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Reef n’ beefed-up regulations proposed in Queensland

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Written by Matthew Austin and Julian Ilett.

Earlier this month, the Queensland Government released the Consultation Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) for broadening and enhancing reef protection regulations as a blueprint to improve water quality protections for the health of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

The proposed reforms, if implemented, will increase the range of agricultural activities to be regulated across many new areas of an expanded GBR catchment and introduce new catchment wide pollutant measures. Resource and aquaculture activities within an expanded GBR catchment may also be subject to new water quality offsetting obligations.

The RIS is part of the government's ongoing initiative to enhance GBR protective measures through "beefed-up" regulations.

New framework – what it means for you

The framework will have regulatory implications for:

  • various commercial agricultural activities like banana, grain and sugarcane production; and
  • point source land uses such as aquaculture and mining activities.

The proposed protections are aimed at commercial land users in all 35 GBR catchment areas.

Currently, under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld) (EP Act), there are protections in place to ensure water pollutants which may adversely affect the GBR are limited or otherwise mitigated.

The extent of these protections relates to environmental authorities being mandated with regard to agricultural environmentally relevant activities (ERAs) and, prescribed and resource ERAs.

Agricultural ERAs apply only to specific catchment areas and limited agricultural activities. The new framework proposes to widen the scope of Chapter 4A of the EP Act by broadening its geographical application and expanding the definition of an agricultural ERA to capture a greater number of agricultural activities.

Resource and aquaculture activities may also be impacted by the proposal to introduce a water quality offsets framework. Under the RIS, proponents of new or expanding agricultural, prescribed and resource ERAs will need to offset water pollutants with an equivalent pollutant reduction either on, or off-site.

Proposed amendments under the RIS

The reform package proposes five key amendments to the current legislative framework:

RIS Reform Package Description

Introducing catchment pollution load limits

  • Introduce catchment pollution load limits for nutrients and sediments based on water quality targets required by the year 2025.
  • Load limits are set to be included with respect to regulatory decision-making procedures such as considering the grant of an environmental authority.
  • It is likely that a "whole-of-reef" approach will be implemented, applying the new limits on pollutant loads across all 35 GBR catchments.

Expanding the application of agricultural ERAs

  • Currently, an agricultural ERA will only apply in the Wet Tropics, Mackay-Whitsunday or Burkdekin dry catchments.
  • The RIS proposes:
    • broadening the scope of agricultural ERAs to all GBR catchment areas
    • expanding the current definition of an agricultural ERA to include key agricultural activities such as commercial cattle grazing and the commercial production of sugarcane, bananas, grain and other horticulture crops.

Removing the Environmental Risk Management Plan provisions

  • Substitution of the Environmental Risk Management Plan provisions in favour of a set of minimum practice standards.
  • Included in Appendix 4 of the RIS are minimum standards for sugarcane and banana production, as well as cattle grazing, setting a baseline compliance practice standard regulated through commodity specific codes.
  • It will be important for proponents of these agricultural sectors to analyse the proposed standards and consider procedures to ensure compliance once in force.

Introducing record-keeping measures to fertiliser re-sellers

  • Strict record-keeping policies for fertiliser re-sellers under the EP Act.
  • Re-sellers can be required to produce sales records, soil test results and any recommendations about fertiliser product use.
  • Records must be kept for a period of five years for compliance evidence.

Establishing a water quality offset framework

  • Implement a water quality offset framework to counterbalance any potential or proposed increase in nutrients and sediments to waters in the GBR catchment areas.
  • This action must counteract the pollutant increase with at least an equivalent reduction elsewhere, either on or off-site.
  • Offsets framework will apply to new, expanding or intensifying agricultural, prescribed and resource ERAs with unavoidable water related implications stemming from nitrogen and sediment pollution.

Next steps

It is important for resource and agricultural operators in all GBR catchment areas to monitor the progress of these proposed legislative changes and bear in mind any transitional provisions.

The public has been invited to provide feedback on the RIS until 3 November 2017.

If you would like to discuss these reforms, or make a submission to the Government in response to these changes and would like our assistance, please contact us.

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