Environment Law in the Northern Territory

Environment protection and minerals mining

Overview

Exploration and mining for minerals or extractive minerals can cause damage to the environment. Mining companies conducting exploration or mining of minerals or extractive minerals must comply with environment protection obligations in the Northern Territory Mining Management Act.

There are five main ways that this law tries to protect the environment:

  1. mining companies must comply with environmental obligations at mining sites
  2. there are criminal offences for mining companies that cause serious or material harm to the environment or cause an environmental nuisance if they breach the environmental obligations
  3. an Authorisation is required from the Department of Mines and Energy before undertaking exploration or mining activities
  4. mining companies must have environmental protection management systems in place for mining sites
  5. mining companies must pay money as security to the Department of Mines and Energy so that mining sites can be rehabilitated and any environmental harm caused by mining activities can be cleaned up without the Northern Territory government having to pay for it

If exploration or mining operations are likely to have significant environment impacts, an environmental impact assessment will be needed (read our Fact Sheet on Environmental assessment of mining activities).

When does the Mining Management Act apply?

The Mining Management Act applies to all mining activities for mineral and extractive minerals in the Northern Territory.

It applies to all aspects of mining including mining, processing, tailings, decommissioning, rehabilitation and works associated with mining.

It also applies to all mineral and extractive exploration that will cause substantial disturbance to the land.  Substantial disturbance means:

  • land clearing
  • an activity that is likely to have a significant impact on flora or fauna
  • waterworks such as dams, canals, alteration or drainage of river or creek banks, water courses or shorelines
  • works above the ground such as building roads, bridges, railways, airstrips, conveyors, pipelines, power lines or telephone lines
  • earthworks
  • blasting
  • extracting resources from the surface of the land, underground, riverbeds or under the sea
  • underground works such as tunnels, wells, pipelines or cables
  • stockpiling ore, overburden, waste materials or by-products
  • building a camp for workers
  • active remote sensing and seismic techniques in water
  • establishing seismic lines, drill pads, drill holes, grids, and tracks.

What is the environment?

Environment means land, air, water, ecosystems and organisms.  The environment also includes the well-being of humans, structures made or adapted by humans, the amenity of the site and economic, cultural and social conditions.

What are the environmental obligations?

The main environmental obligations under the Mining Management Act are:

  • Every person on a mining site has an obligation to take care of the environment
  • Operators must ensure that the environmental impact of mining activities is limited to what is necessary for the establishment, operation and closure of a site
  • Operators of mining sites have to set up an environmental protection management system and check that it works
  • A person must not willfully or recklessly cause environmental harm on a mining site or interfere with or misuse anything provided on a mining site for environmental protection
  • Any person on a mining site must follow all reasonable directions given by the operator about preventing environmental harm

Criminal offences for harming the environment

For minerals and extractive minerals mining, there are criminal offences for causing serious or material environmental harm or an environmental nuisance at a mining site.

Harm means any type of harm or adverse impact on the environment, including any risk of harm occurring.  The harm can affect any part of the environment and could be caused by anything.  For example, harm could result from a pollution incident or from someone clearing native vegetation.

Serious environmental harm is the highest level of environmental harm under the Act. It includes environmental harm that:

  • is irreversible or otherwise of a high impact or on a wide scale;
  • damages an aspect of the environment that is of a high conservation value, high cultural value or high community value or is of special significance;
  • results or is likely to result in more than $50,000 or the prescribed amount (whichever is greater) being spent in taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the environmental harm or rehabilitate the environment; or
  • results in actual or potential loss or damage to the value of more than $50,000 or the prescribed amount (whichever is greater).

Material environmental harm is the second highest level of harm. It means environmental harm that:

  • is not trivial or negligible in nature;
  • consists of an environmental nuisance of a high impact or on a wide scale;
  • results, or is likely to result, in not more than $50,000 or the prescribed amount (whichever is greater) being spent in taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the environmental harm or rehabilitate the environment; or
  • results in actual or potential loss or damage to the value of not more than $50,000 or the prescribed amount (whichever is greater).

An environmental nuisance is an adverse effect on the amenity of land caused by noise, smoke, dust, fumes or odour or an unsightly or offensive condition on the land.

For an offence of harming the environment to be proven, 4 elements are needed. These are:

  1. a person (or a company) intentionally or negligently does an act or omits to do an act at a mining site; and
  2. the act or omission results in a breach of an environmental obligation under the Mining Management Act (set out above);and
  3. the act or omission results in serious or material environmental harm or an environmental nuisance; and
  4. the person
    • intends the results to happen or
    • is aware that they will happen in the ordinary course of events or
    • is aware that there is a substantial risk that the results will happen and having regard to the circumstances it is unjustifiable to take the risk.

Pollution offences

There is an offence if a person releases waste or a contaminant from a mining site and the release is not authorised by the mining management plan for the site. This offence applies regardless of whether the release occurs on or outside the mining site.  This is an offence of strict liability. This means that the person who commits the offence does so whether or not they did it intentionally, recklessly, negligently or could be reasonably expected to know about it.

Who can enforce offences for environmental harm?

Enforcement of offences under the Mining Management Act may only be commenced by the Chief Executive Officer of the Department of Mines and Energy or with his or her written approval. Prosecution proceedings must be commenced within 12 months after the day on which the Chief Executive Officer first became aware of the commission of the alleged offence.

Members of the public may bring private prosecutions if they obtain consent of Chief Executive Officer of the Department of Mines and Energy. There are defences to the offences, so it is important to get legal advice before starting any prosecution.

What are the penalties?                   

The environmental offences under the Mining Management Act have penalties divided into four levels set by the Environmental Offences and Penalties Act.  The penalties relate to the level of environmental harm caused by the offence. Level 1 environmental offences are the most serious. These attract high fines or imprisonment if a person is found guilty of the offence. Level 4 environmental offences are the least serious. They are punishable by lesser fines.  For more information, read our Fact Sheet on Penalties.