Key assessments

Watermark Coal Project, NSW

The Watermark Coal Project, proposed by Shenhua Watermark Pty Ltd (Shenhua) is to develop and operate a new open cut coal mine approximately 25 km south-east of Gunnedah, New South Wales (NSW). It will involve the extraction of 268 million tonnes of coal over 30 years, at a rate of up to 10 million tonnes of run-of-mine coal per year.

Assessment details

The project was determined a controlled action under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) on 22 December 2011 for likely significant impacts on migratory species and nationally threatened species and communities (EPBC referral 2011/6201). The project was assessed through the accredited NSW Environmental Impact Assessment process under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act), which was coordinated by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment (DPE).

Following amendments to the EPBC Act on 24 October 2013, the Minister decided water resources would also be a controlling provision for the project.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared by Shenhua as part of the NSW assessment process was on public exhibition for a period of two months from 28 February 2013. Public submissions  received on the draft Environmental Impact Statement were wide ranging and included: impacts on water resources (groundwater and surface water); aboriginal heritage; socio-economic concerns; agricultural land; air quality; and biodiversity (amongst other matters).

Matters of National Environmental Significance – listed threatened species and ecological communities and migratory species

The Environmental Impact Statement included an assessment of potential ecological impacts, which included  the critically endangered White Box-Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy Woodland and Derived Native Grassland (Box Gum Woodland) ecological community; and the endangered Grey Box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) Grassy Woodlands and Derived Native Grasslands of South-eastern Australia (Grey Box Woodland) ecological community. These communities provide potential habitat for several EPBC-listed species including (but not limited to): the Regent Honeyeater, Spotted-tail Quoll, and the South-eastern Long-eared Bat.

Although the  project area supports known koala habitat, this species was not listed under the EPBC Act when the project was determined a controlled action and hence cannot considered as part of the Commonwealth approval process. The koala was, however, listed as a NSW threatened species at the time the project was submitted, and has been assessed accordingly under NSW environmental law and included in the NSW assessment and approval.

Matters of National Environmental Significance – water resources

The Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (the IESC) provided advice on the potential impacts to water resources as a result of the project in May 2013, which meets the requirement under the EPBC Act. The IESC advice covered a range of issues, including impacts to groundwater and surface water, the adequacy of the groundwater model, the ongoing monitoring of groundwater and surface water resources, and cumulative impacts. Shenhua were conducting further studies to address data gaps and developing their Response to Public Submissions on the Environmental Impact Statement when the IESC Advice was provided to Shenhua.

Given the significance of groundwater resources in the region, the groundwater model has undergone several independent peer reviews by recognised experts in the field, the majority of which were undertaken after the IESC advice was obtained. These included: a peer review by groundwater modelling specialist Noel Merrick during the EIS assessment; expert advice on groundwater impacts from groundwater specialist Dr Colin Mackie commissioned by the NSW Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC); and advice on surface and groundwater impacts from Dr Steve Perrens and Dr Frans Kalf respectively, commissioned by the NSW Government. Further information on these reviews can be obtained from the PAC website.

On 30 January 2015, NSW Planning Assessment Commission approved the project and the NSW Determination Report was published.

Given the passage of time since the 2013 IESC advice and that a number of expert studies have been undertaken since, the Commonwealth Environment Minister on 26 February 2015 sought further independent advice from the IESC to consider the potential impacts in relation to water resources.

In making the final decision the Commonwealth Environment Minister will look very carefully at the NSW Determination Report and any public submissions received. This will include consideration of advice from the IESC.

Links to further information

Proposed Western Sydney airport at Badgerys Creek, NSW

The Department received a referral for the proposed Western Sydney airport on 4 December 2014. The proposed action is to construct and operate a Western Sydney airport at Badgerys Creek, New South Wales.

Referral details

The proponent, the federal Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, has advised that development of the proposed airport would be staged in response to demand. The first stage, expected to be operational from mid-2020s, will operate from one runway. The proposed airport would grow to meet demand.

Ultimately, the airport layout would potentially comprise two parallel runways of up to 4,000 metres in length, on a north-east/south-west alignment, with supporting airside and landside facilities capable of handling up to 70 million passenger movements per year. It is proposed that the airport be operational 24 hours per day.

Following a public consultation period and careful consideration of all relevant matters, it was determined the proposed action may have a significant impact on World Heritage properties, National Heritage places, listed threatened species and communities. As the proposal is a Commonwealth action, the whole of the environment is a nationally protected matter. Accordingly, the proposal was determined to be a controlled action on 23 December 2014 to be assessed through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The guidelines for the content of the EIS are available on the Referral detail page.

The preparation of the EIS, and the timing for this, is the responsibility of the proponent.

The environmental impact assessment process under Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), is rigorous and transparent, and provides opportunities for public comment. All public comments received during the public consultation phase of the assessment process will be taken into account before a decision on approval is made.

The Government will consider the impacts of the proposed action on matters protected by the EPBC Act and other economic and social matters in deciding whether to approve the proposal.

Notifications of decisions under the EPBC Act, and invitations to comment on proposals are published on the Department’s website.

Provisions to be covered by the Environmental Impact Statement

Commonwealth action (the environment)

As the proposal is a Commonwealth action, the whole of the environment, as defined in the EPBC Act, is a nationally protected matter.

Listed threatened species and communities

Listed threatened species and ecological communities are recognised as a matter of national environmental significance. Impacts on listed threatened species and ecological communities under the EPBC Act will be considered during the assessment of the proposal.

World Heritage properties and National Heritage places

The proponent identified the Greater Blue Mountains Area World Heritage property and National Heritage place as being potentially impacted by the proposal. The referral stated that a significant impact to the heritage values of the place was unlikely due to improvements in aircraft technology and improved regulatory standards for noise and emissions.

A significant impact to World and National Heritage values would be considered likely if the proposed action will cause the loss, degradation, modification or diminishment of one or more World or National Heritage values.

It is not clear that the action currently proposed will have a significant impact on the values or integrity of the Greater Blue Mountains Area. The precautionary triggering of World and National Heritage as controlling provisions will ensure these potential impacts are thoroughly assessed.

In line with standard practice the current proposal will be included in the Department’s next quarterly statement notifying the UNESCO World Heritage Centre of any proposals being assessed under the EPBC Act that trigger for World Heritage.

Links to further information

Abbot Point dredging and on-shore disposal proposals

On 10 December 2013 the capital dredging of Abbot Point Terminals 0, 2 and 3 and offshore disposal of the resulting dredge material in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was approved subject to 41 strict conditions.

Following that Economic Development Queensland submitted two additional on-shore disposal proposals for assessment that aligned with the Australian Government's commitment to put into legislation a ban on the disposal of capital dredged material in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The Abbot Point Port and Wetland project and the Abbot Point Dredging and Onshore Placement of Dredged Material projects were withdrawn on 12 March 2015.

The Queensland Government has advised that it will submit a new proposal shortly which would see dredge spoil disposed of on land on the site known as T2, adjacent to the existing coal terminal, not on the Caley Valley wetlands or within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Links to further information