Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke yesterday gave the go-ahead to the Shree Minerals iron ore mine in the north-west of the Tarkine in Tasmania. It’s one of eight major projects scheduled for the region, and signals the start of what is sure to be a lively period in the campaign to protect the Tarkine’s natural and cultural heritage.

Not surprisingly, conservationists have expressed outrage at Burke’s decision. This reaction is partially related to the threat that the mine poses to the iconic and endangered Tasmanian devil. The north-west of the Tarkine is home to one of the few remaining populations of disease-free devils. The Shree Mine is located in the heart of this area and the road along which the ore will be transported has been identified as a devil hot spot.

Several conditions have been imposed on the mine in an attempt to minimise the threat posed by ore-loaded B-doubles and other mine vehicles. These include running regular instruction sessions for workers on the importance of the species and how to minimise the risk of road kill; erecting posters and distributing glovebox guides on the same; preparing a plan on how to protect the species from the impacts of the mine and road traffic; running a free bus service to shuttle workers and others to and from the site; “taking all reasonable measures” to ensure vehicles do not exceed 50km/h when travelling to and from the site; and removing carcasses from the road every day.

Shree Minerals is also required to donate $350,000 to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program Appeal over seven years. Further, in the event that more than two devils are killed in any 12-month period at the mine site or by authorised vehicles travelling to or from the mine, Shree Minerals is required to pay an additional $48,000 to the appeal. How the Department of Environment came up with the $48,000 figure is a topic worthy of investigation. Based on current population estimates, it suggests the species is worth roughly $1.7 billion.

There are similar conditions for the other two threatened species that are likely to be affected by the mine and its vehicles: the spot-tailed quoll (a small carnivorous mammal) and the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle.

While the attempt to reduce animal mortality is laudable, the scepticism expressed by conservationists towards the conditions is understandable. For starters, Shree Minerals has no legal authority over vehicles owned by other parties travelling to and from the mine site. And does anybody really think that handing out glovebox guides and running information sessions is going to significantly reduce mine-related animal mortality?

Whatever management measures are put in place, the establishment of the mine will increase the risk to the population, both from roadkill and through the potential introduction of the disease to the area. Given the perilous state of all three species, particularly the devil, it is difficult to reconcile Burke’s decision with the statutory requirement that “the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity … be a fundamental condition in decision-making”.

Beyond the threat posed by the mine to the threatened species, Burke’s decision has clarified how the Gillard government intends to deal with the Tarkine heritage nomination and the remaining projects. Some conservationists believed that, if it was going to intervene on any project in the region, it would be the Shree Minerals mine because of its diminutive size and the threat it poses to the devil and quoll.

The approval has made it clear that Burke intends to approve all of the major proposed projects and draw the boundaries of the Tarkine National Heritage Area around the project sites.

The Tarkine National Heritage area will end up covering only those parts of the region that are already included in reserves or for which there are no known significant commercial uses.

The entire Tarkine saga, from its origins in the 1960s through to now, has been a drawn-out case study in the difficulties associated with heritage conservation and the interplay between the Australian and state governments. It demonstrates the urgent need for an overhaul of the federal environmental and heritage laws and the re-establishment of an independent national heritage body that can ensure areas of world and national heritage significance receive appropriate protection.

*Andrew Macintosh is an associate professor at the ANU College of Law and associate director of the ANU Centre for Climate Law & Policy

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey