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Reforms underway for NSW EIA process

New South Wales is initiating a three-stage consultation process to introduce reforms in its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process.

Stage 1 has already commenced, involving the distribution of a discussion paper for public review.

The EIA refers to the entire process for both State Significant Development (SSD) and State Significant Infrastructure (SSI) proposals.

It includes proposal development, Government agency and public consultation, exhibition of Environmental Impact Statements, the assessment and determination of projects, and the post approval phase when projects are constructed and operated.

In a legal update released by Clayton Utz partners Claire Smith and Laura Waterford, a range of issues with the existing EIA process have been identified by stakeholders, including:

  • Inconsistent and poor quality documents that are difficult to understand,

  • Lack of confidence in the project assessment process resulting from a failure to focus on the most important impacts and poor consideration of cumulative impacts,

  • The need for earlier and better community engagement,

  • Complexity of the process resulting in long and uncertain timeframes,

  • Uncertainties regarding approved projects and compliance monitoring during construction and operation, and

  • Uncertainties with project changes that occur following approval.

The EIA project seeks to streamline the current process and improve environmental outcomes, proposing improvements such as prioritising the most important issues, improved document consistency and quality, improved accountability of EIA professionals, better compliance monitoring, and greater certainty on EIA timeframes.

Proponents will likely be significantly impacted by the call for standardised conditions and rigorous monitoring, auditing and reporting requirements, according to the Clayton Utz update.

A code of practice for EIA professionals and strengthened peer review practices in the preparation of EIA documents have also been put forward.

Based on responses to the discussion paper, NSW will release the draft EIA guidelines for Stage 2 of the amendment process in 2017, followed by the public exhibition phase for Stage 3.