The NSW Government is forging ahead with a highway upgrade, wiping out a nationally significant koala habitat in its path, reports Sue Arnold.
WELCOME to the NSW Roads and Maritime Services Horror show!
A week ago, I walked around a magnificent forest in the Ballina Pacific Highway Upgrade footprint, listening to the bird calls, feeling sad as I counted the collared koala feed trees which would soon be logged.
This week, together with three scientists, we walked through a graveyard. All that’s left of this once beautiful forest are logs and debris piled high on the bare earth. No sign of life, no birdsong, just silence and the eerie energy of emptiness.
No words can describe the sense of loss, shock and the realisation that the obscene piles of decimated trees were once a collective living entity.
Koala "hot spot" at Ballina Pacific Highway Upgrade decimated by NSW Roads and Maritime Services (Photo: Sue Arnold)
This area is identified by the NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) as a koala "hot spot". It was also home for gliders, possums, tree snakes, birds and other creatures which create a forest ecosystem.
Accompanied by David Milledge, wildlife ecologist; Professor Jonathan Rhodes, from the University of Queensland, a member of the NSW Chief Scientist's Koala Expert Advisory Committee on Ballina Koala Plan advising the RMS; and Michael Norris, also from the Chief Scientist’s office, our field trip through the upgrade site was an intensely sobering experience. Constrained by their respective positions, neither scientist was willing to comment on the construction.
At the Jali and Gibson borrow sites – an area which was once primary koala habitat – the noise of heavy vehicles, massive earth moving machinery, trucks, utes and cars, is overwhelming — deafening. Twice a week, blasting at the quarries adds to the noise levels.
Not far from the quarry sites, the bush is vibrating and noise echoes through the forest. We find a machine pulping trees as they’re ripped from the earth.
The access route to the quarries, known as Old Bagotville Road, now carries huge amounts of traffic generating clouds of dust choking the surrounding bush and trees.
Locals say koalas are being seen covered in dust, their eyes grimy from the grit and dirt. Some are carrying young. There’s no water, because they’re trapped behind permanent fencing, so they can’t wash their eyes. Nor can they obtain the moisture and nutritional needs, they need to survive from the eucalypt forests, which are now either logged or drenched in dust.
Disoriented koala lost on road at Pacific Highway, North Coast (Photo: Sue Arnold)
Occasionally, a water truck goes up and down the road, but usually only in response to a resident’s complaint.
At Wardell Road – another major koala hot spot – the bulldozers are busy ripping out more feed trees which have been ringbarked or collared. The area looks like a war zone. It is a war zone.
Culverts which were supposed to be installed along Wardell and Old Bagotville Road enabling (hopefully) koalas and other animals to cross are now either delayed or not happening. As the quarries came into action, traffic along both local roads increased dramatically to well over 100 vehicles a day.
State and Federal conditions of approval state it is necessary to:
'... provide passage for Koalas under or over the existing highway (where the existing highway forms part of the SSI) and service roads or local roads (servicing over 100 vehicles per day)'
RMS has come up with a new interpretation as a reason for the lack of any culverts installed along Old Bagotville Road, with a projected 300 heavy vehicles a day, plus 100 cars:
'The use of the road is temporary, therefore no culverts are required.'
As for Wardell Road, where the traffic is well over 100 vehicles per day, with massive heavy equipment taking out trees and transporting their new identity as mulch to various locations, the lack of culverts is, according to the Environment Protection Authority Coffs Harbour, because they “won’t be ready until February”.
More recently, residents advised that heavy vehicles from other nearby quarries were also using Old Bagotville Road.
Australians for Animals Inc sent a series of questions to the EPA in relation to the significantly increased traffic:
Question: Has the RMS taken into account ALL the traffic on Old Bagotville Road, including local traffic and any other quarry traffic which may not be related to s10?
Response: The project team is not required to consider the wider traffic use of Old Bagotville Road as part of its haul strategy for Gibson’s and Jali quarries.
Question: What about the dust? When the water trucks operate, what is the extent of the spray? Just the road? Nearby trees?
Response: The Construction Environment Management Plan requires dust to be managed at the source. Therefore, our mitigation and management measures will focus on the road surface and shoulders to best manage potential dust issues, particularly on this unsealed local road.
Koala sitting on fence looking at forest destruction from Moreton Bay Rail Link, Qld (Photo: Sue Arnold)
Apparently, no one has told RMS and its contractors that dust doesn’t stop at road shoulders.
Perhaps the most significant question is: where do all the animals go? Who ensures that injured or traumatised animals are collected and taken into care? Does the RMS expect there will be no victims or are they only concerned with koalas?
There’s one only koala rescuer on-site. The nearest koala hospital is in Lismore. On-site, there are no facilities for animals that need to be taken into care and given veterinary attention. No wildlife rescue people are involved during or after the destruction of forests.
Under the 'RMS Koala Management Plan Update August 2017', the following advice is given to workers:
'Koala first aid kits have been provided by the project ecologist and environmental advisors. The kits contain a laundry basket, large blanket or towel, detailed rescue procedure and contact list.'
One can only imagine how a construction worker with no experience in handling any wildlife will react faced with an injured koala, laundry basket and detailed rescue procedure.
As an extra incentive, there is also a 'koala spotters award' for construction workers and 'one award has already been given', according to the RMS blurb. No information is available on what exactly constitutes the "award".
Secrecy and reliance on contracts containing commercial in confidence clauses prevent any consultant from responding to conservation organisations, scientists or the public interest.
A call to the independent ecologist, Sandpiper Ecological Surveys, for the purpose of clarifying monitoring requirements as well as other questions in relation to the work undertaken by the company was cut short:
“As we are under contract with the RMS, all information is commercial in confidence and cannot be discussed.”
Juvenile koala in tree on Old Bagotville Road surrounded by burned area (Photo: Gavin Monti)
The RMS has funded a faecal koala stress study started in August 2017:
- We are working with the University of Sydney to study the stress of koalas in habitats from Richmond River to Coolgardie Road.
- Scats (koala droppings) are being collected in areas where phased resource reduction is happening and from a reference site in a nearby nature reserve. The scats will be analysed for the stress hormone cortisol before, during and after the phased resource reduction process.
- It is hoped that the study will improve our understanding of the physiological impacts of phased resource reduction on individual koalas. The study will be completed by June 2018 and the results will be published on our website.
Dr Carolyn Hogg is identified as the scientist responsible for testing koala scats for stress levels. A request for information on the results of stress tests received this response:
“As this work is commissioned research I need to check with the University and RMS in regards to my ability to respond to your questions.“
The finalisation of the study due in June 2018, ensures that no information on the stress impacts on koalas will be revealed until it is way too late to address any solutions. RMS has ensured the study is designed for future reference with no provisions for any delay in construction as a result of increased stress levels — which can lead to mortality.
In 2015, National Party Member for Clarence, Chris Gulaptis indicated that five per cent of the $4.6 billion for the stretch of highway between Coffs Harbour and Ballina, amounting to $225 million, would go towards fencing, planting trees, worker education and establishing an “expert” committee under the NSW Chief Scientist.
The sheer extent of mismanagement and failure to provide adequate protection for koalas and 32 species of threatened and endangered wildlife on-site are grounds for a Commonwealth Royal Commission, and a Parliamentary Inquiry at the State level.
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