Environment Minister Tony Burke this week is expected to decide whether two further components of Venture Mineral’s mining plans for the southern Tarkine require formal approval under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC act).

If he decides they do, it will bring to five the number of current projects being considered by the federal government for approval in the Tarkine “wilderness”: an iron ore project in the north-west (Shree Minerals); a tin, tungsten, copper and iron ore mining complex (which has been referred as three separate projects and there are possibly more components to come) in the south (Venture), and a tourist road running through the north (Tasmanian government).

There is also the 50-year old Savage River mine that sits in the heart of the Tarkine and further mineral exploration work is under way elsewhere. In 2010, Tasmania Magnesite sought and received approval under the EPBC act for exploratory work for a magnesite mine in the north-east. The company deserves some credit for this as other companies (with the Environment Department’s blessing) have simply gone ahead with their exploratory work without approval.

In November last year, Venture sought approval under the EPBC act for its Mount Lindsay tin, tungsten, iron ore and copper mine. The application prompted environment groups to ask Burke to list the Tarkine on the National Heritage list using his emergency powers so that he could consider the impacts of the proposal on the area’s heritage values. He declined and, as a result, the heritage impacts of the mine will not be considered in the assessment and approvals process.

At the time Burke was considering whether to list the Tarkine in response to the Mount Lindsay proposal, it was common knowledge that Venture had grander plans than just the 194-hectare mine put before the minister.  In early April, this was confirmed when it referred two more components of its southern Tarkine mining complex under the EPBC act, an iron ore mine adjacent to the Mount Lindsay mine and another iron ore project some five kilometres to the east.

We have previously argued that, given the close proximity of the mines, and the fact that they are all proposed by the same proponent, they should be treated as one project (certainly the two adjacent projects should be treated as one). Again, the minister has declined to do this. Moreover, when considering whether to emergency list the Tarkine, the minister and his department have compartmentalised the threats, treating each proposal in isolation without looking at their cumulative impacts.

Splitting projects into smaller components is a relatively common practice under the EPBC act. At times, proponents do it for legitimate business reasons. In other cases, it is done to avoid or minimise regulation (if you split an action it is less likely to clear the “significance” threshold that governs whether actions need formal approval, some proponents also employ a Trojan horse strategy — if you can get one component approved it is harder to knock back the other sections of the development).

In 2003, the Australian Democrats tried to shut this loophole but only managed to persuade the Howard government to give the minister the power to “call in” other components of a split project. It is a power that has been used sparingly.

In Venture’s case, it is now arguing that its two latest actions do not need formal approval because they won’t have a significant impact on protected species, including the threatened Tasmanian devil. This is despite the fact that the Tarkine is the last remaining stronghold of disease-free devils. And  again, because the Tarkine has still not been included on the National Heritage list, Burke and his department are legally prevented from considering its heritage values — even though a recent report done for the Tasmanian Forest Agreement process found that it meets the criteria for inclusion on the national and possibly World Heritage lists.

Chair of the Australian Heritage Council Carmen Lawrence recently has said that the assessment and approval of mining projects in the Tarkine should be put on hold until the council has completed its second assessment of the national heritage values of the Tarkine. While this would be the ideal outcome, it cannot occur unless Burke emergency lists the Tarkine. Without an emergency listing, Burke is required by law to make a decision on the referred actions.

*Deb Wilkinson and Andrew Macintosh are from the Australian Centre for Environmental Law at the ANU