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Department of the Environment and Heritage annual report 2004-05

Volume two
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005
ISSN 1441 9335

Legislation annual reports 2004-05 (continued)

Operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

Introduction

This report describes the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) from 1 July 2004 to 30 June 2005. This is the fifth annual report on the operation of the EPBC Act as required by section 516.

As in previous years, this report follows a format allowing examination of the operation of the EPBC Act against the key priorities in implementing the EPBC Act. These priorities are:

Overview

The Australian Government, through the operation of the EPBC Act, continues to protect matters of national environmental significance-namely the values of World Heritage properties and national heritage places, the ecological character of internationally important wetlands, nationally threatened species and ecological communities, listed migratory species, the Commonwealth marine environment and the environment generally from nuclear actions. In addition, the EPBC Act provides protection for the environment in relation to proposals involving Commonwealth land and regulates the activities of Australian Government agencies that might significantly impact on the environment.

During 2004-05 the Department of the Environment and Heritage received 360 referrals. It was decided that 67 of these referrals (63 after reconsideration) were controlled actions requiring assessment and approval under the EPBC Act, and that a further 41 actions (44 after reconsideration) could proceed without approval if taken in a particular manner. Decisions on the level of assessment required were made for 38 actions, with 25 actions to be assessed by preliminary documentation, two by public environment report, four by an environmental impact statement and seven through an accredited state or territory process. A further 10 assessments were commenced under bilateral agreements. Thirty-eight assessments were completed during 2004-05, with 76 proposals under assessment at 30 June 2005. During the year the department also received seven requests for advice under section 160 of the EPBC Act from Australian Government decision-makers.1

Following assessment 26 actions were approved with conditions attached to the approvals designed to provide protection for matters of national significance and the environment. Advice was provided under section 160 of the EPBC Act on six occasions. Overall the statutory timeframes for referral, assessment and approval decisions and actions were met on 83 per cent of occasions, a slight decrease overall from previous years. This is indicative of the time required for decision-making on an increasing number of complex and sensitive proposed actions, and the increasing work resulting from actions referred in previous years now entering the approvals phase.

The new heritage system under the EPBC Act came into force on 1 January 2004, and 2004-05 was its first full year of operation. The new system provides for the establishment of the National Heritage List and the addition of national heritage values to the matters of national environmental significance. It also provides for the protection of Australian Government owned or managed heritage places, including by establishing the Commonwealth Heritage List and obliging Australian Government agencies, including the department, to develop heritage strategies and management plans to protect heritage places for which they have responsibility. As at 30 June 2005 11 places had been included in the National Heritage List and 337 on the Commonwealth Heritage List.

The department's Environment Investigations Unit completed its first full year of operation in 2004-05, significantly enhancing the department's compliance and enforcement capabilities. The unit provides specialised investigative skills, thus improving the department's capacity to carry out higher-level law enforcement, including formal investigation and prosecution of possible offences under the EPBC Act. In November 2004 the department co-hosted the first Australasian Environmental Law Enforcement Conference in Melbourne, at which the Australasian Environmental Law Enforcement and Regulators Network was launched.

In October 2004 the Federal Court of Australia imposed a record $450 000 penalty on a NSW farmer and his company for illegally clearing and ploughing a wetland of international importance. This was the first civil prosecution against a party in relation to a matter of national environmental significance under the EPBC Act. The court handed down a penalty of $150 000 for the individual and $300 000 for his company. The court also issued an injunction preventing further agricultural activity on the land in question, including the running of livestock on the site until at least 2007, and ordered rehabilitation of the site.

Illegal wildlife trade is also a major area of compliance and enforcement activity for the department. The department works both to raise public awareness of wildlife trade issues and to train officers of the Australian Customs Service to detect illegal wildlife trade. Customs is responsible for implementing the wildlife provisions of the EPBC Act at the border. Over the year the department initiated a programme of face-to-face training in the wildlife provisions of the EPBC Act for Customs officers nationwide. As part of this programme the department ensures that Customs border staff have ongoing access to up-to-date information to assist them in their detection of illegal wildlife trade.

Australia again played a leading role in achieving very positive outcomes under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to conserve species threatened by over-exploitation for international trade. At the CITES Conference of the Parties in October 2004 Australia successfully campaigned for the listing of the great white shark on the Appendices to CITES and played an active role in advancing the protection of a number of other species, including strongly opposing proposals that would have facilitated the resumption of commercial whaling, and supporting proposals to add humphead wrasse (a threatened reef fish) to the CITES Appendices.

During the year the Minister for the Environment and Heritage made or adopted 61 recovery plans covering 91 terrestrial species and one ecological community. Three further recovery plans were made for 13 marine species, and three recovery plans for Australia's five threatened whale species-the humpback, the southern right, and blue, fin and sei whales. These whale recovery plans have been in preparation for a number of years and reflect the new streamlined approach to recovery planning. This approach focuses on the key threats of whaling and habitat degradation and outlines the necessary actions to ensure recovery, for example better defining population numbers and habitat use, preventing all forms of whaling, and protecting important whale habitat.

1. Section 160 applies to certain Australian Government authorisations, such as providing foreign aid that is likely to have a significant impact on the environment.