The Federal Environment Department approved the clearing of more than 75 hectares of critical koala habitat west of Brisbane in breach of its own policy.
- Department of Environment approved clearing of 75 hectares of koala habitat near Ipswich
- Documents obtained under FoI show the approval was granted against the department’s own policy
- The department said it granted approval to “maintain consistency” with other projects already approved
Documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) reveal two housing developments in the Ipswich area “lacked consistency” with the Environment Department’s own policy on environmental offsets.
Nonetheless, the department approved the land clearing in January 2018 “in order to maintain consistency in decision making” with other projects that had already been given the green light.
“That’s not good enough,” the ACF’s Andrew Picone told 7.30.
“The koala is listed as a vulnerable species, it faces a very real risk of extinction.
“If we continue to allow the destruction of its habitat and not even apply the bare minimum of the offset policy requirements, it’s likely to go extinct much sooner than people predict.”
Environmental scientist Dr Philip Gibbons, from the Australian National University, thinks the department is not doing its job.
“This is a concern because it tells us our own Department of the Environment either doesn’t have the desire or it doesn’t have the power to protect threatened species such as the koala,” he told 7.30.
Offset only met quarter of required target
The Deebing Heights housing development is being built on some of the cleared land. (ABC News: Chris Gillette)
The critical koala habitat was cleared for up to 900 dwellings as part of the First Nine residential development at Brookwater and 332 dwellings at Deebing Heights for the Defence Housing Association (DHA).
Both developers, Springfield Land Corporation and DHA, spent more than 18 months trying to negotiate a suitable environment offset that would compensate for the destruction of koala habitat by protecting and improving similar forest elsewhere.
The Springfield Land Corporation applied to compensate for the destruction of 46.2 hectares of koala habitat with an offset of 89.5 hectares at Spring Mountain about 7 kilometres away.
But according to a recommendation report dated December 21, 2017, the Environment Department found the method used to calculate risk of loss “potentially overstated the averted loss the offset will achieve”.
Furthermore, the department said the developer used inaccurate habitat quality measures, “potentially providing results that do not accurately reflect habitat quality at the impact and offset sites”.
In an email exchange with Springfield Land Corporation consultants on November 21, 2017, the day the final plan was submitted, the department estimated the proposal would offset 17.6 per cent of the impact, well short of the required 100 per cent.
In that email exchange, the proponents disputed this calculation but agreed to increase the offset site by another 8 hectares to a total of nearly 90 hectares.
Despite finding problems with the offset plan, the department recommended it be approved “in order to maintain consistency in decision making” with another project that had already been approved at Spring Mountain.
The department added it would insist any future offset proposal “will need to be consistent with the offsets policy”.
A spokesperson for the Springfield City Group told 7.30 it was not privy to the internal deliberations of the department, but it said its overall Greater Springfield project “has contributed some 30 per cent of its project area for conservation and open/green space — which is well in excess of the usual requirement”.
Department must ‘get tougher’ or the koala will be extinct
The ACF’s Andrew Picone is worried the koala will become extinct in SE Queensland under the current rules. (ABC News: Chris Gillette)
At the other development, at Rawlings Road at Deebing Heights, DHA proposed a 54-hectare offset near Peak Crossing, about 20 kilometres away, as part of a larger property owned by the Queensland Trust for Nature (QTFN).
The department also found this offset proposal “lacked consistency” with its offsets policy and found the methodology used “did not appear to be reflective of the quality at the proposed offset site”.
But it again recommended approving the offset plan “in order to maintain consistency in decision making with the three previously approved offsets (on QTFN property)”.
DHA’s general manager Brett Jorgensen said his organisation takes environmental sustainability very seriously.
“We work closely with government authorities at every level to ensure that our developments satisfy state and federal requirements,” he told 7.30.
A spokesman for the Environment Department said the “technical inconsistencies” between the developers’ offset plans and departmental policy were not serious enough to stop approval of the habitat destruction.
“The delegate who approved the plans determined that the proposed offsets would achieve an acceptable conservation outcome in relation to the impacts of the projects on koalas,” the spokesman told 7.30.
Dr Gibbons said the documents showed the department relied on precedent to approve the offsets plans rather than best available science.
“As time goes on we get much better information about species like the koala, so we shouldn’t be ignoring that information,” he told 7.30.
“We should be using the best available information to make a decision.”
But the department said it was appropriate to consider precedents.
“This reflects the need for decision making under the EPBC (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) Act to be equitable and to take account of circumstances on a case by case basis,” a spokesperson said.
Mr Picone said it was disturbing that these negotiations happened behind closed doors and only came to light through the Freedom of Information process.
“How many other projects have gone through where they could not meet policy commitments?” he said.
“We have to either realise or accept the koala is going to go extinct in south-east Queensland or get tougher with our environmental protections.”