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Interview with Scott Rawlinson, ABC western Queensland
8 September 2008
RAWLINSON: A significant announcement was made by federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett on Friday concerning a proposed $5.3 billion rail and coal terminal on the central Queensland coast. We'll hear from the Minister as to how he reached the decision. That's next.
RAWLINSON: You may have heard thenews by now that federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett on Friday rejected a proposed rail line and coal terminal at Shoalwater Bay on the central Queensland coast.
Mining company Waratah Coal wanted to build the rail line and coal port as part of a$5.3 billion project which was set to produce 25 million tonnes of coal a year for export. However, the proposal put forward by Waratah Coal failed to meet the required environmental criteria necessary for it to go -for it to go ahead.
Environment Minister Peter Garrett joins us this morning to explain how the decision was reached. Mr Garrett, good morning.
GARRETT: Good morning, Scott.
RAWLINSON: Firstly, in what areas did the Waratah Coal proposal fail to meet the standards listed in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act?
GARRETT: The way in which I reach a decision about whether or not a proposal of this kind is acceptable is to take advice from the department as to whether or not there would be unacceptable impacts on areas as aconsequence of that proposal. The advice to me from the department was that the port component and the operation of the port and the railway within the Shoalwater-Corio Bay area would result in the permanent destruction of wilderness values, of ecological integrity and of scientific values, of the immediate and surrounding area and this would mean that that that proposal would have unacceptable impacts on the ecological character of Shoalwater and Corio Bay Ramsar wetland.
Now, the Ramsar wetland is Commonwealth listed. Under the environment legislation I, as Environment Minister, have a responsibility to ensure that any proposals or any proposed developments won't have an adverse impact on Ramsar wetlands so on that basis I made the decision but as well Ialso found that the Shoalwater Bay military training area, which is also on the Commonwealth heritage list, was in really excellent condition, that it was undisturbed and intact and natural, that the plant communities showed a very low level of disturbance, reflected a high degree of ecological integrity and, again, that this proposal would have unacceptable impacts on the Commonwealth land in the training area.
And as a consequence of that advice that I received from the department, I made the decision.
RAWLINSON: Mr Garrett, talking about receiving advice, Premier Anna Bligh was among some of the high profile supporters of the proposal. Who do you consult apart from your department in making these decisions? Is there any outside -outside people that youactually go to?
GARRETT: No. I don't specifically consult with people outside making the decision. My requirement is to make a decision on the basis of the advice that I receive.
In this instance my decision to not approve this proposal was really on thebasis that the advice from the department to me was so clear and unequivocal.
In other words, there were no issues that I needed to contemplate that made me question whether or not the advice wasn't accurate in any way. It clearly was. We had a Commission of Inquiry in 1994 into the Shoalwater Bay training area. It looked very closely at the ecological values of the area. I took note of that Commission of Inquiry as well and under Commonwealth environmental law, it was absolutely clear to me that there was no way the proposal in that form could currently go ahead.
Now, I think the point that needs to be made is that I've made this decision on the basis of the impact of the proposed development, the rail line and the port, on Shoalwater Bay-Corio Bay area,on Ramsar wetlands of international importance and on unacceptable impacts on Commonwealth land in the training area. I haven't made the decision on the basis of the actual coal mine itself and I've done it because a decision that's quick in this way provides certainty for any proponent, whether it's Waratah or anybody else, that what they are proposing in terms of, in this case of the rail line and the port, provides unacceptable impacts on the environment.
They are at liberty to challenge that decision if they wish. They're also at liberty to propose alternative developments and alternative routes.
RAWLINSON: So what is the process in regards to Waratah Coal? If they can challenge the decision and they do this, what will you do in this instance?
GARRETT: Well, they will have been sent a statement of reasons as to why I made that decision. It's up to them to decide how they want to proceed from there.
Look, I think the thing about this decision is that the area in question is one of the most important large remaining tracts of coastal and subcoastal land with critical habitat anywhere on the Queensland coast. It's clearly a place of very high environmental values. It's clear that it's in excellent condition and that the destruction of wilderness values, ofecological integrity, of scientific values of that area, would mean that any proposal of this kind would have unacceptable impacts on the environment. I'm the Environment Minister. My responsibility is to discharge my duties under the legislation on the basis of advice that receive that I consider carefully and comprehensively.
So to that extent it's a very clear decision and I think it provides certainty for any proponent, including in this case Waratah, that to contemplate a rail line and a port in the area that the proposal had identified would result in unacceptable impacts on the environment. As Commonwealth Minister, I made my finding on that basis.
RAWLINSON: Waratah chief -chief executive Peter Lynch was quoted in some of the Sunday papers yesterday saying that you'd campaigned to save the region from development before you entered politics and had put personal interests ahead of the country's financial wellbeing. What do you make of that?
GARRETT: I take my responsibilities as Environment Ministerabsolutely seriously and on that basis, as Minister, I'm required to both observe the Commonwealth legislation, that's the EPBC Act, and also to take proper account of the advice that I receive from the department and the relevant advice that comes to me as a Minister. And it's on that basis, and on that basis alone, that I've made that decision.
RAWLINSON: There wasGARRETT:Now, it is the case that I'm aware of Shoalwater Bay and have had an involvement in the past, as I have with a number of other environment issues around Australia. I'm well equipped, as an Environment Minister, to know the state of the environment around this country but my specific responsibilities in this case are defined by the legislation and they are conditioned by the advice that I received and that advice was crystal clear.
RAWLINSON: There's a large number of signatures protesting the development. Did that in any way have any influence on your decision in the end?
GARRETT: Again, Scott, my decision in this case, as it is in proposals that come towards me on other matters, are determined by the legislation and by the advice that I receive.
So I took specific note of the specific advice that came through to me in my department. It comes to me in brief form with documentation andI didn't take notice of things other than that. That's the requirement that I have under the legislation and that's why I've discharged my responsibility this way.
Look, Shoalwater Bay coastal wilderness, it's one of our great environmental treasures andit's very clear that the proposal would have unacceptable impacts on the wilderness values of Shoalwater, on the wetlands of Shoalwater and Corio Bay and I'm required by law to protect the environment from actions on Commonwealth land, so I made that decision.
I made it on the basis of the advice that I received and it's a decision which I think makes absolutely clear both where the Commonwealth sets the levels and the benchmarks in terms of environment protection but also provides additional certainty for proponents as to what is and what isn't an acceptable development in this part of the Queensland coast.
RAWLINSON: Mr Garrett, the proposal as put forward, is there anywhere either on the Capricorn Coast or either further north or further south that would meet the environmental requirements to host a coal terminal or is this -or does this development proposal basically mean anywhere along the coast would be not suitable?
GARRETT: No, Scott, this proposal is specifically in relation to the route that was identified for the rail line and the port and the decision refers specifically to the impact of the port component and the construction and operation of the port and part of the railway within the Shoalwater and Corio Bay area. It's a decision which is specifically determined because of that route that Waratah were proposing to take. It is not a decision in relation to other matters around the coast including other proposed areas and I don't have a view about that because, you see, the interesting thing about the EPBC Act, that's the national environment legislation that as Minister I have the responsibility for discharging, is it's very clear about the necessary steps that a Minister must take in deciding whether a proposal or a development is acceptable and would impact on the environment or not.
This was a specific proposal that was in front of me and on that basis I made a specific judgment. Now, I've approved the extension to the Wiggins coal terminal in Gladstone in the past on the basis that it wouldn't have an impact on matters of national environmental significance but I make no comment about other possible locations for a facility on and around the coast. It's not my task. I deal with these proposals and these development proposals as they come to me and I deal with them specifically under the Act on the basis of the relevant advice that I'm required to look at when I'm making the decision.
RAWLINSON: Mr Garrett, I appreciate your time this morning.
GARRETT: No worries, thanks, Scott.
RAWLINSON: Thanks, Peter. Mr Peter Garrett, the federal Environment Minister, on ABC local radio Queensland.