13.0 Objection to biodiversity impacts and failure of the EIS to properly assess these impacts

WAG objects to large-scale negative impact that WestConnex, including the New M5, will have on biodiversity, and the failure of this EIS to properly consider those impacts.

WestConnex will greatly impact our environment and biodiversity. Huge amounts of space and parklands will be lost, including some of the last remnants of natural bushland in the inner west and south-west.

Typically an EIS downplays or dismisses the habitat value within a project footprint in order to remove or limit the biodiversity-promoting value that is there, and/or to understate the impacts of the project. This EIS is no exception, and it does this in a number of ways.

As with the rest of this EIS, there is also a failure to consider the negative impacts of the entire WestConnex route on biodiversity, both cumulative and otherwise, even as unsubstantiated “benefits” for the whole route are referred to repeatedly.

Even so, the EIS makes it clear that there will be unavoidable serious impacts to the endangered Green and Golden Bell Frog (Litoria aurea) and the critically endangered community Cooks River Castlereagh Ironbark Forest (CRCIF) if the project goes ahead.

Threat to Cooks River Castlereagh Ironbark Forest (CRCIF)

Sydney’s native vegetation communities have been subjected to intense clearing in the last 200 years. Some of these unique communities include Sydney Blue Gum High Forest (over 95% cleared), Cumberland Plain Woodland (94% cleared), Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest (95-99.5% cleared) and Shale Sandstone transition forest (around 80% cleared).  All of these communities are listed as endangered or critically endangered.

The CRCIF is another one of these critically endangered Sydney vegetation communities, which is about 95% cleared. Sydney’s natural heritage is clearly very threatened by ongoing development, with so much of our native forest already gone to ‘development’ and expansion.

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 Cooks River/Castlereagh Ironbark Forest of the Sydney Basin Bioregion. The same ecological community in the Sydney Basin Bioregion is also listed under the New South Wales Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.

A small patch of CRCIF occurs in the WestConnex development footprint, as 1.87 Ha of intact forest known as Beverly Grove Bushland is in the project areas.

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.

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.”

If this project proceeds, 1.4 Ha of this forest is expected to be cleared. The EIS attempts to downplay this by noting it is only a small amount of the total area of remnant CRCIF (about 0.1%),

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.”

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. The New M5 seeks to destroy that.

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).”

This is an extraordinary manipulation, particularly given the impacts on this community are far worse than implied.

What is omitted from the EIS is that by reducing the size of this CRCIF a0.47 Ha, it actually reduces the size of the patch to below 0.5 Ha, the critical size threshold for a patch of forest. This means that the remaining patch of bushland will no longer be considered CRCIF, and that the remaining bushland will not be entitled to the ‘protection’ that should come with being declared a critically endangered ecological community. In effect, the proponents are proposing what would amount to the total destruction of this critically endangered CRCIF, and therefore should have stated that the total loss of extent of CRCIF would be 1.87 Ha or 100% of this last local remnant.

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, the proponent is confident it is reasonable to destroy the CRCIF in the path of the new M5.

In any case, the options available for BOS are deeply unsatisfactory and would in no way genuinely replace the loss of this mature and critically endangered CRCIF. The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH)’s  Biodiversity Banking and Offsets Scheme, ‘BioBanking’, is designed to address the loss of biodiversity values from habitat degradation.

It is claimed BioBanking will ‘help address the loss of biodiversity values, including threatened species, due to habitat degradation and loss’. But the scheme 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 environmental protection strategy. This is never been more essential than when a the destruction of critical habitat and threatened species or ecological communities that can withstand no further loss is under consideration, such as this CRCIF.

It is significant the WestConnex have not been able to find a ‘like for like’ forest to offset the loss of this CRCIF, because there are none comparable to it. A couple of landholders are said to be perhaps interested in a Biobanking Agreement, but this is all extremely vague and not determined.

The 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.

This means the proponent 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.

In any case, what is clear from this EIS is that those responsible for its biodiversity study couldn’t find another like-for-like for offset bargaining chip, (EIS p193 Biodiversity Assessment Report – BAR – Appendix G), they tried a different tack, using language to describe the outlook for the forest of low long-term viability to give the impression its loss won’t matter as it wouldn’t survive anyway. There is no analysis or explanation provided for this claim to support any assertion that the protection the RMS was obliged to provide as a condition for approval for the M5 has failed to prevent the forest from deteriorating.

WAG, however, has received numerous reports from locals and visitors to the area that attest to its healthy state, including this eyewitness account recorded in December 2015:

“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 and are still thriving. Sadly the M5 will destroy everything…”

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.

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.

In addition, as part of the M5 Linear Park, the CRCIF Tserves dual purposes. It is part of an important active transport artery that connects the community to each other, as well as schools, shops and train station. It is also, just simply, a lovely place to walk or cycle aiding both physical and psychological well-being, reducing stress and reconnecting with nature.

An abundance of research shows that trees improve the air, soil and water-quality. They improve mental health and well-being, reduce anger and aggression, and provides a sense of place. Canopy coverage over paved surfaces is a cost-effective means of mitigating heat islands and reducing emissions of hydrocarbons involved in ozone depletion.

With tree canopy in our inner suburbs at a low 16%, the protection of what we have now becomes even more important. Hundreds of people each day use the M5 linear walk. The high patronage makes it a safe place, even late into the evening.

WestConnex plan to destroy this critically endangered woodland. In its place will be a transparent noise wall, the purpose being to “enhance the motorist experience with views across the golf course and Beverly Grove Park”. Not too many people would want to take their walk with a view of 10 lanes of traffic just on the other side of a plastic wall.

WestConnex spells the destruction of not just this unique environment, but the safety and amenity of the overall M5 linear walk.

It represents a significant loss to biodiversity. It represents a significant loss to the people of Beverly Hills and Kingsgrove, who already lost so much when the existing M5 East was built.

Other threats to local forest and bushland

More bad news for the local forest communities, including the CRCIF, is the drawdown of groundwater for the tunnelling associated with this project. The EIS states that the vegetation communities may be dependent on groundwater, and that with the reduction of groundwater, certain plant species may be negatively affected, especially in dry periods. However, what the impacts of the reduction of groundwater on these communities will be is unclear. It should have been fully assessed as part of this EIS.

In addition to the CRCIF to be cleared, a 1.82 Ha patch of threatened Swamp Sclerophyll forest on Kogarah Golf Course will also go, and a grand total of 10.8 Ha of vegetation both native and exotic is highlighted for clearing for this project.  

In the present context of climate change, any clearing of vegetation without appropriate revegetation of another area is irresponsible, especially when the vegetation is being cleared for a carbon-producing road.

The Green and Golden Bell Frog

The Green and Golden Bell Frog (GGBF) was once one of the most common frog species found on the east coast of New South Wales and was once abundant in the swampy eastern suburbs of Sydney.

This began to change in the 1970s when the ongoing impacts of habitat loss, habitat degradation and habitat fragmentation were amplified by cumulative effects of urban consolidation and development including roads, cars, pollution, cats, dogs, the introduced plague minnow. Finally, the introduction of the amphibian chytrid fungus (chytridiomycosis) was the final straw for the GGBF, which was now suffering death by multiple causes. The most common frog in eastern Sydney had become the most endangered by the 1990s.

By this time the GGBF was reduced to a series of small ‘key populations’ scattered along the coastal fringe of New South Wales. Four of these populations were located in Sydney – Arncliffe (Kogarah Golf Course – the population at risk from this development), Homebush Bay, Kurnell and Greenacre. It is now almost 2016 and the situation for the GGBF of Sydney has not improved. With the exception of the Homebush Bay population, which has expanded into newly constructed wetlands throughout Sydney Olympic Park, the remaining populations in Sydney have been ignored and left to dwindle with their habitats largely succumbing to weed invasion and modified water quality. The status of the Greenacre population is unknown, the Kurnell population has suffered apparent extinction and can no longer be found, and the Arncliffe population has managed to just hang on with the most recent population estimates being 30 to 50 adults.

With this being the case the small and fragile Arncliffe population, what may be the second last population of bell frogs in Sydney, is now to be at the centre of a massive four-year development for WestConnex, and this project in particular. The Arncliffe GGBF population is confined to Kogarah Golf Course and the adjacent RMS (formerly RTA) ponds, and occupy an area covering about 40 Ha. For this project, 7.82 Ha of bell frog foraging, dispersal, sheltering and potentially breeding habitat is to be removed from the golf course. This is expected to have “direct impacts” on the GGBF, including: mortality and injury of individuals during clearing of shelter habitat, decommissioning of ponds, during operation of permanent facilities and decreased habitat value of the RMS ponds (where the frogs breed). Decreased habitat value of the RMS pond includes “indirect impacts” of shading, dust, noise, vibration and lighting from the adjacent works. As part of their mitigation measures frog exclusion fencing, translocation and captive breeding have been suggested as solutions.

So what does this mean for the Arncliffe bell frogs? It could very well mean the end for the population. Taking into consideration the population is already very small (<50 individuals over 40 Ha) and entirely restricted to Kogarah Golf Course, the destruction of 7.82 Ha of dispersal habitat, the addition frog exclusion fencing confining individuals to the area around the RMS ponds and reduced quality of the RMS ponds over four years (or four breeding seasons) can only result in detrimental impacts on the frogs.

The construction on Kogarah Golf Course is occurring immediately adjacent to the RMS ponds on the area of the golf course the frogs most often use for dispersal and occasionally breeding. Given that the GGBF is a widely dispersing species that often utilise different breeding sites (depending on site suitability in different years), confining them all to the one place would likely result in a higher level of cannibalisation - especially of juveniles, which need to be able to disperse away from the pond to avoid the adults.

The suitability of the RMS ponds to see the GGBFs through this tough time must also be considered, if this is where they are expected to breed and survive. The RMS ponds are now over 15 years old, densely covered in vegetation, and did not support any breeding in 2014. GGBFs have shown preference for new ponds with open areas free of vegetation, and require grassy areas adjacent to the pond for foraging. Under the new arrangement the suitability of the RMS ponds to support the bell frogs is severely reduced. GGBFs will only breed in water if the temperature is above 22 degrees, and when ponds are covered in dust and vegetation, reaching this critical temperature for breeding will be problematic.

Loud noise has also been demonstrated to interfere with breeding of larger frog species. With 24-hr construction activities planned that will producing such loud noises and bright lighting all night night, it is likely that the GGBFs will not feel secure enough for breeding to occur, even if the water in the breeding ponds reaches 22 degrees.

If/when the RMS ponds become unsuitable for breeding, the GGBFs may wish to look elsewhere. Again, this will be very difficult for them if the ponds are surrounded by frog exclusion fencing. And if the additional ponds are also removed on the golf course, the GGBFs will be left with nothing.

As colonising species, if any frogs happen to be on the ‘wrong’ side of the frog fencing, any hole in the ground that fills up with water after rain in the construction zone may become the new favourite hangout for the local GGBFs. As an endangered species, this would necessitate a stop work procedure, adding construction delays.

As part of the mitigation measures proposed in this EIS, GGBFs are expected to be translocated off site. However, this rarely works, as frogs will often return directly to the place they are taken from.

The proponent has also suggested captive breeding in this EIS to maintain stock of the frogs while works continue. This may be the only chance the frogs have, but it is incredibly difficult to do properly, due to the aforementioned tendency for adults to cannabalise their young. This is highly likely if juvenile GGBFs could not disperse beyond the frog fencing, and given this is the point of such fencing, it is extremely likely. Any bulk release of tadpoles at the end of the project has also been shown to be a failed strategy.

Despite the mitigation measures proposed, this project is really a disaster for the Arncliffe GGBFs. If death by multiple causes is responsible for the GGBF decline across New South Wales, it is easy to see how death by multiple causes resulting from this WestConnex project is likely to spell the end for the bell frogs here too.

As with the CRCIF, the EIS attempts to downplay the huge threat this project poses to the GGBFs by underplaying the importance of this population of the endangered species. The EIS highlights that there are several populations in Sydney, without referring to the status of each one; it suggests the area of golf course to be developed is not as important to the frogs as it is; and it ignores evidence that as well as being the main area of dispersal and foraging habitat for the GGBFs, the construction area is also likely to be an important additional breeding area.

The EIS states that breeding has not occurred outside the RMS ponds since 2000, but this is untrue. Scientist Grant Webster, who has studied the GGBF population at this site in detail. He was involved in GGBF surveys there between 2006 and 2009 for Cumberland Ecology as part of the former Cooks Cove development proposal.

These surveys were carried out on the Kogarah Golf Course between 2006 and 2009. GGBFs were detected on every occasion at the golf course. The results varied with frogs being detected in four ponds in 2009 and breeding was only evident in one pond.

Mr Webster concluded that there was potential breeding outside the RMS breeding ponds. In the submission he made to the Federal Department of the Environment, Reference Number: 2015/7520, when the RMS on behalf of the former WDA (now SMC) in relation to this project in July 2015.

As part of this submission, Mr Webster made it clear that out of seven locations where frogs were found, "six of these locations are from ponds on the golf course and five of them are within the zone they have outlined for construction”. He records that an amplectant pair was detected in the central ponds, indicating that breeding occurs there, and provided diagrams that showed how closely the distribution of GGBFs overlaps with the proposed New M5 construction site.

