‘Unfair and unprecedented’: public denied scrutiny of controversial gas plan as planning minister ignores government guidelines
The Victorian government’s refusal to extend a deadline for public scrutiny of a gas company’s Environment Effects Statement (EES) in Western Port Bay ignores ministerial guidelines and may encourage community groups to defy Stage 4 coronavirus restrictions, warn lawyers.
Lawyers at Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), representing community organisations, are once again calling on the State Government to extend the public exhibition of the EES for AGL’s plan to float a gas terminal off Crib Point, at a time Stage 4 restrictions curtail the public’s ability to engage or adequately prepare for the public hearings.
Despite repeated ministerial requests by hundreds of individuals and community groups, including Environment Victoria, Victorian National Parks Association and Save Westernport, Minister for Planning Richard Wynn has refused to extend the 26 August deadline to allow the public to meaningfully scrutinise the AGL and APA joint project. He has advised community groups that: “Pausing the exhibition process until public health emergency restrictions are eased would introduce severe procedural uncertainty.”
This is despite AGL and APA expressing their willingness to implement whatever procedural directions the Minister might give for exhibition and hearing arrangements.
Nick Witherow, Principal Lawyer, Environmental Justice Australia said:
“The Minister’s refusal to delay the EES contradicts his own Ministerial Guidelines on environmental impact assessment in Victoria. The process is supposed to provide fair opportunities for participation by stakeholders and the public but the Minister has essentially said “too bad”.
“The government’s timeline prioritises industry over community. AGL and APL had as much time as they needed to conduct and add to their own EES, at one stage delaying the submission of the EES by nearly 12 months.
“Meanwhile, the community gets only a brief window during a State of Disaster and Stage 4 restrictions which limits their ability to visit the project site to make their own judgement of the potential impacts. The EES timetable was developed before Victoria escalated to Stage 4 restrictions. It is outdated and unfair.
“The government is willing to suspend Parliament. The government has stalled the implementation of the reformed Environment Protection Act 2017 to reduce the impacts on business. It has delayed announcing Victoria’s interim emission reduction targets until there is greater certainty. The same government expects the community to battle on through the State of Disaster, while Stage 4 restrictions curtail the public’s ability to properly engage in the EES process or adequately prepare for the public hearings.
“Restrictions mean people are unable to meet in small groups to work through complex EES documents and technical reports together. They are unable to engage in standard community activities, such as holding supporter meetings to discuss and explain the EES or deliver leaflets and door-knock.
“Western Port communities can hardly meet this restrictive and unfair deadline while trying to cope with the impacts of coronavirus. It’s impossible to deal with the complexity, size and scope of the EES under these circumstances. It’s also against the objectives and principles underpinning the EES process under the Environment Effects Act.
Victor Komarovsky, Community Organiser at Environment Victoria, said:
“This is the first gas import terminal Victoria has seen, and it is proposed for the middle of a protected wetland ecosystem. It isn’t clear why this assessment process can’t wait until the pandemic is under control.
“Minister Wynne has allowed AGL nearly two years to compile their 11,000 page EES. We’re disappointed the Minister has not extended more flexibility to the community.
“Environment Victoria has seen our share of consultation processes, but what we see here — that a community is expected to review 11,000 pages and make submissions during a State of Disaster — is unprecedented.
“Environment Effects Statements are highly technical and hard enough for impacted communities to grapple with at the best of times, let alone in the midst of a pandemic that is upending many lives. Given these circumstances, it hard to say the community around Westernport Bay is being given a fair go against a major energy company.”
Chris Atmore, from Save Westernport said:
“The Victorian Government’s refusal to suspend the environmental assessment process during the state of disaster shows a callous and cruel indifference to our community’s mental health at a time when we are desperately trying to do all we can to try to stop coronavirus.
“Minister Wynne’s refusal to temporarily suspend the environmental assessment process can only serve private corporate interests. It sets a deeply troubling precedent for public participation in environmental decision making during Victoria’s economic recovery from the COVID crisis.’
AGL Wholesale Gas Limited and APA Transmission Pty. Limited jointly propose to establish a gas import jetty at Crib Point and construct a pipeline from Crib Point to Pakenham. AGL and APM have been allowed to choose the timing of the EES. The EES was originally scheduled for release in 2019, but was delayed by 12 months to allow AGL and APM further time. The government gave them unlimited time. The EES has been released for public comment for a period of 40 business days, from 2 July to Wednesday 26 August 2020.