Ballina Greens councillor Jeff Johnson is so perturbed about plans to build the Pacific Highway Wardell upgrade through three koala colonies that he has launched an online petition demanding the route be changed.
He and Greens NSW roads and environment spokesperson, Dr Mehreen Faruqi, have demanded the state roads minister come to Ballina to explain why the government plans to build the road through such crucial habitat.
And the pair have called on the federal government to use the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to overrule the project.
The call follows a packed public meeting at the Ballina RSL on February 19, which saw speakers from the Greens and Friends of the Koala urge a change of route to save three colonies of the endangered NSW coastal koala.
At the meeting Bob Higgins, Roads and Maritime Services’ (RMS) general manager for the Pacific Highway upgrade, defended the planned route and claimed that when siting a new highway ‘there’s no perfect answer’.
What was not known at that meeting was that a well-respected koala expert, who was consulting to the RMS over the planned route, had already quit his role, claiming government interference in the process.
Dr Steve Phillips told Fairfax Media that he had quit after a NSW government ‘backflip’ resulted in ecologists being phoned as they were surveying for koalas near Wardell and told to stop.
The Sun Herald report said that in his resignation letter, Mr Phillips said the department direction ‘compromises the integrity, independence and veracity of the field assessment that was agreed to’.
Now Cr Jeff Johnson, who has been spearheading the campaign, has said if the state ministers won’t take responsibility, the federal minister should listen to the science of the recent Ballina koala study.
‘The Ballina koala study is a game changer: it shows that we have a nationally significant koala population that should be protected by the EPBC Act,’ he said
‘This law was put in place for precisely this reason: to protect important environmental areas.’
‘The federal environment minister, Greg Hunt, should move to protect the Blackwall Range and the many threatened species that call it home.’
Cr Johnson said the state government’s preferred route was all about saving money,
‘It’s obvious that the NSW government has chosen this route to access cheap fill. Our koalas are worth more than that,’ said Cr Jeff Johnson.
‘If the highway bisects this nationally significant koala habitat it could spell the end for Ballina’s koalas,’ he added.
Ms Faruqi said there was still a chance for the sate government to save face and that, given the seriousness of the proposal, the roads minister should come to to Ballina and announce that one of the other routes that doesn’t impact on the koalas would be chosen.
‘This is a high-risk plan that endangers our iconic north coast koalas.
‘The good news is that there are other routes that do not impact on the koala population. The minister can deliver both an upgraded and safer Pacific Highway and protect our north coast koalas.
Cr Jeff Johnson’s petition can be found here: http://www.communityrun.org/petitions/save-ballina-s-koala-s.