Development approval conditions typically require some form of environmental assessment to demonstrate compliance (e.g. implementation of an environmental monitoring program). Some developments, especially those involving environmentally relevant activities (ERAs), also require compliance auditing. The State requires that a ‘suitably qualified person’ (SQP) does these assessments and audits.
When is a ‘Suitably Qualified Person’ Required?
In Queensland, the definition of a SQP is a person who has ‘professional qualifications, training, skills or experience relevant to the nominated subject matter and can give authoritative assessment, advice and analysis to performance relative to the subject matter using the relevant protocols, standards, methods or literature’.
While the Flora Survey Guidelines for Protected Plants (pursuant to the Nature Conservation Act 1992) provides guidance for self-assessment, it does not provide for certification of SQPs. For auditing of contaminated land the Queensland Environmental Protection Act 1994 (EPA) takes the definition of a SQP a step further, requiring that a SQP also be a member of a relevant prescribed organisation, and that contaminated land auditors be certified within a program prescribed by the State. That is, for contaminated land auditing, SQPs are vetted and have a demonstrable ability to perform the required audit. However, in Queensland, no certification is required for water quality monitoring, biological monitoring or fisheries assessments (under the EPA, the Water Act 2000 or the Fisheries Act 1994).
Through our auditing and peer review work we have found examples where:
- water quality was assessed visually by comparing the ‘appearance’ of water between two sites
- subsurface (i.e. hyporheic) water flow in a highly ephemeral stream was used to argue that the stream had baseflow (i.e. was not ephemeral)
- conditions of approval were not satisfied by any component of an entire monitoring program, ranging from environmental flows and water quality to biological parameters, and
- a fish survey of a moderately sized watercourse used inappropriate gear, and caught only a single pest fish. In our follow up survey we caught over 120 native fish and over 1,100 pest fish (in a similar time frame).
These are just a few examples where freshwater ecological assessments have not constituted an ‘authoritative assessment’ or used ‘relevant protocols, standards, methods or literature’.
Why Does it Matter?
Perhaps its logical to first consider why a proponent might choose not to use a SQP. In our experience there are two likely reasons: that the proponent may not be in a position to know if a prospective service provider is actually suitably qualified and / or because at first glance they seem cheap. However, when the costs of delayed approvals, repeating assessments to the required standard and reputational damage are considered, the use of non-SQPs can often be very costly.
Where scheduling, budgeting and certainty matter, and where you have a reputation to guard, use of a SQP is simply a prudent investment.
Who is a Suitably Qualified Person?
So how can you identify a Suitably Qualified Person for freshwater ecological assessment and auditing?
It is commonly assumed that certification under the Australian River Assessment System (AUSRIVAS) ‘qualifies’ a person to competently assess freshwater ecology. However, AUSRIVAS does not support assessment of, for example, water or sediment quality, fish communities, fish passage, environmental flows or threatened species? The South East Queensland Ecosystem Health Monitoring Program (EHMP or ‘Healthy Waterways’) comprises monitoring of macroinvertebates, water quality, fish, ecosystem processes and riparian habitat, clearly illustrating that the assessment of freshwater ecosystems includes more than just macroinvertebrates. Thus, reliance on AUSRIVAS certification leaves a serious shortfall in the ‘qualifications, training, skills and experience relevant to the nominated subject matter’ required.
The Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand’s Certified Environmental Practitioner Scheme seeks to identify appropriately educated, trained and experienced practitioners, however it offers no specialist certification beyond ‘ecology’.
So, what then can a proponent rely upon to identify a Suitably Qualified Person? Perhaps we can glean some insight from the requirements of a certified contaminated lands auditor:
- a qualification relevant to the function, with the minimum being a bachelors degree from a recognised institution in a science discipline relevant to the function. In this case, the function is ‘assessment of freshwater ecology’; therefore, a SQP should have a bachelor degree in environmental science or ecology, having completed one or more subjects specific to freshwater ecology. An appropriately focused post-graduate degree adds significantly to a SQP’s credibility, with other relevant ancillary qualifications likely to further enhance a SQPs reputation and credibility.
- experience relevant to the function, extensive, appropriate experience is critical for verification of a SQP. A contaminated lands auditor needs to have at least 8 years experience out of the past 11 in contaminated lands assessment, and needs to provide statements that demonstrate experience. For a SQP in freshwater ecology, such statements of experience would likely include details of:
- the design and implementation of studies demonstrating assessment of a range of freshwater ecology components (e.g. water quality, aquatic habitat assessment, environmental flows, quantitative baseline and compliance biological monitoring, pest species management, threatened species management, fish passage assessment), including details of survey, analytical and statistical methods used
- assessment of a range of freshwater ecosystem types (lotic and lentic; perennial and ephemeral systems)
- a diverse range of project types (e.g. Environmental Impact Statement incorporating Environmental Values assessment and impact assessment, Receiving Environment Monitoring Program, fishway monitoring, incident investigations)
- application of relevant Commonwealth and State legislation, and policy and guidelines relevant to the ecological assessment of freshwater ecosystems, as well more general environmental legislative and policy such as general environmental duty, and environmental best practice principals.
- two suitable referees, with referees having demonstrated qualifications and experience relevant to the function (as described above), and direct and relevant knowledge of the SQP candidate’s work.
While the above points are derived from the requirements of a SQP with auditing functions, application of these standards also to persons performing ‘assessments’ is in reality the only practical way to ensure that you’re working with a Suitably Qualified Person – that is a person truly capable of both doing what’s required and being seen as capable.
Ultimately it comes down to the provision of value and management of risk. If gaining approvals on-time and on-budget are important, then it makes sense to do your homework and ensure you’re investing in a Suitably Qualified Person. If you trade on your reputation, then working with a Suitably Qualified Person is the only way to insure against reputational damage.
Dr John Thorogood and Dr Ben Cook jointly authored this paper.