THE state’s independent planning authority should never have approved Shenhua Watermark’s coal mine on the Liverpool Plains without first obtaining a definitive estimate of the region’s koala numbers.
That is the view of Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) chief executive officer Deborah Tabart, who claims that if the $1.2 billion open-cut mine is allowed to proceed, it will have a devastating impact on the vulnerable species.
Shenhua maintains the clearing of about 800ha of prime koala habitat near Breeza to make way for the mine will impact 262 animals out of a regional population it estimates at between 8613 and 16,893.
However, Ms Tabart said there was “no science” to support the Chinese state-owned company’s “ridiculous” assessment and a more realistic figure was between just 800 and 1300 animals.
“The koala population of NSW may be as low as 20,000 animals – probably less – and here is this ridiculous document suggesting there’s more than 16,000 in this region alone,” she said.“It all sounds good, but it’s rubbish. You would see koalas coming out your ears at that density. It just cannot be right.”
In approving the controversial mine, which will see 268 million tonnes of coal extracted over 30 years, the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) acknowledged that koala population estimates “vary widely”.
But the commission made no attempt to settle on a definitive number prior to concluding that Shenhua’s “koala plan of management” and a new working group would give the marsupials “the best chance of survival”.
If Shenhua’s estimates are correct, then the mine would disturb between only 1.55 per cent and 3 per cent of the Gunnedah Shire Council area’s total koala population.
But if the AKF’s significantly lower estimates are more accurate, then between 20 per cent and 33 per cent of the region’s koalas would be affected.
Ms Tabart said history showed Shenhua’s plan to forcibly translocate koalas that do not migrate naturally away from their habitat when the bulldozers rolled in was fatally flawed. “If those koalas are moved off the Shenhua site into that offset area, they’re going to die,” she said.
The Upper Mooki Landcare group has engaged the NSW Environmental Defenders Office to launch a judicial review of the PAC’s decision, claiming the approval was based “on a legal error”.
Shenhua was approached for comment, but declined.