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Assessment of Significance (Seven-part Test)

 

INTRODUCTION

Threatened species impact assessment is an integral component of environmental impact assessment. The ultimate objective of the application of section 5A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act), the Assessment of Significance, is to improve the standard of consideration afforded to threatened species, populations and ecological communities, and their habitats through the planning and assessment process, and to ensure this consideration is transparent. Under the Threatened Species Conservation Amendment Act 2002, the factors to be considered when determining whether an action, development or activity is likely to significantly affect threatened species, populations or ecological communities, or their habitats (known previously as the "8-part test"), have been revised. This affects s5A EP&A Act, s94 Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (TSC Act) and s220ZZ Fisheries Management Act 1994 (FM Act).

 

The revised factors maintain the same intent but focus consideration of likely impacts in the context of the local rather than the regional environment as the long-term loss of biodiversity at all levels arises primarily from the accumulation of losses and depletions of populations at a local level.  This is the broad principle underpinning the TSC Act, State and Federal biodiversity strategies and international agreements.  The consideration of impacts at a local level is designed to make it easier for local government to assess, and easier for applicants and consultants to undertake the Assessment of Significance because there is no longer a need to research regional and state-wide information.  The Assessment of Significance is only the first step in considering potential impacts.  Further consideration is required when a significant effect is likely and is more appropriately considered when preparing a Species Impact Statement.

 

The new section 94A of the TSC Act provides that the Minister for the Environment, with the concurrence of the Minister for Planning, may prepare assessment guidelines to assist in the interpretation and application of the factors. These guidelines have been prepared to facilitate a consistent and systematic approach when determining whether an action, development or activity is likely to significantly affect threatened species, populations or ecological communities, or their habitats in a direct or indirect manner. Making determinations requires technical expertise, knowledge of species, and their habitats and these guidelines have been prepared with the understanding that those undertaking the Assessment of Significance have sufficient knowledge and experience to do so. The guidelines seek to clarify technical terms, and assist with the interpretation of the factors. Further guidance, including examples and case studies will be provided in a supplementary document.

 

The Assessment of Significance should not be considered a "pass or fail" test as such, but a system allowing proponents to undertake a qualitative analysis of the likely impacts and ultimately whether further assessment needs to be undertaken via a Species Impact Statement.  All factors must be considered and an overall conclusion must be drawn from all factors in combination. Where there is any doubt regarding the likely impacts, or where detailed information is not available, a Species Impact Statement should be prepared.

 

The Assessment of Significance should not be the totality of threatened species assessment. Other issues not specifically addressed by the section 5A factors of assessment should be included and discussed in the broader impact assessment process, for example, in a Review of Environmental Factors or an Environmental Impact Statement.

 

The threatened species list

The Assessment of Significance is applied to species, populations and ecological communities listed on Schedules 1, 1A and 2 of the TSC Act and Schedules 4, 4A and 5 of the FM Act.  The applicant/proponent should develop a list of threatened species, populations and ecological communities which may be affected directly or indirectly, by the proposed action, development or activity. Adequate rationale should be provided to demonstrate how the list was derived.  If adequate surveys/studies have been undertaken to categorically demonstrate the species does not occur in the study area, or if not resident, will not utilise habitats on site on occasion or be influenced by off-site impacts of the activity, that species does not have to be considered.  Otherwise all species likely to occur in the study area (based on general species distribution information), and known to utilise that habitat type, should be assessed as if present.

 

Consultants need to be aware that any Final Determination to list a species, population or ecological community as Critically Endangered or Endangered made after lodgement of a section 91 licence application, development application or activity proposal needs to be included in the consideration of impacts and the application of the Assessment of Significance. Therefore applicants/proponents are advised to give due consideration to Preliminary Determinations made by the Scientific Committees. Vulnerable species listed after lodgement do not have to be subject to impact assessment so long as the development application is determined within 12 months of lodgement (section 105A EP&A Act).

 

The following websites provide information on new listings:

  • DECCW website

  • DPI website

 

To assist the assessment process, the Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECCW) and the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) have prepared species profiles for a number of threatened species. Consultants are advised to refer to these fact sheets for baseline information on species morphology, behaviour, habitat and threats.

  • website address & hyperlink

  • website address & hyperlink

 

Information is also available in the determinations made by the NSW Scientific and Fisheries Scientific Committees:

  • NSW Scientific Committee determinations website address & hyperlink

  • NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee determinations website address & hyperlink

 

Terminology

Throughout this guideline the terms subject site and study area are used.  It is important to have a thorough understanding of these terms as they apply to the assessment.

 

Subject site means the area directly affected by the proposal.

Study area means the subject site and any additional areas which are likely to be affected by the proposal, either directly or indirectly. The study area should extend as far as is necessary to take all potential impacts into account.

 

When applying each factor, consideration must be given to all of the likely direct and indirect impacts of the Proposal.  Direct impacts are those that directly affect habitat and individuals and include but are not limited to acute death through predation, trampling, poisoning of the animal/plant itself and the removal of suitable habitat. Indirect impacts occur when project-related activities affect resources in a manner other than a direct loss of the resource.  A broad range of impacts need to be considered, for example, killing the species through starvation, exposure, predation by domestic and/or feral animals, loss of breeding opportunities, loss of shade/shelter, deleterious changes in the water table, increased soil salinity, promotion of erosion, inhibition of nitrogen fixation, provision of suitable seed bed for exotic weed invasion, fertiliser drift, or increased human activity within or directly adjacent to sensitive habitat areas.

 

THE FACTORS OF ASSESSMENT

a)   in the case of a threatened species, whether the action proposed is likely to have an adverse effect on the life cycle of the species such that a viable local population of the species is likely to be placed at risk of extinction,

 

This factor refers only to those species listed on Part 1 and Part 4 of Schedule 1 and Part 1 of Schedule 1A of the TSC Act, and Part 1 and Part 4 of Schedule 4 of the FM Act.

 

Key terms:

  • Life cycle is the series or stages of reproduction, growth, development, aging and death of an organism.

  • Viable is the capacity to successfully complete each stage of the life cycle under normal conditions.

  • The local population is the population that occurs in the study area. In cases where multiple populations occur in the study area, each population should be assessed separately.

  • Risk of extinction is the likelihood that the local population will become extinct either in the short-term or in the long-term as a result of direct or indirect impacts on the viability of that population.

 

The key assessment is risk of extinction of the local population.  The risk of extinction will increase if any factor operates to reduce population size or reproduction success. The components of a species' life cycle are dependent on the habitat of, and threats to that species.  The removal or modification of habitat or the disruption of important periodic disturbance events may be detrimental to the survival of that species. Therefore, it is important that the applicant/proponent not only has an understanding of the species' life cycle, but also an understanding of the way in which a species utilises its habitat, the way this may change at particular times or in certain seasonal conditions, and whether the life cycle is dependent on a particular disturbance event e.g. fire or flood.

 

Demonstrating that a population is not viable would require considerable effort and study.  Therefore any known or presumed local population should be assumed to be viable unless the contrary can be conclusively demonstrated through analysis of local ecological information, records, references and knowledge of species' behaviour and habitat or through a comprehensive on-site ecological study.


b)   in the case of an endangered population, whether the action proposed is likely to have an adverse effect on the life cycle of the species that constitutes the endangered population such that a viable local population of the species is likely to be placed at risk of extinction,

This factor is essentially identical to factor (a) except that it refers only to endangered populations listed on Part 2 of Schedule 1 of the TSC Act and Part 2 of Schedule 4 of the FM Act, whereas factor (a) refers to species.

 

Hence the assessment should be undertaken as outlined in factor (a) when considering whether the life cycle of the individuals that comprise an endangered population is likely to be affected by the proposed development, activity or action.

 

c)    in the case of an endangered ecological community or critically endangered ecological community, whether the action proposed:

(i)     is likely to have an adverse effect on the extent of the ecological community such that its local occurrence is likely to be placed at risk of extinction, or

(ii)    is likely to substantially and adversely modify the composition of the ecological community such that its local occurrence is likely to be placed at risk of extinction,

 

This factor applies to endangered ecological communities listed under Part 3 of Schedule 1 of the TSC Act and Part 3 of Schedule 4 of the FM Act, and critically endangered ecological communities listed under Part 2 of Schedule 1A of the TSC Act and Part 2 of Schedule 4A of the Fisheries Management Act. Endangered and critically endangered ecological communities are defined in determinations made by the respective Scientific Committees.

 

It is important to note that size or age of the remnant are not determining factors as to whether a remnant constitutes a listed endangered or critically endangered ecological community.

 

Ecological communities are usually defined by two components – the geographical extent, and the species and physical composition. The relative importance of each varies with listed ecological communities. Hence this factor provides for consideration of both components:

  • Local occurrence of the ecological community

  • Modification of the community’s composition

 

Key terms:

  • The local occurrence is the community that occurs within the study area.

  • Similar to the definition provided in factor (a), risk of extinction is used here as the likelihood that the local occurrence of the ecological community will become extinct either in the short-term or in the long-term as a result of direct or indirect impacts on the community, and includes changes to ecosystem functioning.

