Exclusive: government inaction leading to increased pollution on Barrier Reef, says WWF

Huge spike in Queensland land clearing destroys ecological communities and habitat of threatened species, according to analysis

The federal government is allowing the huge spike in land clearing in Queensland to destroy threatened ecological communities, the habitat of threatened species and increase pollution on the Great Barrier Reef by failing to enforce environmental law, according to analysis by WWF.

Following the weakening of land clearing laws in Queensland in 2013, the rate of clearing there has tripled to almost 300,000 hectares each year.

WWF analysis found almost 10,000 properties have either cleared at least one hectare of land since 2013, or have notified the state government that they plan to. Combined, that will result in almost 1m hectares of land being cleared.

Although the clearing may be allowable under permissive state laws, much of it could require approval under the federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) act.

The minister for energy and the environment, Josh Frydenberg, has said if the clearing activities “have, will have or are likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance under federal environment law,” then they required approval under the EPBC.

And last week, Frydenberg told the ABC the Turnbull government had powers to enforce those laws and would continue to do so.

Among the almost 10,000 properties that have either cleared more than 1ha of land, or plan to, WWF found 86% of them (7,919) are clearing an endangered ecosystem, the habitat of an endangered animal, or that it would occur inside a catchment for a river that flows into the Great Barrier Reef – all factors that appeared to meet the criteria for referral under the EPBC.

But according to the government list of referrals, only five of those almost 8,000 properties have referred clearing for approval under the EPBC, and just one had been forced to gain approval through it. That leaves 99.92% of properties that appear to be undertaking clearing that needs federal approval, going ahead without approval.

Among that clearing, a full 9% of the habitat of the threatened northern hairy-nosed wombat is thought to live in has either been cleared or has been earmarked for clearing.

And besides directly affecting endangered ecosystems and species, when the clearing occurs in Great Barrier Reef catchments, it increases sediment flow, damaging the coral.

The permissive state clearing laws have attracted the criticism of Unesco, which noted Australia’s failure to regulate clearing, and found Australia’s water quality targets would not be reached without further action.

Martin Taylor, protected areas and conservation science manager at WWF, said he sent the analysis to Frydenberg’s office in May but has not heard back.

“State laws should prevent this but the last line of defence is the commonwealth,” Taylor said. “If the federal government isn’t enforcing their laws, which appears to be the case at the moment, then there is no last line of defence.”

WWF’s analysis found that the non-referred land earmarked for clearing was dominated by a small number of properties – just 112 or 1.2% of applications – that proposed to clear more than 1,000ha of land each.

More than half of the non-referred property that appeared to require approval under the EPBC fell in Great Barrier Reef catchments.

Both Frydenberg and the department of environment and energy were approached for comment.

A spokesperson for the department said the minister had passed the information from WWF to the relevant areas in the department but that they do not “release information in relation to specific compliance matters”.

The spokesperson said: “The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 protects matters of national environmental significance. Actions that have, will have or are likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance must be approved before they commence.”

Contributor

Michael Slezak

The GuardianTramp

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