A major government housing development was exempted from environmental assessment requirements despite sewage contamination and concerns over explosive ordnance waste.
Last year ACT Environment Commissioner Kate Auty said she was uncomfortable with moves to exclude the same project from the environmental impact statement process.
In May, Planning Minister Mick Gentleman signed-off on an application to exempt the project from preparing an environmental impact statement.
Stage three of the ACT government’s Molonglo Valley urban development, located behind the National Arboretum, is expected to house about 27,000 people over 800 hectares.
Planning officials recommended the exemption application, saying contamination risks were well understood and had been addressed by remediation action plans.
A 2017 report from environmental consultants Umwelt identified the potential presence of unexploded ammunition at the Molonglo site.
“Molonglo Stage 3 may contain unexploded ordnance and explosive ordnance waste … dating to the First World War period,” it noted.
Almost 200 hectares of land had been cleared of bombs and ammunition in 2015, although a “small number” of areas remained to be cleared, Umwelt consultants wrote.
“These areas would be assessed and remediated prior to any construction activities commencing.”
The Umwelt report concluded that the presence of unexploded ordnance presented a high risk to the project, although one that could be dealt with.
“Given remediation has not been completed the [preliminary risk assessment] reflects that this is a current risk, which will need to be managed during design and construction.
“Following implementation of all recommended remediation and mitigation measures, the residual risk is expected to be low.”
Risks associated with unexploded ammunition were also noted in the exemption application submitted by the Land Development Agency.
“The EIS exemption notes that there are a number of ‘areas of environmental concern’," it said.
“This is associated with the project site’s long use as rural land, close proximity to forestry operations and potential for unexploded ordnances connected with historical Department of Defence field firing range.”
The 2017 Umwelt report identified three areas had been separately contaminated by former sewage ponds, and two old livestock dipping sites.
“Area B was reported to have areas of filling and three areas were identified as requiring soil remediation … due to elevated heavy metals (such as arsenic) and petroleum hydrocarbons,” consultants wrote.
“It is noted that the contaminated sludge ponds are situated within the existing river corridor and are therefore not within the Future Urban Area.”
The Land Development Agency’s exemption application also noted the need to exhume a pit of kangaroo carcasses buried at the Molonglo site.
“The ACT Environmental Protection Authority has determined that this pit poses a contamination risk to the adjacent future urban area and, as such, the government will exhume the contents of the pit and dispose of it elsewhere.”
In July 2017, the Environmental Protection Authority raised concerns about some of the information provided in the Umwelt report.
“[Supporting documentation] does not accurately reflect the status of the audits into contamination studies within the study area and incorrectly identifies sites as being on the register of contaminated sites,” the authority noted.
However, in March 2018 the authority agreed to support the revised exemption application subject to further details on site remediation.
Mr Gentleman said environmental impact exemptions were only granted when impacts had been thoroughly addressed by previous studies.
“Sites with possible contamination, including unexploded ordnance, must be assessed and may require remediation as the development progresses and as any actual contamination is identified,” he said.
“Although the sites were not listed on the register of contaminated sites, land contamination was considered as part of the EIS exemption assessment.”
Mr Gentleman said he had full confidence in the oversight applied to the Molonglo project.
The three-stage Molonglo Valley project would house about 55,000 people when it was developed.
The first stage of the project involved the development of the North Weston, Coombs and Wright suburbs.
Stage two, currently in the planning phase, involved the development of suburbs at Denman Prospect and Molonglo.
The ACT government’s Molonglo proposal has been dogged by environmental and ecological concerns, specifically around the destruction of threatened species’ habitats.
Last year ACT Environment Commissioner Kate Auty said she was “not comfortable” with attempts to bypass the environmental impact statement process.
“I am concerned that [matters of national environmental significance], in particular the pink-tailed worm-lizard, and potential ... habitats within the project area are being overlooked in the Molonglo Stage 3 development proposal," she said in a submission.