The NSW government has been slammed for putting penny pinching ahead of environmental protection last night at a packed public meeting called to discuss the contentious Wardell bypass section of the proposed Pacific Highway upgrade.
Local communities and Greens have demanded the state government reconsider the route for the 12-kilometre section, which is feared, could severely threaten multiple key koala colonies south of Ballina.
‘There is an alternative route,’ Ballina shire Greens Cr Jeff Johnson told the public meeting at Ballina RSL. ‘Clearly the issue is cost.’
NSW Greens’ roads spokesperson, MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi, agreed with Johnson and urged the government to listen to what local communities and environmental experts are saying.
‘They must reconsider the route,’ she said. ‘We have to try to convince the government that an alternative route is what the community demands … and is what the experts are saying. It’s the responsibility of the government to work with you all, and with the experts, to find an alternative that meets the criteria of ecological sustainable development principals.’
While most at the meeting echoed Faruqi’s sentiment, one man fighting the government’s corner was Bob Higgins, Roads and Maritime Services’ (RMS) general manager for the Pacific Highway upgrade.
Higgins claimed that when picking a highway route ‘there’s no perfect answer’ and that it’s always a ‘balancing act’ between the economics of building a road and the concerns of community and environmental groups.
Higgins irked those in attendance about the government’s commitment to protecting the Ballina koala habitat by citing a separate example of where RMS altered the Pacific Highway for environmental reasons.
He said that as someone ‘involved in the whole highway from point A to point B’, he could give examples of where RMS shifted a highway for environmental reasons.
Higgins cited that on the Frederickton to Eungai [upgrade] section, ‘you’ll find big curve in it’, which he said was included to avoid the highway going through what he described as ‘environmentally sensitive’ forest habitat.
‘Now we could have straightened it up and put it right through it, but we didn’t, because of the sensitivity,’ he said, bringing outcry from locals at the meeting who asked why RMS could not look at an alternative route away from the koala colonies on the Wardell bypass section.
‘You should tell us today that you’ll protect this area in light of the studies into the 38 threatened species and go via a route that doesn’t impact any of them,’ responded Cr Johnson.
Lorraine Vass, president of Friends of the Koala, said that although she understood that RMS was ‘stuck between a rock and a hard place’ on the issue, the bypass section was undoubtedly ‘in the damn wrong place’.
Koala expert Dr Steve Phillips, who authored a comprehensive study of the Ballina koala habitat for the local council, said the problem with the highway section upgrade was that it was ‘incredibly poorly informed’ and ‘very simplistic’. He added that the conservation of what is a koala population of national significance has been understated and ‘only given lip service.’