Long-awaited environmental impact statement has ‘massively underestimated’ effects on wildlife, advocates say
Last modified on Wed 29 Sep 2021 11.13 BST
Environmental advocates have described the New South Wales government’s assessment of the proposed raising of the Warragamba dam wall as “totally inadequate” and called for alternatives, such as buying back houses in flood-prone areas, to be considered.
The minister for western Sydney, Stuart Ayres, said the long-awaited environmental impact statement (EIS), published on Wednesday, would give the community “a full understanding of what is proposed” and the potential environmental impacts of raising the wall by up to 17 metres.
The general public has been given 45 days to make submissions in response to the 4,000 pages of documents.
WaterNSW has proposed raising the dam wall to mitigate the risk to human life and to property in the flood plain of the Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment in the event of a major flood.
But the plan, which would see flood waters temporarily held inside the Blue Mountains world heritage area and then released in a controlled way, has faced strong opposition because of the effects it would have on threatened species, cultural heritage sites and the outstanding values of the world heritage area.
The EIS states the project would significantly reduce the risk of flood exposure to thousands of vulnerable people and their homes and that raising the wall would give emergency services more time to prepare and safely evacuate people.
It estimates about 300 hectares (740 acres) of the world heritage area would be affected in a major flood event.
“Importantly, the upstream impacts of the proposal must be carefully measured against the social, economic and environmental impacts flooding can have on downstream communities in western Sydney,” Ayres said on Wednesday.
But environment groups, experts and an MP said the potential effects of the project had been understated at multiple stages in the 86 documents.
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Jamie Pittock, a professor of environmental policy at the Australian National University, said the damage the project could cause for wildlife, including the critically endangered regent honeyeater, had only been assessed for a portion of the potential inundation zone.
This was because WaterNSW had only examined the impacts of inundation for about 7.5 metres of the wall-raising project – instead of its full height – commencing at 2.78 metres above the full water level in the current dam.
He said required offsets had also only been calculated for this portion of the project.
“The government is trying to pretend that the area of the environmental impact is much less than it actually would be by carving out land at the bottom and the top of the inundation range,” Pittock said.
“What they’re trying to do is reduce the offset costs, which are huge and potentially of a similar magnitude to the costs of building the dam.”
Pittock has described the project as unjustified and called on the government to consider alternatives such as buying back houses on the lower flood plain.
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Harry Burkitt, of the Colong Foundation for Wilderness, said the EIS was “simply the latest act in ongoing political farce”.
The foundation has campaigned against the project and on Wednesday pointed to the low survey effort undertaken for significant species including the koala and the platypus – issues the federal environment department also highlighted in earlier drafts of the assessment.
“Last year the commonwealth environment department expressed the view that the dam project was likely to have ‘extensive and significant impacts’ on the national and world heritage values of the Blue Mountains,” Burkitt said.
“Nothing has changed.”
Chris Gambian, of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, said: “The impacted areas have been massively underestimated, which is unsurprising considering the half-hearted way in which assessments were conducted.”
Kazan Brown is a Gundungurra woman whose great-great-great-grandfather, John Joseph Riley, owned land at Burnt Flat, which is in the inundation zone.
She said she would take some time to consider the report but expected the project, if it proceeded, would have a “huge impact” on the Warragamba community.
Brown has previously raised concerns that surveys for culturally significant sites were only undertaken in 27% of the area that would be affected by the project.
“We still have those concerns,” she said. “That’s nowhere near enough. If you’re going to flood something you need to be surveying a lot more than that.”
The NSW Labor opposition said it would use an inquiry that has been established to examine the project to fully interrogate the EIS.
The independent MLC Justin Field called the EIS “totally inadequate”.
“WaterNSW has clearly failed to address the myriad of concerns raised by NSW and commonwealth government agencies in leaked comments on earlier drafts of the report,” he said.
“This is particularly the case regarding the assessment of biodiversity offsets and the impact of the 2019-20 fires, and the loss of world heritage and cultural heritage values in the area upstream that will be flooded by this project.
Ayres said the EIS was “a thorough and robust assessment of the impacts and benefits of creating a flood mitigation capacity within Warragamba Dam”.
“The Warragamba Offset Strategy considers all offset requirements for unavoidable upstream, downstream and construction area impacts,” he said.
WaterNSW declined to respond to questions but said it encouraged members of the public to make a submission during the consultation process and read its information portal on the project.
“The EIS public exhibition period runs until 12 November and offers the community and stakeholders full awareness of what is proposed and an opportunity to make submissions, as part of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment EIS assessment process,” it said in a statement.
Guardian Australia sought additional comment from Ayres.