Key departments in the Baird government have "been captured in a big coal and gas rush" that has run roughshod over environmental protection measures, according to a former state ecologist.
David Paull, who resigned his position as a biodiversity officer in Newcastle for the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), said changes including giving the economy top priority in State Environmental Planning Policies had "seriously undermined the ability of OEH as a regulator".
"In the current policy, no impact is so damaging that it cannot be approved, regardless of how close to extinction the ecosystem or wildlife species being harmed is, and habitat for species threatened with extinction could be replaced or 'offset' with almost entirely different habitat," Mr Paull said in an open letter sent to Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Premier Mike Baird and other ministers.
Experts in the OEH were often "just going through the motions", with their advice on setting conditions to new mining projects often ignored or altered by planning colleagues, he said.
"[R]epeatedly these conditions are altered by [the Department of Planning and the Environment] (often with no feedback to OEH), for example, by the insertion of terms like 'negligible' or 'minor' as impact thresholds," Mr Paull said.
He cited as "clear evidence of the mining sector's infiltration into the planning system in NSW" the acceptance of offsets for mining rehabilitation for vegetation to be lost in new projects. "[C]ompanies can now receive upfront biodiversity credits for what are currently areas of mine pit to offset the removal of remnant vegetation," he said.
A spokesman for Mr Stokes said it was up to the Office of Environment and Heritage to respond as the letter "relates to an individual's employment". A spokeswoman for the department declined to comment.
"We are perplexed by the timing and nature of this letter being styled as private correspondence but released as an open letter during an election campaign and not at the time of Mr Paull's resignation [before Christmas]," the spokesman said.
Mr Paull said he stood in the 2004 state election as a Greens candidate for the seat of Barwon, covering a region ranging from Bourke to Narrabri, but was only a member of the party for about a year and holds no party affiliation now. He worked for OEH for two years and had been an ecological consultant since 1990.
This story first appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald.