction of the EPBC Act has not raised the standard of EIA in Victoria. On the contrary, the Commonwealth’s role has been used as a credential for the Victorian Government’s assessment approach, thereby further stalling reform. Moreover, the EPBC Act has offered misplaced hope to community opponents who do not appreciate its limits. This has resulted in litigation that has drained community resources for little public benefit.