At the heart of the matter of the impact on koalas caused by the expansion of the Hanson quarry at Brandy Hill are the various environmental laws at all levels of government.
The decision to allow Hanson to expand its quarry was made by the NSW Department of Planning under the current laws. Because koalas and their habitat were involved in the environmental assessment it had to be referred to the federal Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley. The Independent Planning Commission also approved the quarry expansion with strict conditions regarding health, safety and amenity of the residents of Brandy Hill and Seaham. However, they concluded, "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 re-evaluate the policy framework under which the impact on koalas is assessed".
At the opening of the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary Matt Kean, NSW Minister for the Environment said that fragmentation of koala habitat was a major problem and urged Ms Ley to look closely at the decision that she will make. Ms Ley's decision will open the floodgates to further fragmentation of habitat and any chance of saving the koala in the natural environment is very slim indeed.
Ms Ley states that her decision to give Hanson approval to expand is based on science and not emotion. Why should we not be emotional about this issue?
It is koala extinction versus quarrying rock, a product available at many alternate locations. There are serious questions which need to be considered in Ms Ley's choice of koala expert. The minister did not approve of the independence of the koala experts commissioned by Brandy Hill and Seaham Action Group. We asked the experts from Newcastle University, Dr Ryan Witt and Associate Professor John Clulow, to investigate the presence of koalas on the area immediately surrounding the quarry site. Our brief was that we needed an accurate report with proper scientific rigour.
"Save Port Stephens Koalas" was also given the task of collecting data of koala sightings in a 10 km radius of the site to determine the diversity of the koala population, whether there exists a koala corridor that is significant to a wider population of koalas and whether there were breeding pairs around the quarry site.
We were prepared to accept the scientific findings whatever they were; in our favour or not. The results were truly amazing. There were breeding koalas. A female with several males nearby seeking to mate were found within a few hundred metres of the quarry site. Since the beginning of the year 120 koalas were reported nearby by residents of Brandy Hill, Wallalong and Seaham. Female koalas with young on their backs were also reported with photographic evidence; Koala scat (poo) was evident; habitat trees identified.
While the sightings and reports over many weeks were greeted passionately, the scientific report written was based on fact and written by peer reviewed scientists and experts. We relied on the professionalism of the scientists who would never compromise their findings by allowing emotion to cloud their judgment.
Ms Ley, however, did not agree that our science experts were independent and insisted on using her own koala expert. This expert was the same expert whose opinion was sought by Biosis, the company who wrote Hanson's environmental report for the Department of Planning.
The minister stated that a new 74-hectare area would be planted with koala habitat trees and therefore create a better habitat for the future. I do hope that there is scrutiny in this process over the next 30 years. It does not take long for a tree to be bulldozed but it takes 15 to 20 years for a tree to grow to a habitat standard.
I'm not sure if the minister understands the nature of quarrying. At the end of the life of the quarry there will be a void that is more than 70 metres below sea level that could never be revegetated Another of the reasons given for this approval seems quite bizarre. Where is the logic in stating that this koala habitat was not impacted by the recent bushfires? Shouldn't this fact mean that the habitat is therefore more important?
We have no faith in this decision. Yes, this community has done its research with passion but that passion did not determine the scientific outcome. This is a community that is taking a stand against a multinational company and current NSW and federal government environmental laws, to achieve the best environmental outcome it can. We are fighting for our own health, well-being, and safety as well as that of the environment for our iconic native animals.
So, rocks for the Sydney market or protecting endangered species. Ms Ley chose rocks. What would you choose?
The people who have supported our actions to save the koala population in this area need to be thanked for their continued efforts. The task was taken on with the intention of saving our koala population, something our governments fail to do.
Margarete Ritchie is the chairperson of the Brandy Hill and Seaham Action Group
Dive deeper: Port Stephens koalas and the Brandy Hill Quarry expansion:
- Brandy Hill Quarry expansion plans will destroy 50 hectares of koala habitat(January 15, 2020)
- Brandy Hill residents fear for koala population if quarry expands(June 30, 2020)
- Resident bid to save koalas from Brandy Hill Quarry expansion(August 21, 2020)
- Koala experts from University of Newcastle urge government to consider impact on habitat in expansion approval(September 3, 2020)
- Federal government under pressure to reject Brandy Hill quarry expansion(September 6, 2020)
- Brandy Hill Quarry expansion plan delayed, Brandy Hill and Seaham Action Group say proposal could disrupt koala habitat(September 7, 2020)
- Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley visits Brandy Hill and scene of koala controversy(September 30, 2020)
- Save Port Stephens Koalas vows to keep pressure on as Federal Environment Minister delays Brandy Hill quarry decision(October 8, 2020)
- Save Port Stephens Koalas campaign rolls on with Brandy Hill Hanson quarry decision delay(October 8, 2020)
- Premier Gladys Berejiklian's gifts Port Macquarie with a Koala hospital expansion as Port Stephens gets heartbreak(October 28, 2020)
- Wildlife conservation scientist: Brandy Hill quarry expansion into koala habitat 'not a message that we want to be sending' (October 28, 2020)