Mr Webster also noted in his submission that:

"It is alarming that all the main ponds occupied by bell frogs have been zoned for construction, this construction zone is exactly where the frogs occur on the golf course, and they were not detected more widely despite the entire area being surveyed.

In my opinion if this development were to go ahead as planned it would likely spell the end for the Kogarah population of Green and Golden Bell Frogs."

It is unacceptable that the proponent not only fail to acknowledge receipt this information in this EIS, but also claims that no such breeding activity has taken place as described by Mr Webster since 2000. WAG is aware that no contact has been made with Mr Webster to get more information or verify his claims by the SMC, the RMS, or the authors of the biodiversity study.  

Insufficient field surveys

The EIS field surveys (observations in the field) are very limited in duration and season.

Repeated sampling over some time period is really needed to develop anything representing a comprehensive survey. The failure of the proponents of this EIS to conduct this kind of service means it falls well short of what is a satisfactory, let alone a rigorous, survey process.

It is apparent that the EIS flora and fauna surveys would not satisfy the requirements of the NSW Threatened Species Act NSW 1995.

Failure to properly consider the loss of all kinds of vegetation

While the loss of parkland to the New M5 would be significant, the loss of green space this part of the tollway would cause is even worse than stated in the EIS.

The EIS has not quantified the loss in area and nature of vegetation from private gardens and street trees. This should have been done.

It also should have been straightforward to map the coverage and approximate area covered by this private/street vegetation. This was not done. This downplays the role and the extent of vegetation of any sort. Irrespective of whether it is planted or remnant, it is potentially important and can play an ecological role.

The EIS therefore makes no real assessment of the nature and quality of the planted vegetation, which can stand in to some extent for remnant vegetation if well planned and maintained.

All city vegetation is important in the context of preventing, and countering the urban heat island effect, a recognised phenomenon.

There are also urban biodiversity benefits of both planted as well as remnant vegetation well acknowledged by others.

For example, see September 2015 (Vol. 16, No. 3) of Ecological Management and Restoration (EMR) (pp. 206-213). Trees and shrubs (the latter of which is not mentioned in the EIS) “have the potential to provide nesting and shelter habitat for common birds and possums” (20-12). The EIS also fails to mention that such vegetation also provides food resources either directly or indirectly. This is a sloppy omission, but again it downplays and limits the vegetation’s role.

The EIS’s failure to quantify or assess the ecological role of private gardens and street plantings means that its comments about vegetation and connectivity do not tell the whole story, and so the potential connectivity (and ‘stepping stones’) that exist via this vegetation is ignored.

Some animal species manage quite well in small and fragmented patches of vegetation, and providing that patch distance is not too great other species are able to move between and utilise such patches.

Suburban gardens are an example of this even where there is no direct house to house connectivity and there are roads and footpaths separating areas; an example animal species would be the once common Superb Blue Wren, a small bird species which moves between home gardens finding necessary resources (nesting sites, shelter, food) quite satisfactorily. Ditto Blue Tongue Lizards, also once common but now in decline in urban areas.

Such gardens act as critical ‘stepping stones’ for fauna crossing and leaving cities. It is known this does happen, and that it is important for migratory species, such as the Yellow-faced Honeyeaters that make annual migrations through Sydney. Lack of connectivity disadvantages some, but by no means all native species.

Failure to consider cumulative and wider impacts of biodiversity loss

We can’t afford to lose more havens for wildlife and biodiversity within highly modified areas such as the area defined by this project footprint than we already have.

This is where cumulative impacts are more acutely felt, and to dismiss them leads to a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ scenario.

The conservation of urban biodiversity has profound benefits for human wellbeing in regards to physical and psychological health – e.g. Turner et al 2004: Global Urbanisation and the separation of humans from nature, Bioscience 54 585-590. Yet the social value to people is not addressed in this EIS at all.

There is also no attempt made in this EIS to assess the loss to biodiversity across the whole WestConnex project, including the M4 widening, King Georges Interchange, M5 duplicate and the linking M4/M5 project. A southern extension and Sydney Gateway is also referred to in the EIS which would threaten wetland. This is a serious deficiency in the EIS, particularly given that the “benefits” of the entire WestConnex and additional motorways such as the F8 are repeatedly cited in the EIS as justification for building the New M5 section.

Conclusion

WAG formally and strongly objects to the negative impact the WestConnex project, including the New M5, will have on Sydney’s biodiversity if it is built, and the failure to properly assess these risks in the EIS. We ask the Minister for Planning to reject the WestConnex New M5 project.

 


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