By Andy Whiteley
Contributing writer for Wake Up World
The smell of corruption has been emanating from the NSW State Government for some time now, and it has been particularly strong downwind of the NSW Central Coast and Hunter regions.
Recent investigations conducted by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) into government activities has led the independent regulator to pursue corruption allegations against countless members of government’s highest offices, including charges from funding fraud and money laundering, to corruption of regulatory process; the common theme, corporate back-scratching and the systemic sell-off of the NSW environment.
But, as details of the approvals for the disputed Calga quarry, T4 Newcastle coal port and Bentley gas drilling sites continue to emerge, it appears ICAC may only have scratched the surface of the corrupt dealings in NSW Government.
First, here’s a recap of some of the recent low-lights:
— Former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced his resignation after misleading an ICAC investigation into ‘gifts’ he received in office.
— ICAC is investigating Central Coast MPs Chris Spence and Darren Webber who allegedly solicited payments in return for favours.
— Tim Owen, Liberal MP for Newcastle, the home of the disputed T4 Coal Port extension, was accused by ICAC of receiving money “under the table” to fund his election campaign.
— NSW Police Minister Mike Gallacher resigned after ICAC decided to pursue him over an alleged plot to disguise developer donations.
— ICAC made money laundering allegations against Former NSW Energy Minister Chris Hartcher, who (along with Gallacher) allegedly funnelled cash through two Liberal Party slush funds over a 3 year period.
— Tim Koelma, the former Hartcher political staffer was accused by ICAC of “lying through his teeth” to the ICAC enquiry.
— Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier, Marie Ficarra was accused of soliciting a donation from a banned donor, and stood down.
— Three state backbenchers suspended themselves from the Liberal Party pending the outcome of the inquiry…
— Federal Finance Minister/Assistant Treasurer, Arthur Sinodinos, stood down…
— NSW Liberal party’s Finance Director Simon McInnes stood down…
— Chairman of the Liberal fund-raising body, Paul Nicolaou, resigned…
— It is even possible the Prime Minister may be implicated, as ICAC investigators reportedly “inch closer to the Prime Minster’s office”.
And in major news in the Northern Rivers region this week…
The new NSW Energy Minister, Anthony Roberts, suspended coal seam gas (fracking) company Metgasco’s drilling rights, halting operations at the disputed Bentley site in the state’s north. Mr Roberts says ICAC discovered links between Metgasco and former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, while community consultation on the project was effectively bypassed. The matter has now been referred to the ICAC corruption commission.
But while the Northern Rivers community celebrates, elsewhere, members of the Central Coast and Hunter communities say the approval processes for the disputed quarry extension at Calga and T4 Coal Port extension at Newcastle showed similar disregard for community consultation. Notably, Tony Kelly, the Labor MP who now faces prosecution after ICAC found that he engaged in corrupt activities, was the Planning Minister when the mining company Rocla Materials first applied for the new quarry at Calga.
Let’s look a bit deeper.
Corruption at Calga?
In late December 2013, mining company Rocla Materials Pty Ltd was granted the permission of the NSW State Government to extend its quarrying operation, a proposal that would see the company remove a million tonnes of high sandstone aquifer rock from the waterways at Calga each year for the next 24 years.
But according to a January 2014 Daily Telegraph report, Ian Sutton, the President of sustainability project Equilibrium Future Solutions said the impacts on the area’s already-struggling water table cause irreversible environmental damage and put pressure on the region’s hanging swamps, natural waterways, and over 30 endangered species that rely on them. (Read more here).
Adding to questions of environmental sustainability, Calga Peats Ridge Community Group spokesman Peter Campbell said in December “there were large discrepancies with the Department of Planning’s water calculations, based on a hydrological assessment report conducted earlier this year. The group found that the amount of water the expanded mine will need is 74 million litres per year but Rocla only has a licence to remove six million litres per year. How the heck are they going to do it?”
