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'Development should stop': serious flaws in offsets plan for new western Sydney airport


There are serious flaws in the environmental offsets being used to compensate for the new western Sydney airport now under construction in Badgerys Creek, a Guardian Australia investigation has found.

All up, 1,780ha of bushland will be razed to make way for the new travel hub – an area bigger than the Adelaide CBD.

In theory, offsets allow developers to compensate for the damage they cause in one area by undertaking work to deliver an equivalent or greater environmental benefit in another.

But the site chosen by the federal government to offset the airport is an example of what’s known by experts as “double-dipping” – it had already been earmarked for permanent environmental protection. There will be no new conservation reserves created in western Sydney to compensate for the damage caused by the massive new development.

Work was supposed to start at the offset site in early 2020, but a long-term contractor to manage the land has still not been found, even though the area for stage one of the airport has already been cleared.

There is also no plan to protect the chosen site “in perpetuity” – which is a requirement under federal offsets policy.

A controversial development

The site and timing of a second Sydney airport has challenged federal governments for decades and was fought by residents, conservationists and even, at times, New South Wales governments.

Stage one of the project, which includes a runway, freight operations and facilities designed to support the movement of some 10 million passengers a year, has required the permanent removal of 1,150ha of bush and grassland, almost a third of which is made up of native trees and grasses, including 141ha of critically endangered Cumberland Plain woodland.

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The western Sydney airport site
The western Sydney airport site. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

When the former environment minister Josh Frydenberg approved stage one in 2016, it was clear a sizeable environmental offsets package would be required to compensate for the environmental damage the project would cause – including the destruction of habitat for the vulnerable grey-headed flying fox and the critically endangered swift parrot.

Frydenberg said the government would put aside up to $180m for the package.

But he and the federal environment department noted at the time that Cumberland Plain woodland was now so scarce and fragmented in its native western Sydney that it would be challenging to secure the volume of direct offsets required under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act to compensate for the massive new development.

Once extensive across western Sydney, only about 6% of the woodland – which is dominated by grey box eucalypts, forest red gums and a grassy understorey – remains.

“There is also considerable competition for available offsets containing EPBC-listed Cumberland Plain woodlands from other developments in western Sydney,” Frydenberg wrote at the time.

In fact, instead of acquiring land or creating new conservation reserves for western Sydney, the developer of the airport – the federal department of infrastructure – did something else.

It chose a site that the government already owned and that had already been earmarked for permanent protection 20 years ago.

This practice, known as double-dipping, has become an increasing problem in areas of urban sprawl, where endangered plants and animals are being squeezed out to make way for housing and infrastructure to support a rapidly growing population. In short, governments are using bushland that is already earmarked for protection and/or in public hands as offsets in order to greenlight more development.

The Cumberland Plain woodland seen from The Northern Road in Luddenham near the Western Sydney airport development site.
Cumberland Plain woodland seen from The Northern Road, Luddenham, near the Western Sydney airport development site. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Lisa Harrold, the president of the local Mulgoa Valley Landcare Group, says the practice needs to stop.

“Where it becomes impossible to find the offset, because there’s not much bush of that particular type left, then the development actually should stop,” she tells Guardian Australia.

“That’s what saves the vegetation community. It’s just going to go extinct unless you really stand up now and go: no more. Let’s have a little bit of respect for what’s left.”

Expert advice ignored

On 12 May 2017, a group of biodiversity experts convened by the government to advise on the best way to environmentally compensate for the new airport development gathered at the Penrith Panthers Leagues Club.

The group – known as the biodiversity expert group (BEG) – included academics, members of community conservation organisations, and representatives from western Sydney councils, Local Land Services and the local Aboriginal Land Council.

Also in the room were bureaucrats from the infrastructure department’s western Sydney unit and from what was then the NSW office of environment and heritage (OEH), as well as a consultant from GHD, the firm hired by infrastructure to deliver the biodiversity offsets plan.

Harrold was one of the members.

She grew up in the western Sydney region and became active in conservation 30 years ago after watching the development of new suburbs near Penrith.

“I started to question whether a developer could clear the whole lot. Is it not possible to leave some for the wildlife?” she says.

Harrold hoped the group’s input would lead to an offsets plan that redressed the damage the airport, and decades of other development, caused for the wildlife and habitats of western Sydney.

What they ended up with was “bitterly disappointing”.

