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Rethinking Australia’s mining practices

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Australia‘s approach to managing large mining projects is under scrutiny, especially in light of high-profile legal disputes like the ongoing case involving coal giant Adani and the Queensland government.

Since 2013, the prevailing practice for major coal mines and gas developments has been to allow projects to proceed despite uncertain environmental impacts, with the belief that any harm can be addressed as the project progresses. This approach, known as “adaptive management,” was introduced with legislation called the Water Trigger, ironically intended to safeguard water resources from these industries.

However, research indicates that adaptive management often creates more problems than it solves, particularly concerning groundwater. Groundwater impacts are challenging to predict in advance, and monitoring may only detect issues when it’s too late to take effective action. Problems include groundwater depletion or contamination, the drying up of culturally and ecologically significant springs, changes to river flows, and diminished water quality. Concerns have arisen regarding the Doongmabulla springs due to the Adani mine.

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Adaptive management is meant to address uncertainty in environmental impact assessments by allowing decisions to proceed without full certainty, with ongoing monitoring and updated modeling improving knowledge over time. However, this approach is ill-suited to groundwater management, especially when impacts may be irreversible and have long lag times between project activities and full effects on the groundwater system.

The Adani coal mine controversy highlights shortcomings in adaptive management, particularly concerning the protection of the Doongmabulla Springs. The Queensland Department of Environment, Science and Innovation raised concerns about deficiencies in Adani’s groundwater modeling and gaps in monitoring, prompting legal action by Adani.

The legal dispute underscores the need for clearer criteria on when adaptive management is appropriate. Alternative, more precautionary approaches should be considered for projects with long intervals between mining activities and potentially irreversible damage. This could include placing limits on mine location, size, and water extraction rates, informed by detailed upfront research into water systems, geology, and ecosystem tolerance.

If adaptive management is to be used, there must be a reasonable prospect of detecting and preventing harm, along with clarity on when project activities must cease. Guidance should be provided on how monitoring data will inform impact predictions and management strategies, as well as how stakeholders will be involved in setting and reviewing environmental objectives.

Without addressing these issues, the “learning by doing” approach will continue to pose risks to Australian ecosystems and water resources.

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