Whitehaven Coal’s plans to clear the iconic Leard State Forest in the north west of NSW has been restricted to a 10-week period from mid-February to late April, in a significant win for local residents and environmentalists
Marking the culmination of a months-long legal battle over when the critically-endangered Leard State Forest can be cleared, a revised Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for the Maules Creek open-cut coal mine was approved late last week by the NSW government.
Environmentalists and concerned locals are claiming the strict conditions imposed by the new BMP as a vindication of their long struggle to force the miner to clear only during the industry standard period between late January and early May.
Environmentalists have fought two separate revisions to the Maules Creek Mine BMP, citing concerns over how clearing during certain seasons would affect the 30 threatened species that inhabit the forest.
That BMP was completed without any oversight by an environmental group (one of the conditions imposed on the mine) – last month New Matilda revealed that Whitehaven had a ‘phantom environmentalist’ sitting on its community advisory group for more than a year.
In June, the Maules Creek Community Council (MCCC) took Whitehaven Coal to court, after the coal giant was approved by the Department of Planning and Environment (DP&E) to clear the ecologically unique forest over the winter.
During the winter, a number of threatened animals go into a state of semi-hibernation, leaving them vulnerable to Whitehaven’s bulldozers.
The local community group thwarted Whitehaven’s winter plans, landing a voluntary undertaking from the company to cease clearing until the court had made a determination on when the coal giant could clear.
The agreement came just hours before the court was due to rule on an injunction the MCCC had sought, which would have prevented Whitehaven from clearing until the court had made a full determination.
In August, Whitehaven submitted another BMP to the DP&E, which would have allowed for clearing between November and February, over the spring.
"The revised plan is inconsistent as it aims to start clearing the Leard state Forest in November when young native animals are likely to be slaughtered in their nests,” a spokesperson for the MCCC said at the time.
This too was thwarted by pressure from environmentalists.
The BMP approved Thursday essentially achieved what the court action had sought to enforce, by preventing Whitehaven from clearing outside the new window of mid-February to late April.
Continuing the case “would be basically a total waste of court time”, Phil Laird, a spokesperson for the MCCC said, because the conditions imposed by the new BMP removed the utility of the legal action.
As well as preventing clearing in sensitive months, the plan includes a number of measures to ensure work to build the mine affects wildlife as little as possible, including:
• Staging clearing so that only the minimum number of trees needed to allow mining planned for the next year to occur are cleared
• Compulsory supervision by licensed wildlife carers and ecologists
• Banning clearing when temperatures exceed 35°C so animals do not have relocate to other trees in extreme temperatures
• Carrying out detailed inspections of trees before they are removed to identify any animals that will be affected
• Relocating any animals that could be disturbed by clearing
• Radio tracking of relocated animals to provide a greater understanding of the effect of relocation on animals to benefit this and other future projects.
The reason the biodiversity protection provisions imposed on the Maules Creek project have attracted so much attention is that the Leard State Forest is home to one of the nation’s largest remaining patches of Box-Gum Grassy Woodland.
This critically endangered woodland is down to just 0.1 per cent of its original extent. It is because of this unique habitat, according to local ecologist Phil Spark, that the nationally recognised biodiversity hotspot is able to support at least 30 endangered animals.
Protests will continue
In a statement to the stock exchange on Thursday, Whitehaven said “this timing for clearing activities will have no impact on railing first coal in January 2015, nor will it impact any other key project milestones”.
The mine has been plagued by opposition on a range of fronts, with other legal challenges as well as on-the-ground protests which have led to over 250 arrests. Whitehaven was also the subject of the now infamous 'hoax media release' by activist Jonathon Moylan.
Moylan issued a media release un fake ANZ letterhead indicating the bank had withdrawn financial support for the mine, causing the share price of Whitehaven to plummet, before eventually recovering.
But the Maules Creek Community Council was critical of Whitehaven’s claims that protests pose no threat to the viability of the project.
“We would note that the price of coal seems to be in decline and we’re very concerned the company will construct the mine just in time to go broke,” Phil Laird said.
“We don’t know why they needed to put forward this biodiversity management plan to clear outside the designated times – all it’s done is wasted the time of the court, the Department of Planning and the local community.”
Mr Laird said that the win over the BMP was “just an animal welfare issue that’s been resolved”.
“The impacts to the community of dust, noise, light and the biodiversity issues faced by the forest are still going to be there,” he said.
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