Government concedes error on Adani pipeline decision

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The federal government has conceded it erred by failing to consider thousands of public submissions when evaluating a plan by Indian mining giant Adani to pump billions of litres of water from a river in drought-stricken central Queensland.

The pipeline development came as Queensland officials are due on Thursday to hand down a decision on Adani's separate groundwater management plan. If that plan is approved, Adani has previously said the way will be clear to start construction on the controversial coal project.

The Suttor River in central Queensland, from which Adani intends to pump water to feed its Carmichael coal mine.

The Suttor River in central Queensland, from which Adani intends to pump water to feed its Carmichael coal mine. Credit:Christine Carlisle

The legal action, launched last year by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), challenged a decision made on behalf of former environment minister Melissa Price to waive a full environmental assessment for an Adani pipeline that will extract up to 12.5 billion litres of water a year from the Suttor River and feed it to the proposed Carmichael mine.

Large coal mines require federal approval if they are likely to have a significant impact on a water resource. This so-called "water trigger" means projects receive a higher level of scrutiny than under local and state assessments, including input from an independent expert scientific committee.

The ACF had argued that the pipeline would not be built if not for the mine and was essential to its operation, and therefore the water trigger should apply.

Adani had claimed the water trigger applied only to water used in the extraction of coal and should therefore not be applied to its plan, which it calls the North Galilee Water Scheme. Coal mines can use water to wash coal, suppress dust, cool down equipment and reduce the risk of fires.

A senior department official acting on behalf of Ms Price, known as a delegate, agreed with Adani's view.

However, the government on Wednesday conceded in the Federal Court that it did not properly consider public submissions, which are understood to have numbered more than 2000.

Court orders show that while the delegate considered a summary of public submissions, "there was a material failure by the delegate to consider some of the public comments received". The government also admitted that the Department of the Environment and Energy lost an unknown number of public comments on the matter.

The ACF was represented by the Environmental Defenders Office Queensland.

ACF chief executive Kelly O'Shanassy said the government's concession showed it was "fundamentally failing to properly apply national environment laws to its approvals for Adani's mine and has been ignoring deep public concern about the mine's environmental impact".

New Environment Minister Sussan Ley is now expected to re-examine whether the water trigger should apply to the plan, taking public submissions into account. The government has been ordered to pay the ACF's legal costs.

In response to Wednesday's court order, Adani said in a statement that the department "identified a potential record-keeping administrative error" relating to public submissions and that the government would re-make the decision.

"Importantly, the North Galilee Water Scheme is not required for us to commence construction" of the Carmichael mine and rail project, it said.

The company says the volume of water to be pumped from the river catchment has already received environmental approval and the Queensland government has granted a water licence.

Comment has been sought from the department.