Within the next two weeks, federal environment minister Tony Burke will make a decision on whether a massive tin, tungsten, iron ore and copper project at Mount Lindsay in the Tarkine requires formal assessment and approval under federal environmental law. In all likelihood, Burke will declare that it does but, unless changes are made, the process will be a sham.

Because of Burke’s refusal to include the Tarkine on the National Heritage List, the impacts that the project will have on the Tarkine’s famous heritage values will be ignored. The assessment and approval will only consider impacts on threatened species, most notably Tasmanian devils, Tasmanian wedge-tailed edges and the giant, freshwater crayfish.

To make matters worse, the process will only assess part of the project.

For strategic reasons, Venture Resources has only referred a section of its Mount Lindsay project to Burke. This part of the project covers an estimated 194 hectares, while the total project could ultimately stretch across more than 10 square kilometres in an area just north of the Pieman River.

The practice of splitting projects into smaller components is not uncommon. Proponents do it to suit commercial time frames, investment priorities and, in some cases, to manipulate the assessment and approvals process. Smaller projects are less likely to trigger the formal assessment and approval process and, when they do, they generally face less onerous assessment and approval requirements. Further, if one component of a multiple stage project is approved, it is difficult for the government to reject the latter stages.

In 2003, when the Coalition was still in power, the Australian Democrats tried to change the law to stop companies from splitting projects and ensure developments are assessed and approved as a whole. The logic was simple — if you want to weigh the costs and benefits of a project it is no good looking at a section of it, you have to look at the whole. The Howard government rejected the Democrats’ proposal, preferring to give the environment minister a discretion to “call in” whole projects in these circumstances. This discretion has been used sparingly, and some proponents still get away with splitting projects, even though it undermines the efficacy of the process.

In this case, Venture Resources has stated in its official referral document that the 194-hectare component of the Mount Lindsay project, covering the so-called Main Skarn and No.2 Skarn, are not related to any other proposed actions in the region and that any future developments it undertakes in the area “would be separate, stand-alone actions and would not be related to the Mount Lindsay action”. This conflicts with statements that the company has made to the Australian Stock Exchange, where other target areas in the same rock unit, including at Stanley River (a site only 3.5 kilometres from Mount Lindsay), have been grouped as part of the Mount Lindsay project.

Other facts about Venture’s activities point to the same conclusion. All of the planned future parts of the project are on the same or adjacent mining tenements (most of them will be located within a single exploration licence area — EL21/2005), involve mining parts of the same rock unit, will utilise the same infrastructure, will be undertaken by the same or related corporate entities, and are at least partially dependent on the central components of the project for their viability.

On the face of it, the company appears to have come perilously close to committing an offence under federal environmental law by including false and misleading information in its referral about the relationship between its activities in the area.

To protect the integrity of the assessment process, and ensure all of project’s relevant impacts are evaluated, minister Burke needs to do two simple things. First, include the Tarkine on to ensure the project’s heritage impacts are taken into account. Second, direct Venture Resources to withdraw its application and start again, this time referring the entire Mount Lindsay project for assessment.

If either of these two things aren’t done, people will legitimately ask: why bother?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey