The controversial Brandy Hill quarry expansion near Seaham needs to be signed-off by federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley despite receiving the green light under state planning laws.
The project, which will destroy 52 hectares of prime koala habitat, has become a national test case for the effectiveness of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
The Act, introduced in 2000 for the purpose of managing nationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage items, has been the subject of intense criticism in recent days due to its inability to protect threatened species.
The quarry expansion is classified as a Controlled Action under the Act because of its impact on a listed threatened species (koalas).
The state's Independent Planning Commission signed-off on the project expansion last week despite significant community concerns about its impact on noise, dust and the loss of prime koala habitat.
The project was referred to the Commission after the Department of Planning received 169 objections.
In addition to being classified a state significant development, the project was also assisted by having its approval process fast-tracked.
While acknowledging the quarry expansion's impact on the surrounding community and the environment, the Commission said it was bound to follow the existing policy framework .
"By way of comment, the Commission is of the view that in light of the Black Summer bushfires and the Parliamentary Review it may be appropriate to reevaluate the policy framework under which the impact on the koalas is required to be assessed," it said.
Port Stephens MP and Shadow Environment spokeswoman Kate Washington said the Commonwealth legislation was the last hope to save the koala habitat.
"The Commonwealth Environment Department has confirmed that the Brandy Hill Quarry expansion will be referred to the Federal Minister, Sussan Ley, for final approval. So I was shocked to receive a notice of determination from the NSW Department of Planning confirming the project's consent starts today, without any mention of the remaining hurdle," she said.
"To date, we've seen the entire state planning process fail to protect this koala habitat. The Berejiklian Liberal Government recommended approval and then fast-tracked the assessment. In its determination, even the Independent Planning Commission suggested the current laws aren't adequate and need to be strengthened."
The quarry's owner, Hanson, has undertaken to purchase biodiversity offsets to compensate for the loss of adjoining habitat.
But Brandy Hill and Seaham Action Group member Margarete Ritchie said offsets did little to compensate for the loss of continuous stretches of koala habitat.
"This is the last remaining colony of chlamydia-free koalas in Port Stephens," Ms Ritchie said.
"Fifty two hectares is a considerable area. We have been contacted by a number of koala preservation groups around Australia who are concerned about what is happening here."
The project will be placed on public exhibition for 10 days under the EPBC Act requirements.
"The EPBC Act is now our last line of defence; Unless people raise their voices, and demand action, this project will be waved through and our koalas could be lost forever," Ms Washington said.
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A spokeswoman for Hanson agreed the project had been referred under the EPBC Act.
The NSW Biodiversity Conservation Division had already completed an assessment of the project.
"The conclusion of this assessment is that the project is unlikely to impact the spotted-tail quoll or swift parrot and that the removal of koala habitat could be offset through suitable biodiversity offset credits," she said.
"Hanson has been a part of the local community for over 37 years and we look forward to continuing to play an active role in the community by supporting local jobs and the local economy."
"The expansion means that the Brandy Hill Quarry will continue to be a major supplier of hard rock aggregates for concrete production, road maintenance and construction and other infrastructure in the Hunter, Newcastle and Maitland regions as well as greater Sydney."
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