  • Composition refers to both the assemblage of flora and fauna species, and the physical structure of the ecological community. Note that, while many communities are identified primarily by their vascular plant composition, all species that occur in a community are part of that community.

 

Determining the risk of extinction of an ecological community is difficult. Critical thresholds of remnant size, and species and structural composition required to maintain ecosystem functioning will vary from community to community.

 

When evaluating the significance of the impact, consideration must be given to whether the life cycles of the species which make up the ecological community will be disrupted, in a similar manner to the consideration of individual species described in factor (a). Disproportionate impacts may occur on certain components of the community that may cause those components to be placed at a greater risk of extinction without explicitly placing the entire community at risk.  Loss of individual species from a community may simplify faunal, floristic or vegetation structure and have flow-on effects to other plant and animal species. This may increase its susceptibility to extreme events and decrease its resilience. An assessment of ecosystem functioning is critical to this factor.

 

d)    in relation to the habitat of a threatened species, population or ecological community:

(i)     the extent to which habitat is likely to be removed or modified as a result of the action proposed, an

(ii)    whether an area of habitat is likely to become fragmented or isolated from other areas of habitat as a result of the proposed action, and

(iii)   the importance of the habitat to be removed, modified, fragmented or isolated to the long-term survival of the species, population or ecological community in the locality,

 

Key terms:

  • Habitat is the area occupied, or periodically or occasionally occupied, by any threatened species, population or ecological community and includes all the different aspects (both biotic and abiotic) used by species during the different stages of their life cycles.

  • Extent refers to the physical area removed and/or to the compositional components of the habitat and the degree to which each is affected.

  • The importance of the habitat will be related to the stages of the species' life cycles and how reproductive success may be affected.

  • Locality has the same meaning prescribed to local population of a species or local occurrence of an ecological community i.e. the habitat that occurs within the study area.

 

When applying this factor, consideration must be given to all short-term and long-term impacts (direct and indirect) on habitat that is likely to support threatened biota regardless of whether the habitat occurs on the subject site.  This is equally true for occupied and unoccupied habitat as the recovery of threatened species, populations and ecological communities relies on having access to suitable habitat to move into as numbers increase.

 

A quantitative and qualitative approach to assessing the extent to which habitat is likely to be removed or modified/degraded should consist of the following steps:

 

  • An assessment of the area and quality of habitat of the threatened species, population or ecological community that occurs within the locality;
  • An assessment of the area and quality of habitats of the threatened species, population or ecological community that occurs within the study area;

  • An estimation of the area and quality that the habitat of the study represents in relation to the local distribution of that habitat;

  • An estimation of the area and quality of the habitat of the study area which is to be removed or modified by the proposed development, activity or action or indirectly by longer term impacts from the proposed development such as increased predation, weed invasion, salinity etc;

  • An estimation of the area and quality of the habitat of the region that will be removed or modified by the proposed development, activity or action; and

  • An assessment of the ecological integrity of the habitat to be affected and of the habitat which will remain.

 

When deciding whether an area of known habitat is likely to become fragmented or isolated from other areas of habitat, it is necessary to identify and assess the patterns and extent of habitat connectivity.  The habitat being impacted upon may form part of a corridor, be a cul-de-sac area of habitat or an isolate. Recent Landsat imagery, aerial photographs, topographic maps and data obtained from on-ground investigations are useful information sources for assessing this.

 

Consideration should be given to the dispersal and genetic exchange mechanisms of individual species and whether the isolation of currently interconnecting or proximate areas of habitat for threatened species, populations or ecological communities will adversely affect the maintenance of gene flow and the ability to sustain viable populations. It should also be noted that isolation can occur by a variety of habitat modifications and is not confined to the clearing of vegetation.

 

e)   whether the action proposed is likely to have an adverse effect on critical habitat (either directly or indirectly),

 

This factor is aimed at assessing whether the proposal is likely to affect (directly or indirectly) areas of critical habitat present in the study area.  Critical habitat refers only to those areas of land listed in the Register of Critical Habitat kept by the Director General of Department of Environment and Conservation and the Register of Critical Habitat kept by the Director General of Department of Primary Industries.  These registers are open for public inspection during ordinary business hours and copies of, or extracts from, the register may be purchased on request. A list of the areas of critical habitat can be obtained from:

  • DECCW website

  • DPI website

 

Maps showing the location of critical habitat are kept by Director General of Environment and Conservation and the Director General of Primary Industries.

 

Developments or activities which require consent or approval under the EP&A Act which are proposed on land that is, or is part of, critical habitat, automatically require the preparation of a species impact statement and the concurrence of the Director General of Environment and Conservation or the Director General of Primary Industries, depending on under which Act the critical habitat is declared. In some cases consultation with the Minister for the Environment or the Minister for Primary Industries is required.

