Sydney Morning Herald article “Former environment employee blasts miners’ dominance in NSW” reported yesterday that
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”.
(see more here ).
David Paull was forced to resign and this is his resignation letter:
*My open resignation letter to OEH
19 January 2015
Minister for the Environment
cc. Mike Baird, Pru Goward, Anthony Roberts
Dear Mr Stokes,
I was asked to provide to the Office of Environment and Heritage a letter of resignation from my position of Biodiversity Conservation Officer at the Newcastle Office. While I found my tenure with OEH to be largely rewarding, more recent developments in policy and legislation have seriously undermined the ability of OEH as a regulator to achieve positive environmental outcomes, despite the best intentions of myself and my well-informed colleagues.
So here is my resignation advice as I am unable to agree that improving our environment must come as second fiddle to ensuring that any mine or gas development proceed. The Mining SEPP makes a mockery of a transparent and ecologically sustainable planning process. It should also be concerning to the people of NSW, as it is to me, that the Department of Planning and OEH itself has been captured in the big coal and gas rush by promoting policies which will guarantee further losses of biodiversity, a situation which is not consistent with international or national environmental obligations. I have elaborated below.
While there was much anticipation regarding the OEH’s new ‘whole of government’ Framework for Biodiversity Assessment (FBA) and Offset Policy, it has been widely seen, both in OEH where hundreds of internal submissions were received with serious reservations about the new policy, and in the community, as a great leap backwards. 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. There are no thresholds for what is adequate and what is not. The watering down of the concept of ‘like-for-like’ for offsets make that concept now virtually meaningless.
The current offset policy is also flawed with respect to protecting our biodiversity because under this policy, if offset areas can’t be found that actually replace or compensate for the clearing mining want to do, they can just negotiate other arrangements with OEH, including the payment of money and OEH will sort out the details. But in places like the Hunter Valley, the options to retire those credits are few and far between. There is no requirement for feasibility assessments on whether those offset requirements can be met because there is no threshold on what is acceptable.
We are condemning a suite of ecosystems and species to extinction. As a result of new major projects, it is likely we will see the extinction process accelerate for species such as the Koala and Regent Honeyeater and ecological communities such as the Warkworth Sands Woodland. This is not helped by the condition in the FBA that assessments of impact will now be framed across an entire region and not at the local scale. It seems that consideration of the local scale of impact (the basic way impact on populations should be assessed) is not in favour by your government. I look with concern at your recent Biodiversity Legislation Review and noticed that it again states that impacts on biodiversity should be done at a ‘regional or state scale’. Extinctions start at the local scale. Surely in 2015 we could have an environmental planning process which is capable of looking at all scales of impact?
As well, the recommendation in the Review to abolish the Native Vegetation Act is just pandering to a vocal minority of landowners who oppose any kind of government regulation. In fact all that was needed was to introduce a mechanism by which landowners could receive realistic compensation for protecting native vegetation. It is shameful that this is the government’s response to the murder of Glen Turner by a nutter while he was carrying out his duty for the citizens of this state.
For the last two years I have been undertaking mostly mining assessments, a challenging task at the best of times, considering the impacts of mining on the environment. This task was made more difficult by the way the Planning Department handed out conditions of approval. OEH has the technical skills to deal with these issues and advise DPE on biodiversity and cultural heritage matters. However repeatedly these conditions are altered by DPE (often with no feedback to OEH) for example by the insertion of terms like ‘negligible’ or ‘minor’ as impact thresholds. These terms cannot be regulated as they lack any kind of quantification. As a result, subsidence disasters like Mt Sugarloaf and damage to sensitive groundwater dependent and wetland communities WILL occur again. Sometimes other ecological details in OEH recommendations have been changed in the approval conditions, seemingly, to suit the goals of the mining company. I am happy to discuss with you some of the specifics in relation to this.
The Mining SEPP and its more recent amendments also make a mockery of a transparent assessment process by placing greater emphasis on economic outcomes over environmental and social ones and the introduction of an offset ‘certification’ mechanism which undermines NSW offset policy by accepting a standard for offsets as ‘adequate’ – though what is adequate and what isn’t is open to conjecture.
Clear evidence of the mining sector’s infiltration into the planning system in NSW is the acceptance by OEH of offsets for mining rehabilitation. That is, companies can now receive upfront biodiversity credits for what are currently areas of mine pit to offset the removal of remnant vegetation. While some have hailed this as a new standard for mine rehabilitation, the creation of ecosystems (or even plant community types) on areas where there is no natural substrate is not supported by any scientific evidence and should not have been put into the new offset policy which is supposed to be a quantifiable assessment of biodiversity credits.
OEH has supported and promoted the Upper Hunter Strategic Assessment for the coal industry, which will provide an umbrella approval for the Commonwealth in the Hunter over the next 20 years. Given the failings of the current offset policy in NSW and the extent of the proposals given to OEH, I doubt this process will be welcomed by the community once they discover the scope of what is being proposed and the expected loss of biodiversity in the Hunter that this will entail.
Australia, and the world, is in a time of transition in the way we generate energy and manage our environment. The fact that NSW seems to going backwards at a time when innovation and strong measures to prevent further environmental degradation need to be embraced is a great disappointment to myself and many others. I believe that not only people have a right to live in this world with a healthy environment, so do the other species we share this world with. They are our customers too. As custodians of our environment it appears we are still going to fail. It’s time to change this situation around and I will be working in the future to achieve this.
Alan and Judith Leslie from Bulga Milbrodale Progress association responded to comments subsequently made by Mr Stokes:
Dear Mr Stokes,
You’ve made comments about the resignation of David Paull *, saying it was politically driven.
He’s not a politician. He WAS an employee of OEH and he is disgusted by the underhand wiles of DOPE and the current government to have coal mines approved at ANY cost.
We are disgusted as well….we live in Bulga…we went to court over the Mount Thorley Warkworth mine expansion…and we won..the Supreme Court upheld the decision..
And what was the government’s response ?..change the rules so that the money overrides everything.
As Minister for the Environment …and that’s FOR the environment … not against it…one would believe that the brief should be to protect the environment not to destroy it.
If you truly are representing the PEOPLE of NSW, you should act on what David is saying and PROTECT the environment, not just give open slather to foreign owned multinational companies whose only interest is to line their pockets and those of their shareholders, and as a result rape and pillage our country.
As a public servant you should be acting in the current and future interests of the people of Australia, not foreign owned mining companies.
Why aren’t you ?
Alan and Judith Leslie