The disputed area also includes several sacred Aboriginal sites, including a rare and significant women’s site, all part of the ancient Aboriginal Dreaming Track. Its destruction by Rocla would destroy with it tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal heritage, in yet another affront to the ancient indigenous culture of Australia. Chairwoman of the Guringai Tribal Link Aboriginal Corporation, Tracey Howie, said land bordering the mine is ”one of the most culturally sensitive and significant areas in the Sydney Basin”.
Despite the extreme damage it is predicted to cause to the region’s waterways, endangered species and ancient sacred Aboriginal places, the NSW State Government granted its approval to Rocla to extend its quarrying operation by around 300%. Although Rocla Materials development manager John Gardiner said the concerns of residents and the Aboriginal community “has been looked at thoroughly by competent people”, Gosford City Deputy Mayor Bob Ward disagrees.
In a statement released in January, Councillor Ward said the release of a council report just before Christmas allowed the local council to avoid scrutiny from the media and the wider community, and that he is “very concerned about the impact of the quarry’s expansion on the community”. He elaborated that:
“The report didn’t fully address… the protection of Aboriginal culture and heritage… the effect on endangered ecological communities, the damage to the water aquifers, the disastrous impact on the nearby Australia Wildlife Walkabout Park and the problems associated with dust and silica settling on water storage”.
Since December, the NSW State Government has faced mounting community opposition, the advice of local Aboriginal custodians, warnings from environmental experts, and concerns raised by local government representatives about the consultation and approval process. And yet, inexplicably, the NSW State Government remains fixed on this matter.
Community members are left wondering: are NSW State Government priorities being determined with Rocla Materials, not the community, in mind?
While ICAC are yet to investigate this questionable development approval, full details have now been forwarded to representatives at ICAC. There are also currently two court appeals being prepared in response to this development, by the Darkinjung Land Council and the nearby Walkabout Wildlife Park.
Of the two complainants, the Walkabout Park has been the most active in its opposition of the mining development. The park hosts many important endangered species breeding and education programs, as well as Aboriginal cultural programs, and since it shares borders with the proposed mining site, it is directly threatened by Rocla’s proposal.
Tassin Barnard of Calga’s Walkabout Wildlife Park says:
I suppose we were a bit naive but we went into this trusting the integrity of the approval process. We worked extremely long hours preparing reports to the Minister about why this site is so important, many 18 hour days, reading through the thousands of pages of documentation to make sure we left nothing out.
In our presentation we included impacts to the waterways, affected species, Aboriginal sacred sites… We took our opportunities to object during the consultation process, and presented a really strong case. We thought ‘rational people will listen’ but as it turns out, no-one was listening…
So far we’ve spent around $400K on legal bills trying to stop this development, money that we should have spent on a new eco-cultural centre.
While there are significant community concerns about the legitimacy of planning approvals in NSW, questions are also being asked of Glenworth Valley Outdoor Adventures, the 3,000 acre park that borders the proposed new quarry.
According to Barton Lawler from Glenworth Valley, the park owners have actively opposed further development of the disputed quarry site for over 25 years. “In one year alone we spent over $300,000 fighting it. We have taken Rocla to court and attempted to purchase the RTA land so Rocla could not get their hands on it” he says. But while Glenworth Valley has long opposed the new quarry, it recently reached an agreement with Rocla to facilitate the mining project, providing the environmental offsets required of the government’s consent conditions.
The Final Determination Report handed down by the PAC required that Rocla compensate for their environmental impact with ‘biodiversity off-sets’. According to the Department of Environment:
“Biodiversity offsets are measures that provide benefits to biodiversity by compensating for the adverse impacts elsewhere of an action, such as clearing for development… For example, if a development requires an area of native woodland to be cleared, another area of similar woodland can be protected, improved and managed for conservation in perpetuity… The gain in biodiversity achieved by improving a similar area of woodland balances the loss to biodiversity due to the clearing.”
There are two problems here:
1) The definition of offsetting is inherently flawed. Offsetting land that was going to be conserved anyway, as justification for a quarry for example, still results in a net loss to the environment. Unless the offset land was previously developed and now restored, the result is a net loss of biodiversity.
