A conservation officer from the Office of Environment and Heritage has resigned from his position over what he describes as capture of the Department of Planning and the Office of Environment and Heritage by the coal and gas industries, leading to the real possibility that species and habitats being pushed to extinction.
Mr Paull alleges that Rio Tinto are in breach of their conditions of consent for the Warkworth mine, having failed to fulfil obligations to protect offset areas for the endangered Warkworth Sands Woodland or demonstrate that they can rehabilitate this community from cleared land.
The conditions of consent for the current mining operation require Rio Tinto to permanently protect an area of Warkworth Sands Woodland “Prior to clearing any Warkworth Sands Woodland on the site.” Recent aerial photographs reveal an area of this endangered community has been cleared, but Mr Paull says no areas have yet been protected as compensation.
The New South Wales Planning and Assessment Commission is currently considering a proposal to expand the Warkworth mine, contrary to a decision of the Land and Environment Court in February 2013.
David Paull said, “The Department of Planning and the Office of Environment and Heritage have been captured by the mining industry and are developing policies which will guarantee further losses of biodiversity. We are condemning a suite of ecosystems and species to extinction, as mining clears more and more remnant bushland, with the Government agencies consent and support.”
Mr Paull singled out the Major Projects Offset Policy and the State Environmental Planning Policy for Mining for criticism, but says even the poor practices the offsets policy allows are not being followed in the case of the Warkworth mine.
“Warkworth Sands Woodland should be listed as critically endangered. It can’t sustain any further clearing without its viability being compromised, in my view. But OEH has overridden science and common sense to give Rio Tinto what it is demanding by accepting an offset arrangement using supplementary and additional measures. If this is how offset policy is to be implemented in NSW, we can expect significant biodiversity loss in the future.”
The Planning and Assessment Commission is due to deliver a report on the merits of the Warkworth continuation project by 20 February.
- The Warkworth continuation project is virtually identical to the Warkworth expansion project that was rejected by the Land and Environment Court in April 2013 in part because of its unacceptable biodiversity impacts.
- It is now known that the Department of Planning established two working groups in the wake of the Land and Environment Court case against the Warkworth expansion in which Rio Tinto, their lawyers and ecological consultants participated along with the Office of Environment and Heritage.
- The public were not informed about these working groups and when queried about them, the Department of Planning initially denied they existed. The existence of the working groups and participation by Rio Tinto and their representatives was confirmed in budget estimates hearings in August by Department representative Chris Wilson, though the minutes and discussions of these working groups remain a mystery.
- The Warkworth Continuation project seeks to clear over 450ha of three endangered ecological communities, including 17% of the remaining extent of the Warkworth Sands Woodland.
- Most of the area to be cleared is the Central Hunter Grey Box-Ironbark woodland endangered community. The 365ha the mine will clear is 2.5% of the remaining extent of that community.
- These woodlands provide habitat for the critically endangered Regent honeyeater and the endangered Swift parrot, both of which have been confirmed to be present there. No "Tier 1" offset arrangements have been made for the Regent honeyeater which is required under the Offset Policy.
- Despite this, the Office of Environment and Heritage has issued a statement certifying that the measures to mitigate or offset the biodiversity impact of this project are adequate.
- OEH whistleblower, David Paull, reveals that this decision was made by senior bureaucrats in OEH who had been railroaded by the DPE and Rio Tinto.
- Paull alleges that the biodiversity values of the offset properties signed off as part of the Warkworth Continuation proposal were not assessed when OEH provided ‘certification’ of the package.
- Current OEH offset policy allows the controversial practice of allowing companies to claim biodiversity offset credit for their plans to rehabilitate land currently being open-cut mined.
 NSW Budget estimates hearings. 21 August 2014. Transcript available here: http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/committee.nsf/0/7BDCA620D9D457AECA257D3B001B3E1C