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Estimates: Community Affairs Legislation Committee (National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assesment Scheme & CSG)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 10 Feb 2016

Lee investigates why the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assesment Scheme has delayed the release of its national assessment of CSG chemicals. Dr Brian Richards, Director of NICNAS, explains the involvement of the Department of the Environment and its responsibilities for the project. He also notes that this has proven to be a very complex undertaking.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you tell us why the delay in releasing the NICNAS national assessment of CSG chemicals has occurred. I understand it was originally to be released at the end of 2013.

Dr Richards: Just by way of initial clarification, this project is being coordinated by the Office of Water Science and the Department of the Environment. In July 2012, NICNAS and CSIRO and some other parts of the Department of the Environment were contracted to do elements of this project. The partners in this project have been providing a series of reports in various draft phases to the Office of Water Science. This is a very complex project that is probably more complex than was initially comprehended when the project started and was first commissioned by the Department of the Environment. The timing of the release, the decisions around the release and, in fact, the form of the final documentation is a matter for the Department of the Environment, and I would respectfully refer the questions-

Senator RHIANNON: Can I just check-it was originally supposed to be out by the end of 2013, is that correct?

Dr Richards: The original contract with NICNAS, CSIRO and the Chemical Assessment Section of the Department of the Environment-the original memorandum of understanding-was a 12 months memorandum of understanding. I cannot comment on when the Department of the Environment intended to release the report, but the original contract was for 12 months work, which has subsequently been extended a number of times.

Senator RHIANNON: So you are saying that it is the Department of the Environment that is ultimately responsible for this time line that I am trying to work out?

Dr Richards: That is exactly what I am saying.

Senator RHIANNON: Have the sections of the work that NICNAS is responsible for been completed on time?

Dr Richards: There have been a number of project slippages at various points of the project. As with any project under any form of contract-whether it is a memorandum of understanding or a formal legal contract- there are usually clauses that allow for unexpected delays to occur and set up mechanisms for how they should be managed. There has been a steering committee that has been managing the process-agreeing or not agreeing, managing and mitigating project slippages and-

Senator RHIANNON: The question was: was NICNAS on time? From that answer, it sounds like it was not on time.

Dr Richards: NICNAS has generally met the time frames. There have been some delays, and there have been other negotiations relating to-

Senator RHIANNON: How long have those delays been?

Dr Richards: There are a whole lot of different inputs into the project. As I say, it is a very complex project. In terms of individual elements of the project and when each one was originally due, when it was ultimately delivered and the number of steps, I would have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: You can take that on notice, thank you. I understand too that the independent expert scientific committee raised concerns about the delay in delivering the final report in April 2014, and then there was a draft final report completed in October 2014. Is that correct?

Dr Richards: That is a matter for the environment department. The environment department is coordinating this project and it is their expert committee, so that is not a matter I can comment on.

Senator RHIANNON: So the lead agency is the Department of the Environment?

Dr Richards: That is correct.

Senator RHIANNON: So you are subsidiary to them? You just hand your reports over to them?

Dr Richards: That is correct. We have provided a range of technical inputs into the project and the Department of the Environment is responsible for determining how those come together and when they are published.

Senator RHIANNON: When did you send your report to the Department of the Environment?

Dr Richards: We have provided quite a range of reports in various drafts over that period of time, since the project started. As I mentioned before, I am happy to take on notice when the different drafts of the report were provided and when they were due.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, thanks. I was interested in the predicted environmental concentrations too. Did industry have input into the recalculation of the predicted environmental concentrations of chemicals which informed the health and environmental assessments?

Dr Richards: That is a question for the Department of the Environment. The predicted environmental concentrations were calculated by the Department of the Environment. As you say, they were an input into the human health risk assessments, so NICNAS took figures from the Department of the Environment and plugged them into our risk assessment calculations, but issues around how and when those were calculated, and what the influences were, would be a matter for the Department of the Environment.

Senator RHIANNON: Just talking about input, did industry have any input into elements of the report?

Dr Richards: As far as NICNAS is concerned, one of the early phases of the work that NICNAS did, as I have mentioned at previous estimates hearings, is that we undertook a survey of companies involved in coal-seam gas work and asked for a range of information so they provided input. This was a voluntary survey so we respectfully and politely asked if they would provide us information. A number of companies wanted to negotiate with us about the way in which any commercially sensitive, confidential information would be managed and protected in that process. So we did have interactions with a number of companies in order to obtain the information that was necessary for that work to go ahead. As far as NICNAS goes, we have engaged with companies-

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on notice and provide the list of companies you invited to participate, and which ones did?

Dr Richards: We do expect all of this information to be in the final report when the environment department releases it-

Senator RHIANNON: But considering it has been delayed for so long, could you take that on notice and release that, please?

Dr Richards: I will certainly take the question on notice. As I say, it is not necessarily my information to release.

Senator RHIANNON: But it is a NICNAS decision?

Dr Richards: In terms of which companies NICNAS engaged with, I will certainly take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that at a meeting of the IESC on the 15 March 2014, the following was minuted: discussion on the feasibility of a follow-on stage to the current national chemical assessment project. Were you aware of the discussion of the feasibility of a follow-on stage?

Dr Richards: The Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development is an expert committee managed by the Department of the Environment. It is not an advisory committee to NICNAS and so any recommendations from that committee go to the Department of the Environment or the Minister for the Environment.

Senator RHIANNON: Does that apply to OWS as well?

Dr Richards: OWS is a division within the Department of the Environment.

Senator RHIANNON: I also want to ask about the communication strategy. I understand this comes up in November 2015 in some of these communications. Have you any resources allocated for a communication strategy about this matter?

Dr Richards: The matter of a communication strategy is a matter for the Department of the Environment.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, thank you very much...

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