Mulgoa resident and conservationist Lisa Harrold who has been campaigning for better conservation outcomes for the people of western Sydney for more than 30 years.
Mulgoa resident and conservationist Lisa Harrold who has been campaigning for better conservation outcomes for the people of western Sydney for more than 30 years. Photograph: The Guardian

Confidential minutes from the meetings, and emails sent by group members, leaked to Guardian Australia, show months of discussions about potential offset sites were shelved at the 11th hour by infrastructure in favour of a new plan to use a site known as Defence Establishment Orchard Hills as the main offset for the airport.

The 1,740ha securely fenced block, in the suburb of Orchard Hills, is owned by the department of defence, which uses it to store explosives and run training exercises.

It is also one of the largest remnants of endangered bushland in western Sydney, with 1,370ha listed on the commonwealth heritage register for its natural values – specifically that it is almost entirely vegetated with critically endangered Cumberland Plain woodland and Sydney Coastal River Flat forest.

In 2007, the incumbent environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the future minister, Peter Garrett, had already made pre-election announcements promising to add the 1,370ha of heritage-listed bushland at the site to Australia’s reserve system and to protect and manage it permanently.

“Regifting, it’s a horrible thing,” Harrold says.

“They gifted it once in 2007 by promising it would be conserved in perpetuity and managed and they’ve gifted it again in 2018 as an offset for the airport.”

Offsets no longer a last resort

Under national environmental policy, developers are expected to exhaust all options to either avoid or mitigate any environmental impact on nationally significant threatened species and habitats.

But offsets – meant to be the last resort – have become a more common option.

Developers are required to meet 90% of their offset requirements through what are known as “direct offsets”, which are actions such as land acquisition, protection or restoration that provide a measurable benefit to the affected species or ecological community.

Offsets are supposed to meet several other requirements, including that they demonstrate conservation gains proportionate to the scale of the damage caused by the development; that they are additional to any existing conservation work or obligations; and that they compensate for the full duration of the impact of the development.

Mulgoa Rise housing estate
Mulgoa Rise housing estate. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

In the case of the airport, the impact on the environment would be forever.

The airport’s original environmental impact statement, along with minutes from the first three meetings of the biodiversity expert group in 2017, show the infrastructure department had planned to secure the majority of its offsets by purchasing offset credits through the NSW government’s biodiversity stewardship scheme.

Under the scheme, landholders place their properties under an agreement that conserves the land permanently and they receive ongoing payments for managing the threatened habitat and species on the site.

Developers pay for this protection and management by purchasing “credits” on an open market.

The early meetings discussed potential offset sites, some of which already had credits available for purchase on the NSW register.

At meeting three, held at the Penrith Civic Centre on 9 November 2017, group members received a map of potential sites.

Michael Gregory, one of the officials from the western Sydney unit – which is the same unit responsible for the controversial Leppington triangle land purchase – spoke of the department’s “commitment to achieving good conservation outcomes”.

BEG members were also workshopping their own proposals that could contribute to the 10% of offset projects that would complement the direct offsets, including education and research programs, seed collection and propagation, a Wires conservation centre, an Indigenous ranger project, and a rewilding project at nearby Shanes Park.

The department emailed a spreadsheet for each member to provide feedback on all of the offset proposals.

Things changed at the second last meeting, on 9 February 2018. The chair of the meeting, Garth Taylor from infrastructure’s western Sydney unit, gave an overview of Defence Establishment Orchard Hills, “a new potential offset site that has arisen since the November meeting”.

According to meeting minutes, Taylor said the site was “ideally situated” because of its proximity to the airport land, and it was located within the Cumberland conservation corridor, a project led by conservationists that identifies high-value sites and aims to protect, restore and connect them in a way that allows wildlife to move through the habitat.

An aerial view of the construction work at the Western Sydney International (Nancy-Bird Walton) Airport Badgerys Creek in Sydney.
An aerial view of the construction work at the Western Sydney airport at Badgerys Creek in Sydney. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Crucially, he noted, there was not yet a permanent conservation covenant on the site.

Harrold raised her hand and said she thought the land was already conserved.

In 2007, she had run as an independent in the marginal federal seat of Lindsay on a single issue campaign: to preserve some of the last endangered vegetation in western Sydney.

She and other community members, including Wayne Olling, a fellow member of the expert group, successfully lobbied both the Labor and Liberal parties to protect the site.

Turnbull and Garrett’s election promise

Turnbull and Garrett made their announcements promising the permanent conservation of the Orchard Hills land within three days of each other in November 2007.

Federally, the site had been recommended for conservation as far back 2001, when the Howard-era environment minister Robert Hill commissioned a review that noted even then that intense agricultural and urban development had put the Cumberland Plain under enormous strain.

Thirteen years on, no government has ever delivered on the promise. When Guardian Australia contacted Turnbull and Garrett, neither could remember having made such a commitment.

At the February 2018 meeting, Harrold and Olling both objected to infrastructure’s plan to claim management of bushland on the site as an offset.

“To my mind, at the end of the day it was conserved back in 2007 by that agreement and they’re just basically double-dipping,” Harrold says.

Roger Lembit, an ecologist who has done vegetation surveys of western Sydney for governments dating back to the 1980s, says the site had been identified as an area of conservation significance in a floodplain management plan he contributed to in the 1990s.

A general view of signage at the Badgerys Creek airport site in Sydney.
A general view of signage at the Badgerys Creek airport site in Sydney. Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

He says it was “depressing to see these sorts of areas still being traded off”.

“It should just be a conservation reserve of its own right,” he says.

“Its value is immense, and it should automatically be protected in some sort of conservation ownership. And it shouldn’t be available to be used as an offset.”

No plan for permanent protection

There was another problem with the proposal.

Land that is banked under the NSW biodiversity stewardship scheme for offsetting has a covenant put over it to ensure it is managed for that purpose in perpetuity.

The available documentation does not suggest any such guarantee is in place at Orchard Hills.

At the fifth and final meeting on 8 March 2018, officials outlined that the offset plan for Orchard Hills would be managed under a 20-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the department of infrastructure and the department of defence.

The offset would be a series of management actions at the site, described in the final biodiversity offset delivery plan as an “intensive improvement program” that would meet at least 90% of the offset requirement for Cumberland Plain woodland and a substantial percentage of the offset requirement for some other species.

Under the MOU, which commenced in 2018, infrastructure would pay defence for work such as tree and shrub replanting, the permanent removal of feral pests, intensive weeding, remediation of contaminated sites, fencing and the reintroduction of locally extinct fauna such as bettongs and bandicoots.

The offset would not apply to the full 1,370ha of heritage-listed bushland, but rather to about 900ha split into two areas: a northern and southern parcel, leaving an untouched area in the middle.

Paul Rymer, a senior lecturer in the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western Sydney University, was also a member of the BEG.

Dr Paul Rymer is a senior lecturer in plant ecological genetics at the University of Western Sydney.
Dr Paul Rymer is a senior lecturer in plant ecological genetics at the University of Western Sydney. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

He tells Guardian Australia some of the actions infrastructure proposed for the site would be “very much needed” but he wanted to understand what would happen when the MOU expired in 2038.

“What is the future management beyond the 20-year period? There’s no additional funding, and there’s no clarity over what the future management would be,” he says.

“I tried to push quite hard to have that clarity, because I was concerned that the site might be of high quality for a period of time and then, after the 20-year period expired, there was uncertainty.

“But they were pretty hard and fast in terms of saying that the MOU was only for 20 years, and I couldn’t get any clarity over what would happen after the 20 years.”

Rymer was not alone in his concern.

Emails seen by Guardian Australia show NSW government officials feared the 20-year time limit on the work did not meet the environmental conditions under which the airport was approved or the requirement under national policy that offsets be secure for the life of the impact of a development.

They also questioned what the tens of millions of dollars in offset funds would be used for, given there was already existing environmental management at the site by defence under requirements set out by the heritage listing.

Megan Evans, a researcher in environmental policy at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, says there were serious questions as to whether management of land that was already commonwealth heritage-listed met the requirement that offsets provide an additional environmental benefit that would not have otherwise occurred.

“Furthermore, an MOU between two federal government departments is not legally enforceable, and doesn’t inspire confidence that the land will be permanently protected,” she says.

Dr Paul Rymer holding on to The Geebung plant at the Castlereagh Nature Reserve, a successful reserve which has preserved the original flora.
Dr Paul Rymer holding on to the Geebung plant at the Castlereagh nature reserve, a successful reserve that has preserved the original flora. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“A conservation covenant should be used to secure the land on title in perpetuity – as is required of non-government proponents when they must deliver offsets.

“It’s a bit of a double standard, and one that the western Sydney community could be rightly suspicious of. A gentleman’s agreement isn’t a rigorous approach for biodiversity conservation.”

Defence advertised a tender for a contractor to manage the Orchard Hills work at the end of 2019, with work to commence in early 2020.

In answers to questions on notice from a Senate committee in December, defence said a contractor still hadn’t been hired and it could not outline the expected cost.

The final airport offsets package also included a $10m contribution to a Greening Australia seed propagation program and the purchase of some biodiversity offset credits, which the government paid $69.2m for in 2019 over an area covering about 296ha.

