The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) prescribes substantial penalties for activities that have significant impact on any matters of national environmental significance which have not been assessed and approved under that Act. In June 2009, the Wind Farm Industry Policy Statement (Policy Statement) was handed down to assist operators in the wind farm industry decide whether or not proposed actions require such assessment and approval.
The Policy Statement should be read in conjunction with Significant Impact Guidelines 1.1 - Matters of national environmental significance, and also Guideline 1.2 – Actions on, or impacting upon, Commonwealth land and actions by Commonwealth agencies. The Policy Statement and Guidelines are available from the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) website.
A referral is the first step in the assessment and approval process under the EPBC Act and one of the main aims of the Policy Statement is to provide assistance in deciding whether or not an action should be referred. The EPBC Act requires an assessment and approval if you propose to take an ‘action’ and if that proposed ‘action’ will have or is likely to have significant impact on one or more matters of national environmental significance. If an action fits these criteria, it should be referred to DEWHA for a decision by the Minister for Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (currently Peter Garrett).
‘Action’ is defined in the EPBC Act to include a project, development, undertaking, activity or series of activities, or an alteration to any of these things.
Matters of national environmental significance
Matters of national environmental significance relevant to wind farms that have arisen in Australia and overseas primarily concern the mortality of certain bird and bat species from collision with turbines. The Policy Statement lists the groups that are most at risk and the situations in which they are most affected.
Other major issues that should be considered are listed as:
- The disturbance or alienation of important sites, on or off the wind farm, such as those where listed threatened animals concentrate when roosting, feeding, breeding or on migration
- Wind farms have the potential to impact a threatened species where the action reduces the species’ population, disrupts its breeding cycle or movements, or adversely affects its distribution or habitat.
- The clearance or disturbance of native vegetation for turbines or other infrastructure
- Turbine construction is given as an example, where vegetation removal is required that ordinarily forms part of a listed threatened ecological community, or contains listed threatened plant species, or is an important habitat for a listed threatened animal species
- Transmission lines and access roads will cover a greater area than the turbines, potentially causing fragmentation of endangered plant species or communities. The construction can alter the hydrology of the area where the community occurs and can introduce weeds which invade the community.
- Impact on World Heritage properties and/or National Heritage places
- The Policy Statement provides an example of where a wind farm visually intrudes on the listed landscape, wilderness, historical, cultural or architectural values of a nearby property that has been listed as being of World Heritage significance
- The National Heritage List details places or groups of places with outstanding natural, indigenous or historic heritage value to Australia.
- Impact on Commonwealth marine areas
- Offshore wind farms have not been developed yet in Australia and impact is still being investigated for overseas offshore wind farms. However, the Policy Statement makes the point that there is potential for the turbines, foundations and undersea cables to have significant impact on the environment in a Commonwealth marine area
- Marine species’ feeding or calving areas may be disturbed or their movement hindered, and marine habitat may be damaged by pollution, sedimentation or fragmentation.
- Actions outside a Commonwealth marine area may also have potential impact via sedimentation or other downstream impacts.
Avoiding or mitigating impacts
The Policy Statement suggests that, even when it seems that a wind farm will be likely to impact on a matter of national environmental significance, a referral may not be fatal to the application if one can demonstrate that carefully researched mitigation procedures would be followed.
Key areas where significant impacts can be avoided or mitigated are cited as: location of the wind farm, placement of turbines, and road, infrastructure and turbine design.
The main way to avoid having a significant impact is to site the wind farm away from World Heritage/ National Heritage properties and places, Ramsar wetlands, or the habitat of listed threatened or migratory species.
The Policy Statement gives guidelines for a turbine site:
“Turbines should be sited away from likely areas of bird movement and activity, particularly of listed threatened species or listed migratory species. Whenever possible, transmission lines should be installed underground to avoid collision and/or electrocution of large birds or bats. Underground lines should be installed with as little disturbance to the vegetation, substrate or hydrology of the area as possible”.
It is suggested that all turbines, roads, transmission lines, fences and other infrastructure avoid damage to significant areas of natural habitat. In addition, timing the construction of these things to periods when migratory birds are absent, or when the ground is dry (to avoid damage from heavy machinery) are suggestions as to how significant impacts can be eliminated.
An important mitigation measure is to ensure that power lines and fences which provide attractive roosts and perches are placed well away from the turbines, to decrease the likelihood of collision. If lights are not entirely necessary, they are best avoided, as these attract insects which in turn attract insect eaters such as bats. Rabbit and livestock control is also important as rabbits and other small animals attract raptors and other birds of prey. A weed management strategy is vital as is the control of trenching, erosion and stormwater.
Contingency plans and stop work procedures are also suggested as necessary where listed threatened species of plants or injured or nesting threatened animals are discovered, or where a site is found to be of heritage or Indigenous value. In addition, construction holes may need to be covered so that listed terrestrial species such as lizards and other small animals are not trapped in them.
Revegetation programs after construction is completed are often necessary and have been found to be effective.
When should you make a referral?
Wind farms have the potential to impact on matters of national environmental significance at any stage from construction to decommissioning and so it is vital that consideration be given to this matter from the planning stage onwards. The Policy Statement cites some circumstances where you might consider referral. These include where there is doubt or uncertainty about the nature and type of impacts on matters of national environmental significance, or where the likely significance is marginal or the proposal is likely to be highly contentious.