2) Biodiversity offsets must be in the form of like-for-like land that meets the legislative requirements of “maintain” or “improve”. The offset land should include similar vegetation and be in the same or better condition (although a larger quantity of land can sometimes be accepted instead). In the case of the Calga mine, environmental experts say the quarry extension will reduce the integrity of the offset land and the waterways that support it; it is adjacent to the proposed mine site and is fed by the stream that would be removed by the mining company in its expanded operation.
According to environmental expert Ian Sutton, the downstream effects to the water supply will be devastating:
The development of this massive expansion of Rocla’s Calga sand mine will have huge impacts on the Central Coast’s already severely degraded water systems. Their source of sand is in fact our high sandstone aquifers… [which] allow surface water to infiltrate easily and remain stored within the high ground of the landscape… It is from these ridge top reservoirs does water trickle feed the rest of the environment allowing the landscape to remain moist even during extended dry periods.
Unfortunately these same properties also makes Aquifer rock a target for sand mining…
Environmental activist and local political figure, Jake Cassar, says “It’s like cutting off the circulation to the top of your leg and wondering why the whole leg dies. This quarry will gut the most important part of Calga… the main artery if you like”.
The Central Coast Greens Party says it also opposes the new Calga quarry, and as the region’s waterways are already under pressure, has called “on the State government to ban new or expanded coal mining, quarrying for sand, or CSG exploration, drilling or fracking anywhere in the Coast water catchments.”
This raises some important questions:
- Given its devastating environmental consequences to the area’s water catchments, why did the NSW Department of Planning insist on approving this work?
- Why was the offset agreement approved given that the “maintain” or “improve” requirements cannot have been met by the Glenworth offset proposal?
- Is the system of biodiversity offsets simply a PR exercise, helping companies like Rocla Materials to ‘greenwash’ the public about the level of environmental damage their commercial operations actually cause?
- And why do Glenworth Valley now appear to support the mining extension after 25 years of such fierce opposition?
The Glenworth Factor
In this David and Goliath battle between the community and its questionable institutions, it seems Glenworth Valley holds the rock that can bring down the giant.
Where offsets are required as part of the consent conditions, if a proponent is unable to provide the offsets required then the development cannot proceed. And according to the complainants of the legal action, Rocla Materials has no other offset options, affording Glenworth Valley the power to pull the pin on the disputed development by withdrawing the offset agreement.
The initial offset request Rocla submitted was insufficient. They put forward Glenworth offsets and Popran National Park land, which of course is protected, and Glenworth shouldn’t be used as they’re already zoned for protection… unless they want to farm the land with mountain goats etc.
Eventually Rocla put their own land in – which is actually Stage 5 of their development area – as a temporary offset area since there were no other viable options in the area. To pretend the environment is being protected is absurd. The offset should result in a net equivalent or improvement.
The Glenworth deal was subject to [Glenworth] getting an access road built for them on Rocla’s property. For Glenworth to say Rocla has other offset resources is insane… Rocla gave up Stage 5 to meet the minimum offset requirements simply because they DON’T have any other options. They didn’t want to use Stage 5 as offset land, they want to mine it.
Urging Glenworth owners to re-consider its support, activist Jake Cassar agrees:
I was a stakeholder (public objector and eco-tour operator) in a Land & Environment Court case where a large development was knocked back solely due to insufficient offsets. Sometimes offsets can make a huge difference to the Courts decision.
For example, the case Glendinning Minto Pty Ltd v Gosford City Council (2010) NSWLEC 1151) turned on an insufficient number of credits being offered. The developers biobanking offsets were insufficient, specifically in relation to the endangered plant Hibbertia Procumbens, and it was these insufficient offsets that saved Bambara at Kariong from development.
In the Rocla case, Glenworth have the power to block this proposal.
So why is Glenworth Valley supporting this development by granting Rocla the requisite offsets?
Barton Lawler, the owner of Glenworth Valley, had this to say about the biodiversity offset program:
To be honest with you, in our view, the offset policy is a bit of a farce… Offset is a PR exercise. It’s not like biobanking which is a bit more regimented.
In reality is, we didn’t have ANY plans for the offset land. That land couldn’t be developed anyway. So will there be any net benefit to the environment? – NO.
On the deal brokered between Rocla and Glenworth, Lawler continued:
The benefit [to Glenworth Valley] is in the form of easement through Rocla land for the purposes of a builidng a road. We approached Rocla and asked about easement and Rocla asked if we would help them with their offset needs. We figured, if we don’t make the quarry more likely, then fine.
We’ve tried to achieve some easements. It helps us to survive. As an eco-tourism site, we see our role as conservation, and believe there is merit in surviving. People can come and enjoy the environment here. If we have to sell it, who is going to buy it? Another sand mine?
It was a very difficult decision to make. We sought legal advice to satisfy ourselves that we weren’t making the mine any more likely. The easements will provide us significant benefit. It was a hard decision…. but we won’t cut off our nose to spite our face.
While benefits to Glenworth may be “significant”, Lawler concluded by saying that, despite Glenworth Valley’s deal with Rocla, he “reserves the right to object at every turn because we fundamentally don’t want you here” – an apparent contradiction, given that Glenworth still intends to proceed with the Rocla offset “farce”, regardless.
Sensible or Sellout?
This brings us to the core of the current debate among concerned members of the Central Coast community:
Does the environmental and cultural damage this mine will evidently cause, and the NSW Government’s unwavering support for it, suggest this approval is another example of NSW Government corruption?
After so many years of opposition, what would motivate Glenworth Valley to now aligning itself with the this disputed development, and at a time when comparable mining approvals are coming under ICAC scrutiny?
Is Glenworth exercising pragmatism in the face of an ‘unbeatable’ corporate foe? Or making deals with the Devil?
In light of recent ICAC revelations and doubts about the state’s planning and regulatory functions, the Rocla/Glenworth agreement has certainly raised questions among its opponents.
Perhaps the regulator can shed some light.
Voice of the Regulator
While compiling a previous Wake Up World article on the developments at Calga, I attempted to contact the NSW Department of Planning for several points of clarification. They are, after all, the department that rubber stamps development applications such as these (more on that later). So, hoping to understand details of the Department’s processes, including its requirement of Rocla following the lodgement of two legal challenges against its proposal, I placed a call to the Department of Planning, introduced myself and found an ear to speak to. So far, so good.
My first question was simple: “In this situation, is Rocla permitted by law to continue work while the decision is under appeal, or is the Department’s approval suspended pending an outcome of the appeal?”
Then the run-around began.
Contestant #1: “Oh… you’re speaking to the wrong person… I’ll put you through to so-and-so” – who also couldn’t help me.
Contestant #2: “Oh, you’ll need to email our media department” – who never responded to my email.
Contestant #3: “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll get someone to call you back” – they didn’t.
… and finally (and my personal favourite):
Contestant #4: “I’m not authorized to give you legal advice”.
Legal advice?! I simply asked the Department what its regulation was relating to appeals! Now, call me cynical but I get the feeling that nobody at the NSW Department of Planning office actually knew the answer. And this of course begs the further question:
Is the Department really so unaccustomed to acting in a regulatory capacity that its staff don’t even know what their regulations are? And those who do know aren’t “authorized” to tell anyone!?
At this point, I have admittedly aborted any further attempts to consult with the Department of Planning on points of detail. Their inability or unwillingness to provide even this most basic of information has left me, personally, with no confidence in the function of their office. Given the recent events at ICAC, one could easily conclude that corruption and dodgy dealings are the norm in the NSW State Government, its regulatory processes merely theatre. And as both a representative of media and a concerned member of the Central Coast public, being given the ‘runaround’ and the ‘silent treatment’ by my own government after attempting to reach out for basic regulatory information tells me volumes more than their representatives seem willing to dare.
While the Department of Planning may not be forthcoming, a recent Departmental leak may give us the best insight into its operation.