A ‘serious breach’

Tim Beshara is the manager of policy and strategy for the Wilderness Society.

He worked directly on Cumberland Plain woodland restoration for almost a decade, and helped write the official guidelines for Cumberland Plain restoration. He is also a former staffer for the Greens and Liberal party.

Beshara says the federal government’s offset at Orchard Hills is “a serious breach of integrity”.

“It’s plainly problematic that the commonwealth is the developer, assessor, approver and receiver of the offsets here, but that’s just where the concerns begin.”

The government has also failed to fulfil existing “crystal-clear legal obligations” to protect and manage the site to date, he says.

Under national laws, sites that are on the commonwealth heritage register are required to have a plan of management for their heritage values, meaning defence is already expected to carry out conservation work on the Orchard Hills land.

Under the EPBC Act, governments must also implement recovery plans to manage and halt the decline of threatened species and habitats on land that they own.

The Cumberland Plain woodland has been identified by the federal government as requiring a recovery plan since 2009.

Twelve years on that plan is still outstanding, it’s development shelved in part because the federal and state governments are working on a new strategic assessment for western Sydney that will involve more urban development and a new Cumberland Plain conservation plan.

“The core failure has been the succession of unfulfilled black-letter law obligations on the commonwealth to take steps to protect Cumberland Plain woodland, that if they had been fulfilled, this offsetting charade could have never got off the ground,” Beshara says.

Guardian Australia put specific questions to the infrastructure department, defence, the environment department and the environment minister, Sussan Ley.

Questions included whether a permanent conservation covenant would be put over the site, what would happen to the site after the 20-year MOU expired, who in government first proposed the Orchard Hills land as an offset, what the total cost of the offset would be, whether a site with existing conservation obligations provided an additional environmental benefit, and a request to see the MOU.

We received a joint written response from the infrastructure department – the developer – and the environment department – the regulator.

It said the environment department was satisfied that the MOU and the offset plan “are enduring, enforceable and auditable”.

A government spokesperson said the MOU “provides for an offset plan to be developed, funded and implemented for the Orchard Hills site to provide measurable ecological improvements” and for “the site be conserved and maintained following completion of the improvements, so as to retain long-term benefits of the quality improvements delivered following implementation of the offset plan”.

“Development of MOUs are standard practice for formalising obligations between commonwealth departments. Infrastructure and defence are working together to implement the MOU, and will continue to do so,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that defence, while still in the process of finding a contractor for the work at the Orchard Hills site, had commenced some work including weed eradication, research into weed management, mapping of tree hollows and establishment of photo monitoring points, and baseline mammal surveys.

“Defence has advised that no money from the offset funding will be used to fund any works other than offset works,” the spokesperson said.

A defence spokesperson said “defence is committed to managing the biodiversity values of the site long-term” and was required to maintain the site after the MOU expired.

But asked if a permanent conservation covenant was going to be put over the site, the spokesperson said: “No.”

“The area must be managed to achieve the offset objectives,” they said.

Life under the flight path

Shortly after the final offsets plan was completed, the team that was the western Sydney unit was disbanded and a new team assembled in the department.

Rymer says the group wasn’t given the opportunity to comment on the final offsets plan and their input was written up as a chapter. Communication with the infrastructure department to try to track the progress of the offsets has been difficult ever since.

“With Orchard Hills coming in late in the discussion and being able to tick off 70% of the offset with the knowledge that there was limited offset credits available for them, they took the easiest option to push that forward,” he says.

“Probably not with the best outcomes for western Sydney as a whole.”

Dr Paul Rymer at the Castlereagh Nature Reserve, Berkshire Park, New South Wales.
Dr Paul Rymer at the Castlereagh nature reserve, Berkshire Park, New South Wales. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Harrold says she sometimes wonders whether all of the new developments in western Sydney will one day just join up.

She doesn’t believe residents of western Sydney have entirely comprehended what changes the airport will ultimately bring to their lives.

“Until those planes start to fly low over people’s roofs 24 hours a day, until we start to absorb the heat impacts of 11sq km of hard tarmac, I think people really haven’t got their heads around what this will bring to their ability to, you know, have quiet enjoyment in their residences at night and things like that,” she says.

Harrold put her hand up to be on the expert group because she thought she had enough experience on the ground in the Cumberland Plain to achieve something positive for conservation in the region.

“I went into it thinking I could make a difference and I’ve come away from it going: What was that all about?” she says.

“We suggested this, we recommended that. Nothing. We didn’t get anything out of it.”



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