National and Commonwealth heritage
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
Mawson’s Huts Historic Site is listed on National and Commonwealth Heritage Lists under Part 15 Divisions 1A and 3A of the EPBC Act. The Act requires the responsible government agency, in this case the Australian Antarctic Division, to make a plan to protect and manage the National and Commonwealth Heritage values of such places that it owns or controls.
The Department of the Environment (DoE) Heritage Strategy commits the Department — and therefore the Australian Antarctic Division — to finalising management plans for listed Commonwealth Heritage places by 2009.
The site is also listed on the Register of the National Estate. Under the EPBC Act assessments for the Register of the National Estate remain as one basis for assessing the potential impacts of activities at the site.
Since the site is listed as both a National and Commonwealth Heritage place, section 324S of the EPBC Act requires that the Environment Minister make a plan to protect and manage the place’s National Heritage values and the Commonwealth agency which owns or controls the place to make a plan. Such plans are binding on the Commonwealth and Commonwealth agencies (sections 324U and 341V). A Management Plan for the Mawson’s Hut site was developed in 2007, and revised in 2013, in order to satisfy and quantify obligations and guidelines for the site in accordance with both Antarctic Treaty requirements, and the requirements of National and Commonwealth heritage listings.
The EPBC Act (Chapter 2 Part 3 Divisions 1 & 2) prohibits any action that has, will have or is likely to have a significant impact on a ‘matter of national environmental significance’. A National Heritage place is one such matter of national environmental significance. In addition an action on Commonwealth land which is likely to have a significant impact on the environment, or an action taken elsewhere that is likely to have a significant impact on the environment on Commonwealth land, must be referred to DoE for approval under the Act. Mawson’s Huts are situated on Commonwealth land (sections 27 and 525). ‘Environment’ is defined to include ‘the heritage values of places’ (section 528).
Any action relating to the site and referred to the Minister will be subject to an environmental impact assessment, if the Minister decides that the action is likely to have a significant impact. The Minister decides whether to approve the action, and what conditions to impose, after considering the assessment.
Antarctic Treaty (Environmental Protection) Act 1980
Most of Australia’s obligations under the Madrid Protocol are given effect by the Antarctic Treaty (Environmental Protection) Act 1980 (ATEP Act). Works parties, tourist visits and other private visits to Cape Denison are subject to the ATEP Act.
The ATEP Act requires that all Australian activities in the Antarctic undergo an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before they commence. The proponent of the activity must provide a preliminary assessment of the likely environmental impacts of their proposed activity, which assesses whether the activity is likely to have (i) more than a minor or transitory impact; (ii) a minor or transitory impact; or (iii) no more than a negligible impact on the environment. The Australian Antarctic Division then advises the Minister or delegate of this assessment.
If the Minister (or delegate) considers that the environmental impact is likely to be no more than minor or transitory, the Minister may grant the proponent a written authorisation to carry on the activity. The Minister may choose to impose conditions to protect the environment and take into account other relevant considerations. More detailed assessments (initial or comprehensive environmental evaluations) are required for activities likely to involve higher levels of impact. For the purposes of the Madrid Protocol and the ATEP Act, the environment includes heritage values.
The ATEP Act (section 19(1) (d)) prohibits anyone from entering, or carrying on any activity in, an ASPA without a permit. An environmental impact assessment of such an activity is a prerequisite for a permit authorising access to the ASPA. In issuing a permit, the Minister is authorised to impose such conditions as he or she sees fit. Officers of the Australian Antarctic Division, as delegates of the Environment Minister, are empowered to grant permits on behalf of the Minister.
Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986
The Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act regulates the export of Australia’s significant cultural heritage objects (potentially covering, therefore, artefacts at or associated with Mawson’s Huts Historic Site).
Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976
The Historic Shipwrecks Act protects historic wrecks and relics in Commonwealth waters, extending from below the low water mark to the edge of the continental shelf (covering, therefore, the Aurora’s anchor, should it be discovered in Commonwealth Bay).
The Australian Antarctic Division’s intention is that this management plan contains the primary policies and guidelines for the management of activities at the site.
Determination under ATEP Act
To date, conservation works at the site have been subject to individual environmental impact assessments under the ATEP Act at the Initial Environmental Evaluation level. The Australian Antarctic Division proposes to seek a determination under section 12C of the ATEP Act, that Part 3 (Environmental Impact Assessment) of the Act does not apply to activities undertaken in accordance with this plan of management. The Minister may make such a determination if the Minister is satisfied that the activities are likely to have no more than a negligible impact on the Antarctic environment.
In essence, this would relieve the Australian Antarctic Division of the burden of assessing each season of conservation works. However, an environmental impact assessment would still be required for any activity not detailed in the Implementation Plan.