Newcastle Coal Port Pre-Approved
In March 2014 the Hunter Community Environment Centre released documents leaked from the NSW Department of Planning that show the controversial T4 Coal Port extension at Newcastle was pre-approved by the NSW Department of Planning well before the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) was even convened to assess the development. This leak was also reported in mainstream media.
According to Hunter Community Environment Centre spokesperson Dr. John Mackenzie:
This leaked approval report casts doubt over the entire PAC system. For the T4 project the commission appears to be nothing more than a rubber stamp… Premier Barry O’Farrell pledged to deliver a planning system that was transparent, rigorous and above corruption. We now have the opposite – an opaque, arbitrary system that excludes the community from meaningful input.
The Hunter Community Environment Centre has received a leaked Conditions of Approval report for the controversial proposed fourth coal terminal in Newcastle (T4)… The report, prepared by the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure, has been written before the Planning Assessment Commission has even been convened to assess T4 or has begun the deliberations, public hearings and assessment of evidence that were expected later this year.
Newcastle residents and community groups have been preparing for the PAC for almost two years… More than 1,000 groups and individuals made submissions expressing opposition to the terminal… however the department has prepared a 28-page approval document, ready for signing, with detailed conditions of consent.
After all of the corruption revelations exposed through ICAC, we now have evidence that the assessment process is just an approval process…. How can the community have any faith that fair and objective decisions are being made by the PAC when they are being given pre-written approvals by the department? Given the stench of corruption… an independent inquiry is necessary to investigate the integrity of the approvals process for projects that have such profound impact on communities and the environment.
According to the organizers of the Stop T4 Rally and Street Parade, the Newcastle Coal Port extension would have the following environmental impacts:
- More coal dust. Coal stockpiles would total almost 10km in length, and be more than 20m high. These uncovered coal stockpiles would be less than 2km from urban areas, and would radically increase the coal dust problem in Newcastle suburbs.
- More coal trains. Almost 100 more coal train movements each day to deliver coal to T4. These trains would be uncovered, polluting towns and suburbs all through the Hunter with coal dust. These coal trains would also emit large volumes of diesel exhaust – a proven carcinogen – into urban environments.
- More coal mines. You can’t double coal exports without doubling coal mining. If T4 goes ahead, it would need about 22 average sized coal mines to supply the coal. Communities, waterways, farmland and bushland are already being ripped apart by coal mines. If T4 goes ahead, it will get a lot worse.
- Lost biodiversity. The proposed T4 site is part of the globally important Hunter Estuary (which is supposedly protected under the Ramsar Convention), and shares a border with the Hunter Wetlands National Park. 21 threatened species are known to use the site. T4 would destroy critical habitat for globally-migrating bird species, and could mean the regional extinction of the Green and Golden Bell Frog.
Given that the planning assessment process in NSW appears to be “just an approval process” which disregards environmental and community concerns, an independent inquiry is now necessary.
An Independent Inquiry is Necessary
From the examples at Calga, Newcastle and Bentley, something is clearly amiss in the NSW planning arena. Ironically, former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell was elected in March 2011 on a platform of cleaning up NSW politics and overhauling his predecessor’s unpopular planning laws. But in just over 3 years, he resigned after being caught misleading an investigation into undeclared ‘gifts’, and his government’s planning initiatives are under fire as a twisted farce of governance.
Now Mr. O’Farrell’s successor and former colleague, newly appointed NSW Premier Baird, has made the same promise to the NSW community, announcing he “will take every action possible to clean up politics in NSW. Every action required to restore confidence in NSW will be done under my leadership”.
From the facts at hand, the Central Coast and Hunter communities do not have time to waste, waiting for institutions to right themselves while the future of their water supply and wider eco-systems are at risk. Given recent events, it seems more appropriate that the corruption watchdog intervenes. This report has been forwarded to the ICAC Commissioner Megan Latham’s office. If Mr. Baird genuinely wants to “clean up politics in NSW” then assisting the ICAC with an investigation into the Department of Planning’s dealings at Calga and Newcastle is a great place to start – particularly since he has chosen (wisely or otherwise) to adopt the Planning portfolio himself.
Of course the sad reality is that, given the extent of corruption evident within NSW Government at present, the demands on ICAC’s time or resources may mean that these suspicious approvals are not able to be adequately prioritised. But, spurred on by last week’s success at the Bentley site in Lismore, Central Coast community members remain positive they can protect this vital areas – and they are calling on the support of the wider community to do it.
While two legal appeals against the Calga mine are outstanding, there are also two major community solidarity events planned in the coming weeks, with event organizers holding peaceful community action to help preserve the waterways, endangered species and Aboriginal sacred sites at Calga.
Here’s how you can get involved.
Combined community groups are holding a family friendly Peaceful Community Action in an attempt to convince the owners of Glenworth Valley to withdraw their support for the Rocla quarry extension.
When: Saturday May 31st from 2-4pm
Where: Peats Ridge Rd. Calga
Outside Glenworth Valley Outdoor Adventures
According to event organizer Jake Cassar:
If Glenworth decides to pull their support for Rocla, this gives us a much better chance of winning. With the land and Environment Court appeal against the Governments decision to allow Rocla’s new quarry set to go ahead in September, we need Glenworth’s support now more than ever. We are simply asking Glenworth Valley to change their decision as it is not in the best interest of the community. Their past efforts for protecting the valley are legendary, and we understand they thought the battle was lost. But it’s not over…. Ironically, this quarry will have a devastating impact on the ecology of Glenworth Valley itself, most particularly the incredible and picturesque watercourses that Glenworth Valley are so famous for.
Please contact Glenworth today and respectfully show your opposition, and show your solidarity at the Peaceful Action on Saturday May 31st.
For more information go to “Say NO To Rocla, Glenworth” on Facebook.
The activists at Camp Quoll have organized a peaceful community action to highlight the dysfunction that exists within the NSW Government and its departments. They are targeting the Department of Planning and Infrastructure and asking them to explain how they can condone the PAC approval process that has allowed Rocla Materials Pty Ltd and many other corporations to conduct business without due consideration of the impact they create on community and the environment.
When: Friday 23rd May: 12pm
Where: Department of Planning (Central Coast)
107 Mann St. Gosford NSW 2250
According to Camp Quoll representatives:
Our government needs to understand that short-term economic gain over long-term sustainability is no longer acceptable.
You can find more information about the ‘Community Standing Against Corruption’ rally on Facebook.
Please note: while there have been numerous community demonstrations staged in Newcastle in response to the proposed T4 expansion, there are no upcoming events scheduled at the time this article was published. However, I invite concerned members of the Newcastle community to contact me about future actions planned in relation to this disputed site.
The Final Word
Realistically, given recent events, the NSW public has been given no genuine reason believe in the legitimacy of the NSW government and its operations. The evidence at hand suggests a culture of corruption that is so heavily embedded that even the best-intended politicians cannot be presumed innocent when details – such as the approvals I have discussed today – simply don’t add up.
Personally, I’ve heard the “Let’s clean up politics” rhetoric falsely bantered around in Party ranks around 6 times too many to actually believe it anymore. It would be naive for me to believe that those who created the problem will ever take responsibility for solving it. It is now up to the community to uphold the spirit of justice and fair-play that the nation’s political leaders seem incapable of at this time.
So, in concluding this article, I will offer the final word to the Original custodians of the disputed land at Calga: the AbOriginal Elders.
It is time for us all to unite, join together and walk as one, to protect what is left of this land’s ancient and irreplaceable stories, history and songlines. The Sacred Aboriginal Landscape at Calga and the ongoing destruction of its Aquifer and Hanging Swamps, is significant not only to Aboriginal people but to all human kind.
Photo: the Lismore community celebrates their success at the Bentley coal seam gas site.
About the author:
I’m just an average 40-something from Melbourne Australia who, like many people, “woke up” and realized everything isn’t what it seems. Since then, I’ve been blessed to be a part of Wake Up World and its amazing community of readers.