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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Coorong decision

Interview with Sonya Feldhoff, ABC Radio Adelaide
8 January 2009

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FELDHOFF: Of course, the decision this morning that really affects South Australia is the decision to insist on an Environmental Impact Statement for the Lower Lakes. It's a question and an answer that many people have been waiting for, for some weeks, the decision was expected by the end of the year, but has been delayed till the start of this year, and on the line we have the Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett. Good morning to you.

GARRETT: Good morning, Sonya.

FELDHOFF: Minister, what led you to making the decision to insist on the Environmental Impact Statement?

GARRETT: The Government's decision is a recognition that the potential impacts of South Australia's proposal on nationally protected matters, including the ecological character of wetlands, threatened species, migratory species, means that the government -the South Australian Government -is required to develop an Environmental Impact Statement for assessment and public comment, because the proposal has the potential to impact on matters of national environment significance.

FELDHOFF: I imagine you were getting quite a bit of pressure to make a decision one way or the other?

GARRETT: Look, Sonya, a lot of the decisions that you make in this portfolio have got high levels of public interest around them, and my strong views about the environment, my background, and the fact that I'm very well aware of these issues, sometimes means that people, including the media, think that, you know, I'm very aware of the fact that there's an issue that's raging.

I am, but, and it's a big but, because as Minister and under the relevant legislation, this is a very straightforward decision, it's clear that the South Australian proposal would impact on matters of national environment significance, that means that it's a very straightforward, almost administrative decision, that it's determined to be a controlled action.

What follows from that is that South Australia then has to develop an Environmental Impact Statement for assessment and public comment, and I think that that means that we've got a thorough and rigorous assessment process.

We'll work closely with the South Australian Government to complete the process as quickly as possible, and of course there's a provision for public comment in that process. But this is now, if you like, the machinery of environmental assessment that is entirely the right course of action for both the Federal Government to take, and as a consequence of the South Australian Government's proposal.

FELDHOFF: Is this going to be just a matter of weighing up the lesser of two evils?

GARRETT: Well, we haven't settled on the terms of reference yet, in relation to this assessment, and I don't know that I'd characterise it quite like that, although, you know, you're absolutely right, the choices are particularly difficult in the Lower Lakes, especially in the absence of spring and summer rain, further upstream in the river system.

I don't propose to be speaking to the merits or otherwise of the proposal at this stage, that wouldn't be appropriate for me to be declaring a view prior to the EIS itself actually being undertaken. I'm very, very aware of the serious situation that is faced in the Coorong and the Lower Lakes, as you know, the Murray-Darling Basin Council's got a process underway, looking for a range of options for the Coorong and the Lower Lakes, and there's no question at all that any decisions are going to be very, very difficult decisions.

FELDHOFF: Minister, you say you're aware of the serious situation, and no doubt you get advised by lots of different areas, but one of the criticisms has been how long this is taking to make a decision, given how dire the circumstances are there. Is this not just delaying this even further?

GARRETT: Well look, I'm not going to spend a lot of time blaming state counterparts or otherwise in this discussion with you, Sonya. What I would say is that as soon as the appropriate communication and documentation came from the South Australian Government, I'm satisfied that my department acted quickly in order of making a decision for this to be a controlled action.

We acted speedily and expeditiously, and in all of the decisions that I've been responsible for in terms of assessment under the Commonwealth legislation I have got the accelerator pedal down, because I well know that people have legitimate expectation that decision-making will happen in a speedy and in a quick way, but it's also got to be done properly and thoroughly.

Now until such time as the South Australian Government's proposal, and the relevant matters came forward to me, I wasn't in a position to advance it. Once it did come forward to me, I advanced it quickly, and that's why we've made the decision today.

FELDHOFF: And what is the process now?

GARRETT: The process now is that the South Australian Government must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement in accordance with the guidelines that I'll establish. That EIS will outline all the potential environment impacts, and how these are proposed to be managed by the South Australian Government.

That EIS is then released for public comment for a minimum of 20 business days, then once the public comment period closes, the South Australian Government updates the EIS, and that's responding to the comments that have been received, and then the South Australian Government submits the final EIS to me, the Federal Environment Minister. I've got then 40 business days to make a final decision.

FELDHOFF: So when would we have that decision, if we're looking at -that's several months down the track, presumably?

GARRETT: Yes, that's right. Well there's 60 days of statutory time lines there from the Commonwealth end, but there is no statutory time line in relation to the proponent's preparation of the draft Environmental Impact Statement and the final EIS.

In other words, under my Federal legislation, we have got an EIS which will have public comment for a minimum of 20 business days, and I've got 40 business days to make my decision, so that's 60 days. But there's no statutory time frame for the South Australian Government's proposal itself, and the work that they will be doing in preparing the EIS, that's a matter for the South Australian Government. I'm sure that they will act expeditiously, but we are looking at a period of some months, at least.

FELDHOFF: Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, is my guest here on 891 ABC Mornings. Keith of Victor Harbour asks, Minister, will the terms of reference for the inquiry be made public?

GARRETT: Yes, they will.

FELDHOFF: And Rob is asking, what are the reference terms going to be for the inquiry?

GARRETT: Well, I won't be giving Rob the answer over the radio, Sonya, now that we've made the decision that the proposal from the South Australian Government is in fact a controlled action, I'll work with my department, and we'll frame up the terms of reference in the coming days.

FELDHOFF: Thank you for your time.

GARRETT: No worries.

FELDHOFF: Environment Minister, Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett.


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