Byron Shire Council has confirmed it will now refer itself to the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Energy (DoEE) over the presence of the critically endangered Mitchell’s rainforest snail and the potential destruction of its primary habitat to build the Byron bypass.
Under the Act the council was required to self-refer the Byron bypass project to the Commonwealth for consideration prior to seeking approval from the state government if ‘the action they are proposing to take will have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance’ according to the DoEE. However, council’s original environmental study didn’t identify Mitchell’s rainforest snail or its primary habitat.
Mayor briefs MP
Multiple issues around the construction of the bypass have been raised repeatedly by local Ballina MP Tamara Smith, who last Friday attended another briefing on the project with Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson.
‘I took the opportunity to meet with the mayor and general manager to specifically discuss the environmental concerns that I have and that have been raised with me by many people in the community as well as those concerns raised by highly respected ecologists, including a formal letter from the NSW Ecological Association,’ Ms Smith told Echonetdaily.
‘Local ecologist David Milledge accompanied me to the meeting and gave a detailed presentation to the mayor about what he [Mr Milledge] has identified as crucial mistakes in the original environmental mapping conducted by Council’s planner.’
It is understood that the council’s environmental consultants only conducted two days of fieldwork during their BioBanking assessment and didn’t identify the critically endangered floodplain rainforest present, which is primary habitat for the critically endangered Mitchell’s rainforest snail. However, respected local ecologist David Milledge, who has conducted an independent assessment of the bypass route, identified the floodplain rainforest and its significance as primary habitat for Mitchell’s rainforest snail. The snail has since been found in the floodplain rainforest within the Bypass footprint by ecologist Ross Wellington.
‘Had the critically endangered snail and the primary habitat been correctly identified, it is highly likely that this section of the bypass route would have been impossible under both state and federal legislation,’ Ms Smith said.
Offsetting commitment sought
If the bypass is to go ahead, Ms Smith said she has requested the mayor ‘to guarantee that primary Mitchell’s rainforest snail habitat is purchased by Council to offset the impact’.
Speaking to Echonetdaily, Mayor Richardson said, ‘It was great meeting with Tamara and we had an open and solution-focused meeting. Though of course it would show a lack of respect to those present to share all of the details, in general, the meeting mainly focused around ensuring that vegetation that is to be enhanced and restored is of the same type to that which will be removed, especially in regards to the Mitchell’s snail habitat.’
The mayor also invited Mr Milledge attend the upcoming biodiversity panel that will recommend ‘the best and most appropriate land to go above and beyond the state government offset requirements’.
This was confirmed by Mr Milledge who told Echonetdaily, ‘That at a recent meeting with the Mayor, Council officers, local member Tamara Smith and myself, I agreed to work with Council’s Biodiversity Committee in identifying a suitable and adequate stand or stands of floodplain rainforest in the Cumbebin Swamp area that could be set aside to be managed in perpetuity as secure habitat for the snail. Such rainforest would also serve as compensatory habitat for other rainforest-dependent threatened species which did not receive habitat compensation under Council’s BioBanking agreement.’
While the council has belatedly self-referred to the DoEE it is not certain what, if any action, the department will be willing to take over the breach.
When asked about possible responses from the DoEE a spokesperson said, ‘The EPBC Act provides for a range of enforcement tools to deal with identified non-compliance. These include enforceable undertakings, remediation determinations, and injunctions through to seeking prosecution and/or civil penalties.’
Money or species?
‘As a consequence of what highly regarded ecologists are presenting to me as the state member for Ballina I am of the view that we have missed legally protecting a critically endangered species and its primary habitat,’ said MP Tamara Smith.
‘People in authority that I respect have made comments like, “It’s only a few snails”, “It’s not that much land” and insinuated that my raising these issues will cost council money.
‘In a biodiversity hotspot such as we are blessed to be the guardians of in Byron Shire, and in a time of daily extinction of species, the ends do not justify the means.’
Stage 2 on hold
As a result of the referral to the DoEE the council will continue with stage one of the bypass but will not start stage 2, which is scheduled to begin in November, ‘until further advice is received from the Commonwealth’.
A Council spokesperson confirmed with The Echo that, ‘Council’s decision to refer works to the Australian Government’s Department Environment and Energy for approval under the Environmental Protection and Conservation [Act] was for those [works] in stage two, as well as a small section of vegetation in stage one.
‘Work on stage one is continuing with the section of vegetation quarantined while DOEE considers the referral.’