Environmental Protection Authority Chairman Paul Vogel has defended the watchdog’s integrity after revelations that four out of five of its board members were excluded from voting on the proposed gas hub at James Price Point because of potential conflicts of interest.
Wilderness Society spokesman Peter Robertson said today he “practically fell on the floor” when he found out that only Mr Vogel was eligible to deliver the final recommendation to Environment Minister Bill Marmion.
The EPA is expected to deliver its recommendation to the State Government on Friday.
Mr Robertson said the EPA was obliged to recommend against the proposal because the Department of State Development’s strategic assessment process was “seriously compromised” by “inadequate and unreliable information”.
Dr Vogel and a spokesman for the Department of State Development defended the integrity of the process.
Dr Vogel said this morning that he had immediately informed Environment Minister Bill Marmion of his decision on March 1 to exclude the other board members from the discussions and decision on the critical final recommendation.
“On the final decision, which was the recommendation to the minister, I determined in early March that (the board members) were conflicted from participating in deliberation and decision making and therefore the final recommendation fell to me as the non-conflicted member,” Mr Vogel said.
“Having said that, it’s only been four months out of four years where that situation had occurred - they have participated in discussions and deliberations over the last 44 months.”
Dr Vogel said Elizabeth Carr, a former executive director of the WA Department of State Development, had been excluded from all discussions about the Browse project from the outset.
Rod Lukatelich, who works for BP at Kwinana, was excluded four months ago, along with the two other board members.
Dr Vogel said because BP was a “probable part” of Woodside’s joint venture arrangement, Mr Lukatelich had been excluded from making the critical final decision because of the perceived conflict of interests.
The other two members had Woodside shares in their self-managed superannuation funds and had been excluded on that basis, he said.
“Let’s be clear - the proponent at this point in time is the State Government. It is not Woodside, it is not the joint venture arrangements,” he said.
Dr Vogel said the board had well-established protocols and comprehensive code of conduct informed by Public Sector Commissioner guidelines.
“We deal with this on a routine basis, these conflicts of interest – but this one is somewhat unprecedented of course,” he said.
He said if the minister was not happy with the outcome of the process, his only recourse was to remove and reappoint the entire board through a lengthy process.
Dr Vogel said members had asked “probing questions of the proponents and technical experts and scientists”, informing themselves over a long period of time about the environmental issues and what the impacts were likely to be.
Mr Robertson said that given that the legal proponent for the project was the Premier as Minister for State Development "it is clearly concerning that the chair, however professional, is the ‘last man standing’ in such a highly politically charged decision".
Mr Robertson said the EPA was assessing a series of “compromised reports and unsubstantiated assertions” that had been “strongly criticised, challenged and debunked by independent scientists, local community volunteers working with independent scientists and expert technical consultants”.
“This includes, but is not limited to, the proponent’s work and assertions in the areas of dredging, bilbies, whales and dolphins, marine turtles, sawfish, monsoon vine thickets, dinosaur tracksites, Indigenous cultural heritage and social impacts.”
Mr Robertson said there had been no comprehensive scientific peer reviews and the Department had tried to rush through the approval process.Attempts to access through Freedom of Information a revised government-commissioned report on the significance of the dinosaur tracks had also been blocked, despite there being no legal constraint on the information being released, he said.
He said the Department had breached requirements of its scoping report and strategic assessment, including gaining broad community and scientific support for the project.
Mr Robertson said the EPA had told him any inadequacies could be addressed through a subsequent "derived proposal" process, but that would mean no further requirements for environmental, social or cultural heritage assessment.
He said the EPA should not aim to meet an “arbitrary deadline” if in so doing it “accepts information from the proponent that is clearly inadequate at best and misleading or wrong at worst”.
“It is definitely not the role or responsibility of the independent EPA … to endorse and facilitate projects because the government of the day has decided it wants them,” he said.
A Department of State Development spokesman denied any of the agreements had been breached and was satisfied information provided to the EPA was sound.
“Since the draft Strategic Assessment Report was submitted in early 2010, the department has met all the Environmental Protection Authority’s requirements,” he said.
“This has included providing additional studies as requested, responding in detail to public submissions and informing the authority of new information arising from ongoing environmental and scientific research and monitoring.”
The EPA is due to deliver its recommendations to Mr Marmion by the end of June.
Mr Marmion today declined to comment, saying the EPA was a "independent statutory board" and all questions would have to be directed to Dr Vogel
Shadow Environment Minister Sally Talbot said Mr Marmion had known of the situation for months and had showed “appalling misjudgement”.
“What he’s effectively done now is trashed the community’s confidence in the environmental assessment system,” she said.
“He’s created a situation where we have an environmental ruling on a major project that the public will not trust.
“(Mr) Marmion has allowed the EPA to press ahead with this knowing that the decision only being made by one person would call that decision into question.“This is not about the integrity of individuals – it’s about the integrity of the system.”
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