Concern over rare reptiles blocks Adani Group’s Australian mining project

Wednesday 05 August 2015

Federal Court of Australia deems the Indian company’s Carmichael mine in Queensland as illegal after the country’s environment ministry fails to respond to conservation measures on two vulnerable reptiles found in the vicinity of the proposed mine

The Federal Court of Australia has overturned the approval granted by the Tony Abbott government to the country’s largest proposed coal project, Adani’s Carmichael mine in north Queensland.

In a ruling on August 5, the court stated that the environment ministry headed by Greg Hunt, which granted the approval last year, did not pay heed to conservation advice for two Government of Australia-listed vulnerable species—the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake—found in the area near the proposed project.

The approval, granted to the mine last year, was challenged by the Mackay Conservation Group, a Queensland-based non-profit. According to a release by EDO-NSW, the environmental legal firm representing Mackay, the conservation advice was approved by Hunt in April 2014, and describes the threats to the survival of these threatened species, which are found only in Queensland.

According to Sue Higginson, principal solicitor for EDO-NSW, the Department of Environment failed to produce the documents related to the conservation measures for these threatened species before the court.

According to Higginson, the mine is now without legal authority to commence construction or operate. The final call on the approval of the mine, however, rests with the government.

“It will be up to the minister now to decide whether or not to approve the mine again, taking into account the conservation advice and any other information on the impacts of the project,” Higginson said.

According to her, the minister can approve the mine again by following proper legal procedures.

The Federal Department of Environment, on the other hand, has said that it was just a technical error on the part of the government which led to the Federal Court to set aside the approval. “This is a technical, administrative matter and to remove this doubt, the department has advised that the decision should be reconsidered,” stated the Department in a release. “Without pre-empting a final decision about the project, the department expects that it will take six to eight weeks to prepare its advice and the supporting documentation, and for the minister to reconsider his final decision,” it added.

Adani Group’s Australia office appeared confident that the technical difficulties would be rectified and the ministry would re-consider the mine. “It should be noted the approval did include appropriate conditions to manage the species protection of the Yakka Skink and Ornamental Snake. However, we have been advised that, because certain documents were not presented by the department in finalising the approval, it created a technical legal vulnerability that is better to address now. Adani is confident the conditions imposed on the existing approval are robust and appropriate once the technicality is addressed,” the group said in a statement after the decision.

Which are these reptiles?
 
The Yakka Skink (Egernia rugosa) is a secretive species indigenous to the biodiversity-rich Brigalow belt in Queensland, which is close to the Carmicheal mining site. The Australian government considers the skink as vulnerable and suggests stern action against any man-made threats. According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), although the Yakka Skink is listed as “species of least concern’, it is threatened by habitat degradation due to expansion of agriculture and grazing in the southern Brigalow belt.

The Ornamental Snake (Denisonia maculata) is a vulnerable species of snake occurring in the Brigalow belt characterised by its barred lips and smooth scales. Living close to marshy and riverine habitats, the snake mainly feeds on frogs. The Department of Environment considers alternation of hydrology and water pollution as threats to the species. The IUCN too lists it as a vulnerable species.

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