(Ed: This post by ‘VJ’ will form part of a submission strongly objecting to the New M5 EIS on this and other grounds. It is the first of a number of People’s EIS posts on the biodiversity aspects of the new M5 proposal.)
The new M5 tunnel from King Georges Road to St Peters will destroy 1.4 hectares (78%) hectares of the best part of the 1.8 hectares of the critically endangered Cooks River Clay Plain Forest at Kingsgrove, also known as the Cooks River Castlereagh Forest of the Sydney Basin (CRCIF).
This destruction of valuable rare forest is just one of many contentious and damaging Westconnex outcomes. The NSW Government is rushing ahead without forethought or care for the consequences of a project that will destroy much of what we value and will be a substantial waste of public money.
Items of Significance – New M5 impacts on critical environments in Sydney
In the M5 WestConnex EIS at page 12 of the M5 – Biodiversity Assessment Report identified the Green and Golden Bell frog as one of three items of high significance that were assessed for potential impacts from the project. ( Ed: The People’s EIS will soon publish material on the Green and Golden Bell Frog ). Another is the endangered ecological community of Cooks River / Castlereagh Ironbark Forest which is part of the Sydney Basin Bioregion.
Cooks River Clay Plain Forest (Cooks River/Castlereagh Ironbark Forest (CRCIF))
Section 184 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides a list of threatened ecological communities that includes the Cooks River/Castlereagh Ironbark Forest of the Sydney Basin Bioregion . It is placed within in the critically endangered category which means it is facing extreme risk of extinction.
The duplication of the M5 will comprise a new multi lane road link and connections to new vehicle tunnels between the current M5 east of King Georges Rd to St Peters.
Previously a critically endangered site listed under the EPBC Act would have been independently analysed by the Federal Department of Environment. However early last year, the Federal Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt pushed through a system of delegation from the Department of Environment to state departments. He reached a bilateral agreement with the NSW government to delegate its powers to state Department of Planning approval processes that are are heavily balanced in favour of developers.
The New M5 is subject to the requirements of the NSW Biodiversity Offsets Policy for Major Projects which was approved by the Federal Department as the policy against which a threat to endangered species such as the one to the CIRIF can be considered. This means that the impacts of the new M5 are being assessed within the framework for Biodiversity Assessment (FBA) with the production of a Biodiversity Assessment Report (BAR) and a Biodiversity Offset Strategy (BOS). The BOS outlines the offsets required for unavoidable biodiversity impacts, that is, those residual impacts which remain after impacts have been avoided, minimised and mitigated to the extent that is reasonable and feasible (Page ix New M5 EIS Biodiversity Offset Strategy – Executive Summary Appendix T Page 5 sets out the steps taken so far.)
What is telling is that the EIS Executive Statement (Appendix T) blatantly states the ‘aim of this Biodiversity Offset Strategy (BOS) is to demonstrate that appropriate offsets for the residual impacts to biodiversity are available and can be delivered. In other words despite no offsets being available it was confident it was reasonable to destroy the forest in the path of the new M5.
The New M5 EIS – Offsets
The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) have developed a Biodiversity Banking and Offsets Scheme called ‘BioBanking’. It is designed to address the loss of biodiversity values from habitat degradation.
This scheme claims that Biobanking will ‘help address the loss of biodiversity values, including threatened species, due to habitat degradation and loss’. This scheme however, is not rigorous and has no integrity. Put simply it is a trading scheme, environment for money. It is wide open to manipulation making Biodiversity offsets a potential sham that do not provide strong protection for the Australian environment.
An offset scheme should have clear parameters for example there must be clear demarcation between an offset and a no-go zone to make a clear statement that offsetting is not an appropriate strategy. This had never been more essential than to a ‘critical habitat and threatened species or ecological communities that can withstand no further loss.’ (For more on this read Fundamental Principles for Best Practice Biodiversity Offsets Originally published in IMPACT! Issue 96, September 2014 – NSW EDO.)
It is significant the WestConnex have not been able to find a ‘like for like’ forest, because there are none comparable to the CRCIF. A couple of landholders are said to be perhaps interested in a Biobanking Agreement but this is all extremely vague and not determined. The WestConnex EIS then goes on to state that: “When a proponent is unable to locate a ‘like for like’ offset after taking reasonable steps, there is an option for ‘supplementary measures.’ Supplementary measures are then suggested but there is again no clear information about which might be selected. (P9 EIS Executive Statement Appendix T) In fact, it is clear that no certain arrangements would need to be made for offsets until years after approval is given.
So, Westconnex is seeking approval to wipe out a condition for the old M5 approval without providing any detailed justification or even a clear offset policy.
The NSW Environment and Heritage Department have abrogated their responsibility for protecting the environment and to the citizens of NSW by subsidising the destruction of the very things they should be protecting. The department has effectively made itself redundant by allowing a developer run planning process to replace genuine evidence based biodiversity assessment.
Cooks River / Castlereagh Ironbark Forest of the Sydney Basin Bioregion. (CRCIF)
The Cooks River/Castlereagh Ironbark Forest of the Sydney Basin Bioregion (CRCIF) ecological community in the critically endangered category (17/3/2015). The same ecological community Cooks River/Castlereagh Ironbark Forest in the Sydney Basin Bioregion is also listed under the New South Wales Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.
