Shock funding cuts threaten to shut down legal services for local communities to protect the environment, state and territory Environmental Defender’s Offices (EDOs) warned today.

17 December 2013

Calling on the Federal government to restore the funding, the EDOs said defending the environment, community amenity and cultural heritage could become unaffordable for many Australians.

The Federal government today ended, without warning, $10 million in funding over four years, for nine states and territories EDOs, which specialise in public interest environmental and planning laws.

The funding cuts threaten closure for EDOs in Western Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory and North Queensland. For other EDOs in NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria the Federal funding reductions will see a cutback in legal services to the community, and follow a series of state funding cuts.

“Many Australians who care about protecting the environment will be alarmed about losing their EDOs,” said EDO NSW executive director Jeff Smith.

“This comes at a time when climate action in Australia is being dismantled, when the Great Barrier Reef faces unprecedented threats and when Canberra is intent on handing back environmental powers to the states and territories”.

The EDOs provide thousands of individuals and community groups across Australia, each year, with free legal advice on environmental and planning laws relating to new building or mining developments, water issues, pollution, indigenous and heritage issues.

EDOs also make submissions on government policy proposals and this week criticised the Federal government over its handover of environmental approvals for major projects to the states, known as the “one stop shop” process. This would lead to a lowering of environmental standards for major developments and threaten environmentally sensitive areas such as the Great Barrier Reef, the group said.

The EDOs have also run a number of landmark court cases for community groups across Australia including high profile cases against new coal mines, pollution of rivers by power stations, over development in residential areas and the potential impacts of coal seam gas developments on local water resources.

In a high profile case, the residents of the Hunter Valley village of Bulga, represented by EDO NSW, won a court challenge, earlier this year, to the expansion of a coal mine operated by a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, due to significant dust and noise pollution and the destruction of habitat for endangered plant and animal species. The case is currently on appeal.

“This is an extremely disappointing decision for hundreds of grassroots community organisations around Australia. Their local EDO is the only place they can afford to go for expert legal advice when they feel threatened by some major development,” said Jeff Smith.

“'The mining industry lobby has been actively calling for governments to defund the EDOs and will be breaking out the champagne over this short-sighted decision.”