 

In accordance with the EP&A Act, Local Environmental Plans and Regional Environmental Plans should identify any land that has been declared critical habitat.  These plans are available for public inspection at the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources, the office of the council to which a Local Environmental Plan/Regional Environmental Plan applies or such other premises operated or controlled by the council.

 

f)    whether the action proposed is consistent with the objectives or actions of a recovery plan or threat abatement plan,

 

When deciding whether the action proposed is consistent with the objectives or actions of a recovery plan or threat abatement plan, consideration must be given to relevant approved recovery plans and threat abatement plans.  In addition, it is recommended that reference should be made to draft recovery plans and draft threat abatement plans, and threatened species profiles, which are available via the DECCW and DPI Internet sites.

 

Draft and approved recovery plans can be obtained from:

  • OEH website - recovery plans

  • DPI website - recovery plans

 

Draft and approved threat abatement plans can be obtained from:

  • OEH website - threat abatement plans

  • DPI website - threat abatement plans

 

Threatened species profiles can be obtained from

  • OEH website

  • DPI website

 

In 2004 amendments were made to the TSC Act and Fisheries Management Act which removes the mandatory requirement to prepare recovery plans and threat abatement plans, and instead requires preparation of a Threatened Species Priorities Action Statement (TSC Act s90A and FM Act s220ZVA).  The Priorities Action Statement will set out the measures required to promote the recovery of each threatened species, population and ecological community to a position of viability in nature and for managing each key threatening process.  In applying this factor, consideration should be given to measures outlined in the Priorities Action Statement as well as existing recovery plans and threat abatement plans which will remain in place.

 

Once prepared, the Priorities Action Statement will be available on the DECCW and DPI websites.

 

g)   whether the action proposed constitutes or is part of a key threatening process or is likely to result in the operation of, or increase the impact of, a key threatening process.

 

This factor refers only to those key threatening processes (KTP) listed on Schedule 3 of the TSC Act and Schedule 6 of the FM Act. All determinations to list KTP made by the NSW and Fisheries Scientific Committees can be found at:

  • DECCW website for listed KTP

  • DPI website for listed KTP

 

DECCW and DPI have produced fact sheets for a number of KTPs.  They can be found at:

  • DECCW website for KTP FACT SHEETS

  • DPI website for KTP FACT SHEETS

 

In addition to deciding whether the action/activity constitutes a KTP, consideration must also be given to whether the proposal is likely to exacerbate a KTP. The species listed in the determination as being "at risk" warrant particular consideration if these species are known or likely to occur on the site of the development or activity.

 

MAKING AN ASSESSMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE

The threatened species Assessment of Significance should not be considered as a "pass or fail test".  Instead, the heads of consideration are used to inform the decision-making process of the likelihood of significant effect, and where necessary, to trigger further assessment in the form of a Species Impact Statement.  All factors should be considered as well as any other information deemed relevant to the assessment. The Assessment of Significance should not be used as a substitute for a Species Impact Statement.  Where it is difficult to determine whether a significant impact is likely, a Species Impact Statement should be prepared in accordance with the precautionary principle.

 

Mitigating, ameliorative or compensatory measures proposed as part of the action, development or activity should not be considered in determining the degree of the effect on threatened species, populations or ecological communities, unless the measure has been proven successful for that species in a similar situation. In many cases where complex mitigating, ameliorative or compensatory measures are required, such as translocation, bush restoration, purchase of land, further assessment through the Species Impact Statement process is likely to be required.

 

In determining the nature and magnitude of an impact, it is important to consider matters such as:

  • Pre-construction, construction and occupation/maintenance phases,

  • All on-site and off­site impacts, including location, installation, operation and maintenance of auxiliary infrastructure and fire management zones,

  • All direct and indirect impacts,

  • The frequency and duration of each known or likely impact/action,

  • The total impact which can be attributed to that action over the entire geographic area affected, and over time,

  • The sensitivity of the receiving environment, and

  • The degree of confidence with which the impacts of the action are known and understood.

 

Recovery and threat abatement plans, priorities action statements and threatened species profiles may provide further guidance on whether an action/activity is likely to be significant.

 

Application of the precautionary principle requires that a lack of scientific certainty about the potential impacts of an action does not itself justify a decision that the action is not likely to have a significant impact. If information is not available to conclusively determine that there will not be a significant impact on a threatened species, population or ecological community, or its habitat, then it should be assumed that a significant impact is likely.

 

Prepared by the Department of Environmental Conservation, August 2005.

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