This CRCIF referred to by the WestConnex is located near Beverly Grove Park, Kingsgrove, NSW, bordering the current M5. This forest type is currently in good health for its location. A cycle path splits the two CRCIF (photo above). The author visited the site on December 12, 2015.
Page 13/104 New M5 – Biodiversity Assessment provides some history:
Surveys in 2014 confirmed the presence of CRCIF in the west of the project corridor, adjacent to Canterbury Golf Course and the M5 Motorway totalling to 1.8 hectares. The CRCIF patch of bushland was intentionally avoided by the original M5 project and is now managed for conservation by Roads and Maritime in accordance with the M5 approval conditions.
The Assessment then downgrades the importance of this critically endangered forest:
‘While this represents a very small proportion, at less than 0.1 per cent, of the total remnant CRCIF vegetation (estimated at 1828 hectares (DotE 2015)) within the Sydney Basin Bioregion, it comprises the majority of CRCIF within the development site’.
Once again the EIS language condemns this remnant as insignificant (0.1%).
This CRCIF is a one of countless examples of a forest being reduced to fragments due to human destruction. It was once much larger before the M5 went through, a condition of that was to leave 1.8 hectares of CRCIF (fenced inside an Ark – photo below). The New M5 seeks to destroy that.
As seen in the photograph above, the CRCIF is considered so precious and scarce that it is protected within a fenced area within the M5 Linear Park -although the P has dropped of Park leaving ‘Ark’. An ark is a place of refuge – designed to protect the things within – so that is appropriate.
The New M5 from Kings Georges Road plan to remove 1.4 hectares (78%) of this forest, the most valuable of the CRCIF, everything behind this sign, this Ark fence. The New M5 will leave just 0.4 of a hectare (1 acre) which is on the other side of the cycle path (also fenced for its protection) yet some of this forest will also be destroyed.
After describing the forest as a remnant, in an extraordinary manipulation on words, the EIS goes on to say of this critically endangered forest:
The 1.4 hectares to be impacted under the worst case scenario is considered to be of low long-term viability due to its high perimeter to area ratio, isolation from larger patches of remnant bushland, considerable edge effects from the adjacent M5 Motorway (lighting impacts, noise, human disturbance), and the current influence of the adjacent golf course run-off (high nutrients and altered hydrology).
When those responsible for the WestConnex EIS study couldn’t find another like for like for offset bargaining chip (EIS p193 Biodiversity Assessment Report – BAR – Appendix G), they tried a different tact, using language to describe the outlook for the forest of low long term viability in order to give the impression its loss won’t matter as its won’t survive anyway. There is no analysis or explanation for the claim that promised protection by the RMS which was a condition for approval for the M5 has failed to prevent the forest from deteriorating.
When I visited this site in December 2015 and walked between the separated CRCIF forests there were Currawongs everywhere (at least nine), in trees calling or on the ground basking in the sun in relative safety. In between and with the currawongs were honeyeaters (at least four). At the western end Fairy Wrens (at least ten) were more prevalent foraging on the ground and flitting from ground to trees. Insects were audible and visible showing it was a viable habitat.
I have rarely seen this forest type in my life. The clay is still evident in areas and the Melaleuca within and proximate to moist ground depressions were plenty (see photo below). What I found was a healthy stunning forest opposite to the one described in the EIS which they consider to be of low long term viability. Yet this forest has endured for years regardless of being encroached by edges, cycle-ways or golf courses etc. It is currently protected from degradation by high fences and by the law.
Some of the trees show a great deal of age (see below) and are still thriving. Sadly the M5 will destroy everything in these photographs.
(Photo by V. Elton – CRCIF – Kingsgrove – Inside the Ark showing the age of some trees)
The CRCIF at Kingsgrove is a high priority site of conservation significance and an amazing story of survival. It is disappearing fast and needs to be classed as off limits to urban development.
The severe reduction of CRCIF from 1.8 hectares of highly viable (regenerating) and stunning Cooks River Clay Plain Scrub Forest (its previous title) will leave the remaining one acre without the numbers of ‘like trees’ for natural regeneration and that will ensure it is eradicated.
Our governments cannot continue to pave the way for the destruction of Australia’s unique environment (flora and fauna) degrading human health and destroying Sydney’s heritage.
If the WestConnex project business case ever becomes sufficiently transparent (to be independently assessed) it would show a devastating waste of our taxes for a road that will destroy so much when there are more effective ways to move people than always building more roads.
This forest (CRCIF) is irreplaceable for this region of Sydney. The Offset program is an illogical and damaging process espoused by the NSW Government and the NSW Environment and Heritage Department. The State Significant Planning process which heavily favours development should never have been allowed to stand in for the Federal process. The loss of this critically endangered forest takes away a genuine asset (as it should be) and replaces it with a devastatingly sad loss. If this thought process is allowed to continue, it will result in the complete destruction of other critically endangered forest types and animals throughout NSW and Australia.
(Ed: There’s an important comment from Kathy Calman below. Not only is the critically endangered bush going to be destroyed but the bush on the other side of the walk and cycleway is going to replaced by a transparent wall looking down at the tollway.)
Here’s a photo: