Conservationists say they have won in a fight against Tasmania’s takyana/Tarkine rainforest after a judge ruled the Morrison government erred in approving preliminary work on a mining waste dam.
Federal Court Judge Mark Moshinsky found that then-Environment Minister Sussan Ley failed to apply the precautionary principle before authorizing drilling and surveying for a new tailings dam near the town of Rosebery on the state’s west coast.
In a judgment late Monday, Moshinsky said a January decision by an environment department official representing Ley did not consider whether the works would cause serious or irreversible damage to the habitat of the Tasmanian masked owl. endangered.
The court issued no immediate order, but signaled that the approval was likely to be overturned. This could mean that mining company MMG’s proposal would require further assessment under national environmental laws.
The Bob Brown Foundation said the judgment was one of the most significant in environmental law since the introduction of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in 1999, as it showed that the precautionary principle should be applied when the effects of a development project were not clear.
The foundation’s campaign manager, Jenny Weber, said the masked owl – which is listed as endangered in Tasmania and believed to have been reduced to around 500 breeding pairs – was “not considered at all” in the approval decision.
“This decision sends a signal to miners, loggers and other developers of large projects that they can no longer take advantage of the uncertainty that comes from a lack of quality scientific investigation,” she said.
Neither MMG nor the Tasmanian government, which is a strong supporter of development, had responded to Guardian Australia before publication.
The validity of the federal drilling and roadwork approval was already in question after Ley agreed before the election that there were grounds for it to be formally reconsidered. Responsibility for this process was handed over to the new environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, after Labor won the election. She hasn’t made a decision yet.
Bob Brown, the former Greens leader who launched the foundation, said the judgment was huge and would strengthen Plibersek’s hand “in the defense of endangered species from Tarkine to Cape York to the Burrup Peninsula”.
He said the Commonwealth should compensate nearly 100 protesters who were arrested while campaigning against development.
In a statement released Tuesday morning, Plibersek said the lawsuit related to a decision made under the previous federal government, that she had been informed of the judgment and would review it in detail.
The Chinese-majority company says a new tailings dam is needed to extend the life of its 85-year-old Rosebery zinc, copper and lead mine. If the dam is approved, the company plans to clear up to 285 hectares – roughly the equivalent of 350 football fields – of rainforest and other land for the dam and a 3.5 km pipe that would carry the toxic waste from the mine across the Pieman River.
The Bob Brown Foundation says crossing the river would place the tailings dam inside Tarkine, an ecologically diverse area that the Australian Heritage Council recommended 10 years ago be protected. He says there are other options open to MMG.
The court has reserved its orders until a hearing scheduled for later this week.