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$21.7 billion coal project’s critical infrastructure status questioned

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The Queensland Government has revoked the broad ‘prescribed project’ and ‘critical infrastructure’ powers granted to the Coordinator-General for Adani’s proposed $21.7 billion Carmichael Coal Project and associated infrastructure.

According to the Environmental Defenders Office Queensland’s (EDO Qld’s) latest legal analysis, those powers have never been used before on a private commercial development and could fast-track water assessments with potential to strip most review and appeal rights.

The ‘prescribed project’ and ‘critical infrastructure’ declarations were made by State Minister Anthony Lynham for Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine and associated infrastructure, known as the Adani Carmichael Combined Project.

Laws enabling such declarations were introduced into the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971 (Qld) in 2006, following record-breaking drought and an election promise to improve the delivery of key infrastructure in Queensland.

In the past decade, ‘critical infrastructure’ declarations have only been made on four other occasions, three of which related to water supplies. For example, parts of the South East Queensland Water Grid were declared ‘critical infrastructure’ in 2007 and 2009 as a result of our water supplies being at very low levels. However, the broad nature of legislation leaves it unclear as to exactly what can trigger the usage of these fast-track powers.

“It is deeply inappropriate that a declaration power largely designed to protect Queensland from the worsening effects of drought, could now be used to aid an international mining corporation to potentially short-circuit legal protection for vital ground water resources,” EDO Queensland’s CEO and Solicitor Jo-Anne Bragg says.

“We believe the provision has been wrongly used in its application to the Adani project, and believe this could open the floodgates to all manner of major private developments demanding to be fast-tracked through the assessment process.

“The Queensland Government should revoke the ‘prescribed project’ and ‘critical infrastructure’ declarations for the Adani Carmichael Combined Project to assure Queenslanders that proper procedure will be followed, particularly with regard to ground water licences.”

According to the EDO Qld analysis, the broad nature of ‘prescribed project’ powers could allow the Coordinator-General, with Ministerial consent, to intervene in the remaining assessment procedures for the Adani Carmichael Combined Project – particularly with regard to required water licences – and the ‘critical infrastructure’ declaration that strips away most of the normal powers of the Queensland Courts to review and determine the lawfulness of decisions.

The EDO analysis comes amid claims that legitimate judicial oversight has been responsible for delays to the assessment of the Adani proposals.

“Our table compares timelines for Commonwealth and State assessment and shows Court proceedings take a comparatively short time compared to those assessments. Further, as far as we can tell, over the last 6 years Adani has not bothered to apply for essential groundwater licences, despite the continuous legal obligation under the Queensland Water Act,” Bragg says.

A review of the Queensland Government’s ‘coordinated projects’ website shows that the average time between the lodgement of an Initial Advice Statement by a proponent, and the delivery of a Coordinator-General report, is four to five years.

In the case of Adani’s mine – which could produce 2 billion tonnes of coal over 60 years and extract 355 billion litres of groundwater – only 3.5 years passed between Adani lodging the initial advice statement for the project and the delivery of the Coordinator-General Report, says EDO Qld.

“Despite the size and impact the Adani mine, the proposal has passed through the process in less time than an average comparable project,” Bragg says.

“The Government needs to stop bowing to industry pressure and instead ensure that the impacts on our precious and irreplaceable groundwater resources are thoroughly scrutinised.”

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