Gullible decision-makers need to get on the ground in Whitehaven offsets
-Anna Christie of the Wilderness Society investigates
The two coal mines at Boggabri and Maules Creek NSW are causing a death-by-a-thousand-cuts destruction of the Leard State Forest. To get approval at Federal and State level, coal miners Whitehaven and Idemitsu have relied on biodiversity offsets that promise “like for like” or “equal to or better” habitat for the critically endangered ecological community (CEEC) and vulnerable plants and animals that inhabit the Leard. Last week in the company of a team of photo-journalists, an arborist, a member of the Leard Blockade and a drone, I visited the two largest of Whitehaven’s “offsets”. They are degraded, over-stocked and over-grazed land, totally unsuitable for the critically endangered and vulnerable plants and animals that inhabit the Leard. Our visit casts extreme doubt over the reliability of Whitehaven’s methods for determining acceptable offsets.
Leard’s community of White box, Yellow box, Blakely’s Red gum Grassy Woodland and Derived Native Grassland is listed as a CEEC and home to 31 significant listed species, including vulnerable fauna species and plants and some migratory birds. The reason they are listed is that they are at risk of extinction unless they are protected. The CEEC is currently clinging to survival in Leard State Forest despite regular multiple explosives detonations in very close proximity, 24 hour brilliant illumination of the mines’ areas, and heavy machinery noise that is reported by locals to be heard up to 16 km away.
Once the Boggabri Coal extension and the Maules Creek mine are fully underway mammals, birds and reptiles like the pale-headed snake are expected to pack their bags and relocate to the offsets. Of course, only animals that survive Whitehaven’s spring clearing of woodland will be set to make the migration to their new habitat. But what will they find there, if indeed they ever get there?
We visited the northern offsets, the two original and largest of the Whitehaven offsets at Mt Lindsay and Mt Wirridale. They are located over 30km north east of the Leard Forest, although getting there seems much longer because it is a steep and winding climb from Maules Creek to the clean mountain air of the northern offsets. That’s because they are close to 1,000m above sea level – which makes them over two times the highest elevation that can be found at the Leard, or in some cases more than three times the elevation. Some species such as the endangered tylophora linearis have no chance of surviving at altitude, according to independent ecologist Phil Spark, Dr John Hunter and independent scientists who were signatories to a strongly worded rebuttal of the Whitehaven offsets earlier this year. Most importantly, many of the vulnerable bats, birds and snake will not occur at the altitude of the northern offsets which are on the eastern boundary of the Mt Kaputar National Park.
What we found at the Mt Lindsay and Mt Wirridale offsets was extensive grazing lands, fringed by forested ridges containing trees, yes, but a very different suite of trees and ground cover plants than the Leard Forest. According to Phil Spark and Dr John Hunter who have conducted on-the-ground surveys, less than 5% of the area of the northern offsets they assessed represents like-for-like habitat. The properties have been purchased by Whitehaven and leased back to pastoral interests, and we saw substantial stock numbers with sheep alone numbering in the thousands. There is no evidence of any initiative by Whitehaven to rehabilitate the land and start growing a white box woodland there.
Even Whitehaven must have serious doubts about the adequacy of the northern offsets, because in January 2014 the company voluntarily put forward a proposal to acquire further offsets to bolster their claims that they are providing permanent habitat for the unique assemblage of life that inhabits the Leard.
Even so, the northern offsets are the largest offsets by far, and far enough away from the mines not to be seriously impacted by the explosives blasting, 24 hour illumination and constant operational noise and vibration from the Leard mines precinct which currently includes Whitehaven’s Tarrawonga coal mine, Idemitsu mine Boggabri Coal and the under construction Whitehaven Maules Creek coal mine.
The offsets will be protected by a Voluntary Conservation Agreement, which is not safe into perpetuity especially when there is no evidence that Whitehaven has commenced any good faith actions to rehabilitate the northern offsets and transform them into suitable habitat. Removal or at least de-stocking of grazing animals, and a plan to manage the invasive Cypress pine trees that inhibit the regeneration of White box woodland, could be some first steps.
However, the corporate mode of Whitehaven is to delay, delay, delay in every aspect of compliance, and this is not a good omen for a voluntary scheme. The truth is that Whitehaven Coal is a seemingly rogue organisation that needs to be ridden hard by regulators, not left to its own devices under a good faith pact of self-regulation. Consider the company’s recent Community Consultative Committee fiasco where Whitehaven falsely declared to the Department of Planning that an environmental group member had been consulted on the Biodiversity Management Plan. Whitehaven have also repeatedly been caught incorrectly mapping their offsets and forced to revise them – they need to be watched closely.
The nearer, more recently acquired offsets closer to the mine are tiny islands of fringe habitat which will be sandwiched between tailings dumps, drained creeks, and access roads with hundreds of heavy vehicle movements daily. They will suffer from coal dust pollution and noxious N02 fumes from explosives.
Experience from other intensive mine precincts points to a future scenario in which the Leard mine precinct will be at the centre of a kill zone of many kilometres radius, within which random survivors from the rare and endangered ecosystem may survive like fugitive animal versions of Mad Max.
As for the absurd claim that Whitehaven is planning to rehabilitate grazing lands into fully fledged white box forest, or wildlife corridors to give access to the offsets, how can any but the most gullible or incompetent people believe that this could be achieved sooner that the 20-30 year life of the Idemitsu and Whitehaven mines? Those forests would take in excess of 50 years at the very least, more like 100 plus, to provide any semblance of the original habitat.
Why then, do decision makers at the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage (OEH) and the Commonwealth Dept of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPAC) blindly believe the unbelievable?
The secret lies partly in the way that offsets are calculated, a matter that came under fire during a Senate Environment Committee enquiry earlier this year. Complex formulae and modelling are used, which are very difficult for all but the most experienced ecologists to decipher.
Ready-made offsets for critically endangered White box woodland simply do not exist, because it is after all a critically endangered ecosystem. Somehow, the fact that therefore offsets are not and never will be like-for-like is ignored, whereas the blind assurances of mines’ hired guns are believed. From the cauldron of data modelling, using in many cases old and unreliable source data, and very little on the ground investigation, out comes ‘voila!’ the assertion that the offsets are like-for-like substitutes for the Leard Forest, a place that Mick Roderick (the woodland birds expert at Birdlife Australia) regards as “the sink for what is left” of our critically endangered, threatened, vulnerable woodland creatures. “We can’t afford to lose” Leard Forest, says Roderick.
To date, no independent ecologists have supported the Whitehaven offsets. The only support comes from the mines’ own hired guns.
These simple facts speak volumes.
I am an optimist, and I err on the side of seeing the best in people. Maybe many of the decision-makers who have given the green light to the Leard mines are optimists like me, and they want to believe the hired guns. In this case I invite them to spend a day at the offsets in the company of experts who have no financial interest.
They will see what our expedition observed, which is some mountainous overgrazed pastoral lands fringed mostly with stringy bark open forest, and a range of other timbers, but none that resemble in any but the most minute way the Leard Forest.
Anna Christie Master of Public Affairs (USyd) Master of Environmental Law (USyd) is a member of The Wilderness Society
Contact: 0425 322 186 [email protected]