Water wars: A new front in the fight against Adani

A Stop Adani protest in Sydney on May 19.

In April Adani applied to the federal Department of Environment and Energy to expand a dam by 450% and build a pipeline for its Carmichael coalmine, without an assessment under national environment laws.

The project, North Galilee Water Scheme, involves expanding an existing 2.2 billion-litre dam to 10 billion litres and building associated infrastructure, including 110 kilometres of pipeline to transport water from the Suttor River and Burdekin Basin. The aim is to supply at least 12.5 gigalitres of fresh water to the Carmichael coalmine and other mines in the Galilee Basin in central Queensland.

The company has argued its proposal does not require review under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) for impacts on threatened species or under the water trigger, a component of the act that mandates coalmining and coal seam gas projects that have significant impacts on water resources must undergo national environmental assessment.

In its application, Adani said the water trigger applies only to projects associated with extraction. It said the pipeline was a piece of associated infrastructure and a separate project that therefore did not trigger assessment for impacts on water.

“It’s an incredibly narrow reading of the EPBC Act,” said Australian Conservation Foundation Stop Adani campaigner Christian Slattery. “Clearly it’s a project connected with coalmining.”

“If this interpretation is accepted by the minister it further demonstrates the weaknesses of the EPBC Act and the need for a new generation of environmental laws.”

Labor’s environment spokesperson Tony Burke said the government should ensure a thorough and rigorous environmental assessment is conducted: “Adani cannot evade the scrutiny of the expert independent scientific committee, and the minister for the environment should not be facilitating an opportunity for Adani to avoid scientific scrutiny on its use of water.

“The more I look at this [Carmichael] project and the way the company has dealt with different layers of government the more sceptical I have become.”

Lock the Gate Alliance campaign coordinator Carmel Flint said the proposal came when “most of central Queensland is in drought” and the effects on other water users and the environment must be considered.

“Adani is apparently trying to sneak through approval for a massive water scheme without a full environmental assessment ... in our view that’s an activity which is absolutely required to go through the water trigger,” she said.

Slattery said the referral of the pipeline project to the federal government “demonstrates that Adani is more committed than ever” to the mine.

"Now, more than ever, we need a rock-solid commitment from our elected representatives that they will ... stop this dangerous mine," he said.

Adani’s claims in the application, in relation to consultation with local Traditional Owners and its track record on adherence to environmental regulations, are spurious at best.

Adani said in its application: “Given the nature of the cultural heritage agreements and management process that has been progressed by Adani, it is not anticipated that there will be any major impacts that will significantly impact on Indigenous heritage values surrounding the utility infrastructure”.

It makes no mention that its dodgy Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) is subject to legal challenge.

Similarly, Adani claimed: “The Proponent (Adani Infrastructure Pty Ltd) has adhered to its regulatory responsibilities in association with its activities. The Proponent has not been the subject of any environmental legal proceedings that have resulted in fines or prosecution.”

Again, no mention made of Adani being issued with a $12,000 fine by the Queensland Environment Department for releasing water with nearly eight times the permitted level of coal sediment onto a beach when Abbot Point was inundated with rain from Cyclone Debbie in March last year.

Adani’s application was enabled by the Queensland government’s grant of a special water licence. The licence runs until 2077 and gives the Indian mining giant unlimited access to groundwater.

It has prompted fears of damage to aquifers in the Great Artesian Basin and groundwater-dependent rivers and springs, as well as water shortages for farmers. The Productivity Commission has recommended that such special licences should be scrapped. 

The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists told the Productivity Commission review that mining exemptions make it difficult to measure the cumulative impacts of water extraction, “placing entire groundwater and interconnected surface water systems at risk”.

The commission did not identify specific projects, but said alternative water rights arrangements “raise concerns about risks to the supply to other water users and the environment” and were “in some cases non-transparent”.

The commission said: “Governments should remove entitlements exemptions for extractive industries” unless there is a compelling reason otherwise. It said the change should be progressed by the Council of Australian Governments by 2020.

Environmental Defenders Office Queensland chief executive Jo Bragg said the community was not given an opportunity to object to the granting of Adani’s water licence.

She said the commission’s findings added to pressure on federal Labor to revoke Adani’s environmental approvals if it wins power.

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