More than 30 scientists with expertise in biodiversity conservation have expressed their grave concerns over allegations about the use of inappropriate offsets to gain approval for the Maules Creek Mine.
In an open letter to Environment Minister Greg Hunt, released today, the scientists warn that the principles of scientifically sound and robust offsetting may have been violated in the approval process for the mine.
The scientists are concerned that the offset land to be conserved to compensate for the loss of critically endangered woodland in Leard State Forest is not the same ecological community that will be cleared for the mine.
The recent audit of the offsets commissioned by Whitehaven found substantial flaws with the vegetation mapping, resulting in the removal of 492 hectares of the area originally mapped as critically endangered ecological community. This result vindicated the allegations made by conservation groups that the mapping was false and misleading, but still did not go far enough, according to ecologist Phil Spark.
In the letter to Greg Hunt the scientists request that "the Federal Government now sends its most experienced ecologists to undertake a comprehensive biodiversity assessment of the offsets in question.”
They continue, "If it is found that the approval for the Maules Creek coal mine was based on offsets not to be like for like vegetation communities nor equal to or better condition threatened species habitat, then we would urge you to revoke the approval”.
A senate inquiry into the use environmental offsets has been hearing evidence this week from witnesses who allege there have been numerous abuses of the offsets policy to gain approval for large destructive resource projects. Yesterday, senior staff from the Federal Department of the Environment appeared before the inquiry, to answer questions about the Department's conduct in relation to the Maules Creek controversy.
Phil Spark said, "The area of Leard State Forest that will be destroyed for the Whitehaven mine is home to at least 28 threatened species of plants and animals. The loss of the critically endangered woodland will cause irreversible harm to it and the dependent threaten species. The Department has never actually sent anybody out to look at the forest and investigate this scandal and the forest is due to be cleared imminently."
The original proponent of the Maules Creek mine, Aston Resources, has been mentioned several times in the current investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, and a blockade has been underway in Leard State Forest for over four months which has seen over one hundred and thirty people arrested in action to stop the forest being cleared.
The statement from the group of scientific experts adds weight to concerns from local landholders and others who have been pushing for Greg Hunt to suspend or revoke the approval of the mine and save the area.
Spokesperson for the scientists Dr John Hunter said, "It is imperative that the Environment Minister respond to these concerns and suspend the approval of the Maules Creek mine until he at least can be certain that the approval condition for equivalent or better and like for like offsets can be met."