Minister flags faster environmental decisions

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says legislative reforms will add clarity to development guidelines and avoid projects waiting in limbo.

Unacceptable projects could be ruled out immediately to avoid proponents spending millions of dollars on non-feasible developments under changes to the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The federal government has committed to reforming Australia's environmental laws with national environmental standards the centrepiece of the changes.

A independent head of Environment Information Australia will also advise the government on developing a new national environmental standard for data and information.

Ms Plibersek on Tuesday proposed refusing a more than $1 billion development on Queensland wetlands, with the draft decision warmly supported by environmental activists and conservationists.

Development at Toondah Harbour, east of Brisbane, had been up in the air since its initial proposal in 2014.

Tanya Plibersek (file)
Australia needs stronger protections for nature, says Tanya Plibersek.

Ms Plibersek said changes to the act should add clear guidelines for developments.

"The very reason we're doing the law reform to the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act is because we need stronger protections for nature," she told ABC RN on Wednesday.

"But we also need faster, clearer decisions for proponents of projects.

"If something is clearly unacceptable, then that really ought to be the end of it."

The Toondah Harbour development had an estimated cost of $1.4 billion and is framed as a harbourside precinct with a mixed use residential, commercial, retail and tourism area.

Its wetlands are unique and home to loggerhead turtles and critically endangered eastern curlews, that migrate some 12,000 km from Russia to feed and roost.

Australia is also a signatory to the Ramsar Convention to halt the worldwide loss of wetlands.

In her draft decision, Ms Plibersek ruled removing 58.7 hectares from the internationally protected wetlands was unacceptable and invited feedback before making a final call.

Cassim Island (file)
Toondah Harbour precinct is home to loggerhead turtles and critically endangered eastern curlews.

Walker Corporation, who were seeking to develop the area, have 10 days to respond.

Ms Plibersek will also consider further comments after more than 26,000 were made on the development when its draft environmental impact statement was released.

She said companies should be given early signals if a project does not stack up environmentally to avoid situations like Toondah Harbour where it's dragged out for a decade.

"I don't think proponents should be spending years and millions of dollars developing projects that in the end get knocked off because the assessment is they're going to have too big an impact on nature," she said.

"We want to send those signals up front.

"We want to say to proponents, if you're having this unacceptable impact on plants or animals or the natural environment, if it's in a place that is too precious, is irreplaceable - don't even spend your money.

"But if you've got this type of development, in this type of area and you take this type of action to protect nature, you're going to get a much faster 'yes'.

"That's what our objective is."

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