The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) plays an integral role in ensuring Western Australia’s precious landscape is maintained and nurtured for generations to come.

It is the gatekeeper between industry and government, offering recommendations and advice to the Minister for Environment on development proposals which could impact the local ecosystem.

But with a dramatic increase in the number of proposals the EPA has received, and a significant decline in staffing resources, the agency has seen its approvals process slow to a crawl – much to the frustration of the mining industry.

“We are concerned to see the environmental approvals processes at state and Commonwealth level is continuing to blow out,” AMEC Managing Director Warren Pearce said.

“They’re not currently reaching their key performance measures and don’t seem likely to in the near future. The real cost is the time miners spend on the process, and we would like to see a simpler streamlined operation.”

Responding to the comments, EPA WA Chair Tom Hatton said he was “absolutely not comfortable” with the time it took the EPA to process a proposal, but argued there were a number of factors at play.

“I’m not being critical of the government at all, but we are down 20-25 per cent on the workforce that’s available to help the board with our assessments,” he said.

“There has also been a 70 per cent increase in approvals for big projects this year over the previous year, which means we are taking a bit longer.”

Adamant the EPA wouldn’t preference timeliness over the quality and robustness of its advice, Mr Hatton said the agency was instead reviewing its procedures in a bid to make the operation more efficient.

Encouraging the mining industry to carefully think through the issues and come to the table with all the necessary information upfront, Mr Hatton said the process would move quicker for both parties.

In July this year, BHP’s strategic mining proposal for the Pilbara was given the green light after a six-year approval process which looked at the impact on fauna, flora, surface and groundwater, air quality and social surrounds.

“We are tailoring our assessments appropriately to the various proposals that are coming in from the mining sector,” Mr Hatton said.

“We have worked for six years with BHP to do a strategic assessment over its mining plans for the next 50-100 years. So when it is ready to progress to its next project, a lot of the work has been done upfront and the subsequent approval process will be far more streamlined for BHP.”

Bigger fish to fry

Arguing the EPA was sweating too long on smaller environmental issues, Mr Pearce said the mining industry had always advocated for a risk profile system.

“Those things which are a significant threat to the environment are given a full assessment process, and those things which are understood to be of a much lower risk pro le are able to be assessed more quickly,” he said.

“It is a way to better task the department to meet its function, and it’s really what the people in those departments are there to do.

“They want to be looking after the things that are a significant environmental issue, not looking constantly at pedestrian or uniform issues.”

Mr Hatton said the EPA had already identified the need to focus on bigger projects and chose not to assess dozens of development and planning proposals every year.

“The local pressure on us to assess can sometimes be very high, but we are trying to be consistent in choosing to assess the things that have a significant environmental impact,” he said.

“What we are doing now is publishing a clear and full statement of reasons why we’re not choosing to assess certain projects.

“We are walking that fine line between the criticism we are not doing our job and making sure we are putting our efforts where it’s needed most, which is often the big proposals from the mining sector.”

Situated 340km south-east of Port Hedland in Western Australia, Roy Hill’s iron ore project had to work through more than 4000 government approvals, licenses and permits before commencing production, costing the company considerable time and money.

In a statement, Roy Hill said it was a passionate advocate for legislative and regulatory reform to cut red tape and free up business.

“Unnecessary compliance measures and burdensome regulatory regimens stifle productivity that could otherwise be directed at generating positive economic endeavours, bene ting all Western Australians,” it said.

“The state cannot afford an international reputation of regulatory complexity and onerous government control, which can stifle future investment and impact on competitiveness.

“Roy Hill’s ongoing compliance regulatory burden is also considerable – time and effort which could otherwise be more productively utilised hiring an additional employee or discovering and implementing a new and efficient process or system to enhance the competitiveness of the organisation.

“Roy Hill advocates for taking a risk-based approach to regulation, where the environmental, community or other stakeholder risks associated with non-compliance are considered as part of the process.”

Stating the current environmental approvals process was much more sophisticated than it was 10-20 years ago, Mr Pearce said the EPA needed to consider the impact it could have on industry.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you’ve got to make sure you’re balancing this, trying to get the right environmental outcomes while also supporting the development of industry,” he said.

“What we have seen is a really big focus on environmental issues and that’s been good, but we also need to find ways the industry can deal with that process without it becoming a barrier to development.”

Despite not seeing eye to eye on every issue, the EPA and the mining sector share a strong relationship they hope will see them move through a challenging period.

“We invite people to give feedback to us on our performance, what the priorities should be and to share information with each other,” Mr Hatton said.

“I would like to see continued constructive engagement with the sector.

“Apart from a major donation from the government to increase our spending ability, that’s how we are going to have to solve this.”

Image: Roy Hill's Pilbara operations from the air. Credit: Roy Hill