Federal government urged to prevent states from watering down environment laws as flying foxes threaten NSW road upgrade
The federal government has been urged not to allow the states to water down environmental laws after the New South Wales premier, Barry O’Farrell, vowed to press ahead with an upgrade to the Pacific Highway despite the potential threat to a colony of vulnerable bats.
O’Farrell said he would be discussing the issue of “green tape” with the prime minister, Tony Abbott, after the discovery of 10,000 grey-headed flying foxes in bushland earmarked for destruction for a 3km stretch of the highway near Macksville.
The premier blamed federal environmental “duplication” for the issue, adding that he wants to press ahead with a plan to avoid spending two extra years and an extra $10m for an alternative plan.
“We need to look for practical, commonsense solutions to these problems and not simply jump when a federal bureaucrat raises an eyebrow,” he told Fairfax Radio.
“Adding two years, adding $10m for a transitory bat population strikes me as pretty batty.
“What we’re seeing with the Pacific Highway project … is duplication, delays and extra costs in getting these projects up and running.
“That’s what I raised with Tony Abbott straight after the election and I’m pleased to say he’s agreed to meet next week to discuss not just this project but the general issue.”
Conservationists have criticised O’Farrell over his stand, saying the ramifications would be felt beyond the flying fox, which is listed as vulnerable by the federal government.
“We have environmental laws in place for a reason and they are particularly important when the state government itself is the developer,” said Pepe Clarke, chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.
“We are concerned that Premier O’Farrell is using this case as justification for fundamental change to our environmental laws.
“We aren’t opposed to efficient decision making, but if the state does its job properly there ordinarily isn’t any need for a federal government assessment. What he is saying is troubling.”
The federal government has promised to devolve environmental assessments to the states for “one-stop shops” that would speed up approvals for development projects. A memorandum of understanding has already been signed between the commonwealth and Queensland to begin this handover process.
The government has pledged that overall standards will not be lowered by this move.
Environmental groups are sceptical of this, claiming the threat posed to the flying fox population could be replicated elsewhere if powers are handed over.
“Barry O’Farrell has made it clear that he can’t be trusted to assess projects affected by federal environmental legislation and will lead business into a legislative nightmare if the federal government hands environmental approval powers to the states,” said Lyndon Schneiders, campaign director at the Wilderness Society.
“State assessments and approvals are not going to stand up to the scrutiny of the courts when cash-strapped governments have vested interests in tax revenue and gut their environment departments of talent, expertise and experience. States just don’t have the money nor, it seems, the inclination to uphold our environmental laws.”
The NSW Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi said O’Farrell had been using the flying foxes as a “scapegoat” for delays to the highway.
“The Pacific Highway is a vital piece of infrastructure, but there is no reason to have to choose between the environment and development,” she told Guardian Australia.
“We’ve lost around 70 species in NSW since European settlement and we’re losing biodiversity at a rate never seen before.
“We’ve already seen the O’Farrell government launch several attacks on the environment, such as changing planning laws and opening up national parks for horse riding and grazing. We have to make sure projects like these do not decimate vulnerable species.”
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