Thursday, 19 September 2013

PRA: Case Study, Changes for expediency

Case study Xstrata Wandoan coal mine lease application; Queensland Coordinator-General, November 2010, reclassification of land types for the advantage of the mining company.

Prepared by Property Rights Australia

Image sourced from Xstrata EIS. The mining lease area covered approximately 30,000 ha with 70 land titles belonging to 42 owners. Each little pink square represents a farming family to be removed, which they nearly all were, for the mine to proceed.  

Agricultural land in Queensland has been classified using the simple classification system called Good Quality Agricultural Land (GQAL)[i] of A, B, C and D class soils.
Class A is top cropping country
Class B is land suitable for cropping and grazing
Class C is grazing only; unsuitable for cropping;
and D is unsuitable for agriculture or reserved for environmental purposes.

This land classification system was developed from decades of work by soil scientists who were unimpeded from any other agenda other than good science. QGAL is clearly defined; it has been used as standard in resolving matters in the courts. It has stood the test of time. 

Property Rights Australia (PRA) is very concerned where policy, legislation, planning schemes and ministerial decisions have been implemented without giving priority to good soil science.  

A very blatant example in recent years is where the Coordinator-General’s department in November 2010 reclassified lands in the Xstrata Wandoan coal mine lease application from A & B to C for the advantage of the mining company. This project was subsequently granted conditional environmental approval in March 2011.
It is important to review what occurred at that time not only to be vigilant in ensuring it doesn't happen again but also to facilitate improved outcomes in future policy and legislation. Throughout 2013 the Qld government has been making changes to many planning laws, the latest being the Darling Downs Regional Plan which makes mention of the Xstrata Wandoan coal mine project on page 17.[ii] 

With any mining or petroleum lease application, a resource company is required to produce an environmental impact statement (EIS)[iii] where a consultancy firm is hired to write a document (best measured in kilograms rather than pages) to shed the best possible light on the project proceeding. The Xstrata Wandoan coal mine addressed quality of soils in the lease application in volume 1, chapter 9.3.6 and land suitability and agricultural lands in chapter 9.3.7.[iv]  

Despite including the pre-existing GQAL mapping as Figure 9-11-V1.3, the EIS provides inconsistent mapping of soil quality in Figure 9-9-V1.3. The EIS states that this second map uses the classification system of Land Suitability Classification for Cropping and Grazing in the Semi-arid Sub-tropics of Queensland (Department of Mines and Energy, 1995). The result is that under GQAL the land was considered to be either, Class A, top cropping country or B, land suitable for cropping and grazing and in the classification system favoured by Xstrata the very same land overnight became either
  • Class 3 – suitable land with moderate limitations; land which is moderately suited to a proposed use but which requires significant inputs to ensure sustainable use; or
  • Class 4 – marginal land with severe limitations which make it doubtful whether the inputs required to achieve and maintain production outweigh the benefits in the long term.  

The accuracy of the information and the methodology used to reach the conclusions in the relevant chapters within the EIS is questionable and was challenged by those with local knowledge. In response to these submissions the Supplementary EIS (SEIS)[v] spent many pages justifying the obvious anomalies without varying its conclusions. 

The most disappointing aspect about Xstrata Wandoan coal mining lease application was not the information paid for by Xstrata and prepared by consultants but the almost unreserved acceptance of this material in the Coordinator-General’s evaluation report on the EIS.[vi]

In Chapter 5.2.1 - Good quality agricultural land, strategic cropping land and rehabilitation, the Coordinator-General makes the following statements 

The EIS outlined that, under Section 2 and Attachment 2 of the associated SPP 1/92 Planning Guidelines: The Identification of Good Quality Agricultural Land (Department of Primary Industries and Department of Housing, Local Government and Planning Queensland 1993), Class A, B and C agricultural land in the former

Taroom Shire does comprise GQAL [emphasis added] 

The Taroom Shire Planning Scheme classified the MLA areas as GQAL—Classes A, B and C. The land suitability assessment undertaken in the EIS and SEIS, however, concluded that Class 3 and Class 4 land suitability—which approximates to GQAL Agricultural Land Class C—occurred on the MLA areas. Therefore, indications are that the MLA areas are unlikely to be classified as strategic cropping land.  

It beggars belief that the Coordinator-General could accept without question the downgrading of this land classification by the party with an economic interest in having it downgraded, without considering the possible cost to Queensland agriculture and the past production history of that land. 

PRA strongly believes land classifications must be based on established science and the production history of that land. No benefit to the immediate community or the citizens of Queensland can be identified in altering soil classifications for the expediency of the resource sector, as in the Xstrata Wandoan coal mine where A and B GQAL was changed to C class. Nor should it be the case where a process could be influenced so as C and D class land could be changed to A and B to stop a resource project.


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