EPA conflict bungle forces emergency laws

Albert Jacob. Picture: Simon Santi/The West Australian.

The Barnett Government has been forced to draft emergency legislation to protect a raft of environmental approvals after bungling by the Environmental Protection Authority’s handling of conflict of interest issues.

In a torrid press conference in West Perth this morning, Environment Minister Albert Jacob revealed that approvals for 25 projects granted between 2002 and 2012 may have been unlawful.

Mr Jacob would not say which projects were affected, stressing that a full list of them would be tabled in State Parliament later today.

However in a release to the Australian Securities Exchange this morning, Fortescue Metals Group revealed its Solomon iron ore project was one of the projects affected.

As part of a bid to circumvent possible legal challenges to the projects’ approvals, Mr Jacob said the Government would now seek to rewrite the EPA’s legislation to retrospectively “validate” them.

At the heart of the issue is the advice given by the Environmental Protection Authority – which invariably formed the basis for final Government approvals – that may have been tainted.

EPA chairman Paul Vogel admitted that in all 25 cases board members of the regulator may have had conflicts of interest while they were deliberating on projects.

These conflicts could have included share interests in the companies that were the subject of deliberations.

The backlog of potentially conflicted cases was discovered following the shock decision by Chief Justice Wayne Martin last year to strike down environment approvals for the Browse Basin gas hub in the Kimberley.

At the time, Justice Martin said the EPA’s recommendations on the project had been unacceptably compromised by conflicts of interest on its board.

Mr Jacob admitted he was “very disappointed” with the situation but stood by Dr Vogel, insisting he was not about to sack him.

“I have full confidence in the Environmental Protection Authority board and very good confidence in the chairman,” Mr Jacob said.

“And I also have very good confidences in our environmental processes.

“This was not a deliberate oversight.

“We have conducted a thorough review and there is nothing to indicate anyone sought personal gain.”

Dr Vogel refused to resign, saying he wanted to “help” the Minister in fixing the problems.

“I hope that the public accepts that this was technical error in governance,” Dr Vogel said.

Fortescue Metals Group chief executive Nev Power, who was informed of the State's decision last night, described the move as a "decisive action" that would provide certainty.

"We are assured that the State is taking all appropriate steps to remove any risk so as to provide investment certainty for WA projects which might be affected," the company said.

FMG's Solomon iron ore mine was one of the 25 affected projects, but the company did not foresee any risk to its operation “at this time”.

The full list of the 25 projects

BHP Billiton

Jimblebar Iron Ore Project

Jinidi Iron Ore Mine

Macedon Gas Development

Marillana Creek (Yandi) Life of Mine Proposal

Orebody 24/25 Upgrade Proposal

Port Hedland Outer Harbour Development

Railway Deviation through Chichester Ranges

Wheelarra Hill Iron Ore Mine Extension

Wheelarra Hill Iron Ore Mine Modification

Main Roads WA

Roe Highway Stage 8 extension

CSBP Limited (Wesfarmers)

Ammonium Nitrate Production Expansion Project Phase 2

Fortescue Metals Group

Solomon Iron Ore Project

James Point Pty Ltd (BGC)

James Point Stage II Port Development

Rio Tinto Iron Ore

Brockman Iron Ore Mine Extension Phase 2B

Cape Lambert to Emu Siding Rail Duplication

Cape Lambert Port B Development

Hamersley Agriculture Project

Hope Downs Iron Ore Mine Statement 584

Marandoo Mine Phase 2

Nammuldi Silvergrass Expansion Project

Cape Lambert Port B – Review of Conditions

Turee Syncline Iron Ore Porject

Yandicoogina Junction South West & Oxbrow Iron Ore Project

Univesity of WA

Residential Subdivision, Underwood Avenue Shenton Park

Woodside Energy

Pluto LNG Proposal – Review of Conditions