North East Link: Environmental assessment ignored

– Virginia Trescowthick, EJA Lawyer 

Earlier this month, Victoria’s largest ever road project, the North East Link, was assessed by the Minister for Planning as ‘environmentally acceptable’. This flies in the face of recommendations by the Minister’s own independent panel, which after an exhaustive review of 874 submissions and 34 days of public hearings, determined that the project was not environmentally acceptable without significant changes. It begs the question, what’s the point of having an environmental impact assessment process if the Minister just ignores it? 

Up to 52 hectares of native vegetation – enough to fill the MCG thirty times over – is expected to be destroyed by the project. This includes the clearing of endangered native vegetation along tributaries of the Yarra River and the removal of critical habitat for endangered species at the Simpson’s Barracks. The project will have profound impacts on the use and enjoyment of parkland by Melburnians. It will also result in the loss of more than 25,000 established trees, at a time when Melbourne’s urban tree canopy is already in decline. 

Victoria’s environmental impact assessment legislation is pitifully weak. The Environment Effects Act 1978 has hardly changed in 40 years, despite multiple reviews and a Parliamentary inquiry concluding that the current legislative framework does not necessarily contribute to good environmental outcomes. 

Unlike all other states in Australia, our environmental impact assessment legislation lacks clearly defined objectives and provides no credible ministerial assessment framework. The process is highly discretionary and almost entirely dependent on non-binding, unenforceable guidelines.  

One of the fundamental problems with highly discretionary processes is that they are ripe for politicisation, with environmental considerations set aside in favour of political interests.  

This is particularly concerning given the projects assessed under the environment impact assessment legislation are large and likely to have significant impacts on the environment. Such projects are usually proposed (or strongly backed) by government and then assessed by the Minister for Planning, who is a senior member of the government. This lack of independence seriously undermines good decision-making and should be a matter of great community concern. 

The North East Link is a perfect example of a member of the government making a decision about the environmental acceptability of one of the government’s own projects (or ‘election promises’) without regard to clear and enforceable legislative criteria.  

The North East Link is part of the Victorian government’s ‘Big Build’. It will connect the Eastern Freeway to the M80 Ring Road via surface roads, trenches and a tunnel under the Yarra River.  

As part of the environmental impact assessment process, an independent panel was appointed by the Minster to advise on the environmental acceptability of the project. Following a public hearing that spanned 9 weeks and in which more than 50 expert witnesses gave evidence, the panel concluded that the project is not environmentally acceptable unless significant changes were made. 

The panel recommended that the Minister seriously consider extending the length of the tunnel under the Yarra River to reduce environmental impacts. They also recommended that land clearing at one of the most significant native vegetation sites in inner metropolitan Melbourne, Simpson Barracks, be avoided. Citing concerns about additional costs, the Minister dismissed both recommendations. 

It seems that the North East Link project was a foregone conclusion before the assessment process even began. The Minister’s assessment of the project as environmentally ‘acceptable’ is a clear example that Victoria’s environment effects process is completely inadequate for the task of securing a sustainable future for Victoria.