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Braving Boral’s Might - Friends of Minnamurra River Wage War on Sand Mining Decision

February 10, 2021

By Bonnie Cassen

The Kiama community has worked hard to keep Boral’s hands and sand mining operations off the precious Minnamurra River catchment area. Having ‘lost’ the IPC decision, residents are gearing up for a fight.

A lot has been going on behind the scenes since the NSW Independent Planning Commission approved the Boral sand mine extensions last November. Friends of Minnamurra River have engaged legal representation to appeal against the IPC’s approval decision.

Will Chyra, chair of FoMR, said the group intends to fight to have the approval reversed or have a new Boral application assessed under the NSW Government’s new environmental protection legislation. He believes the Government allowed Boral to have its original application assessed under old, outdated and inadequate legislative criteria.

FoMR formed four years ago to protect the biodiversity and catchment around the Minnamurra River, especially the fragile marine, terrestrial and aquatic environments. The catchment remains one of the last mostly natural estuaries in south-east Australia, so far relatively unmodified by industry and urban over-development.

Protesting the expansion of Boral's Sand Mina at Minnamurra River
Strong community opposition to the Boral Sand Mine expansion. Photo supplied.

Habitat destruction is one of Australia’s most significant challenges and the mining threat to the Minnamurra River is very much a part of this crisis. With so much habitat lost in last summer’s bushfires all remaining habitat remains crucial.

“Even the NSW Government’s own environment department concedes that the sand mines will destroy the local environment” Mr Chyra said, “and yet this destruction of landscapes many thousands of years old is for mines that will have a life of only three to four years.”

The Boral sand mine will:

  • Require the clearance of 4.5 ha of Bangalay Sand Forest, which is a listed endangered ecological community (EEC) under the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, destroying habitats for the Barking Owl and Masked Owl
  • Destroy or adversely impact communities of the Southern Myotis microbat, listed as vulnerable in NSW and subject to a conservation strategy by another NSW government department
  • Require the clearance of three hectares of other native vegetation as well as the clearance of three hectares of exotic grassland
  • Increase the risk of downstream pollution and sedimentation of already stressed seagrass beds and fish habitat in the Minnamurra River estuary
  • Destroy Aboriginal cultural materials and both identified and unidentified Aboriginal archaeological sites
  • Necessitate the building of a network of flood levees or bunds which will be a landscape-disfiguring 5.5m to 6m high

Source: Friends of Minnamurra River

The Boral Sand Mine destroying Aboriginal cultural materials and both identified and unidentified Aboriginal archaeological sites
No to Boral Sand Mine. Photo supplied.

Another big concern is the precariously close location of the decommissioned Kiama Council landfill and sewage facility. The fears are that sand mining activity will change flood flows around the area, causing toxic waste pollution to leak into the Minnamurra River and its tributary Rocklow Creek. Real fears based on king tide levels and the impact of regular east coast lows.

FoMR member Tanya George has organised a fundraising campaign for the legal challenge against the IPC in the Land and Environment Court. The first stage of the case is expected to cost around $15,000 and stage two could be up to eighty thousand.

Although the Environmental Defenders Office saw merits in the case it could not take it on due to funding restraints. Many environmental lawyers and barristers have shown interest in the Minnamurra case development, seeing it as an exciting opportunity to determine some strong precedents around mining in vulnerable environments.

For now FoMR will be working hard on their fundraising campaign. Ms George encourages people to “be a little courageous and put their name to this cause by making a small donation”. Over a thousand Kiama residents attended a protest at the river in 2019, with nearly 4,000 signing a petition presented to state parliament by independent MP Justin Field. Ms George believes that if each person who cares about the Bangalay habitat and the catchment donated a few dollars they would easily reach the target.

Over a thousand community members attend a protest at Minnamurra River
Over a thousand community members attended a protest at the river. Photo credit: Howard R Jones

“I think most people who live in our general area are against this sand mine” Ms George said. “You don’t have to be an environmental activist to want to save our little catchment. Even if people can’t donate themselves, it would be wonderful for them to help by sharing it with their friends and family.”

In many ways this case is bigger than the Boral sand mine and the Minnamurra River. It’s about precedents; it’s about profit over the environment and it’s about preventing local extinctions and ensuring wildlife corridors remain intact at least to some degree. Both Kiama and Shellharbour councils also hold concerns regarding the processes around the approvals.

At the council meeting following the IPC approval, Kiama Council voted unanimously to write to the Federal Minister of Environment, Sussan Ley, and outline their concern “that there may be a potential breach to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in relation to the approvals granted for the Dunmore Lakes Modification 2 - Boral Sand Mine.”

Shellharbour Council also objected to the two new mining areas classification as a modification, and extension, to the original application rather than assessed as a new development application. Mayor Marianne Saliba said while Council was angry about the DA treatment, it appreciated that the IPC process allows the community the opportunity to be heard.

FoMR’s Richard Maitland has confirmed that, while the grounds remain confidential, the group believes they have a case and are gearing up for the appeal. The fundraiser campaign conveys similar optimism, currently sitting at $13,235 of its $25,000 goal, a sizable pool of large and small donations demonstrating a commitment to do whatever is necessary to counter the emerging ecological crisis.

FoMR are also working towards collaborative solutions and have written to Boral chief executive Zlatko Todorcevski, calling for transparency and authenticity in meeting their planning conditions. FoMR said Boral has never commissioned a full environmental impact study despite it being highly likely the new mines will destroy and damage threatened and vulnerable plant and animal communities, and a forest protected under NSW legislation.

Dunmore sand mine referral to planning commission but strong community opposition says NO to Boral
Clearing critically endangered vegetation is totally unacceptable. Photo supplied.

In the letter Mr Chyra writes, “It is essential that these impacts raised by the NSW environment department are examined more fully and a complete and accurate picture obtained of all the impacts of your company’s new sand mines.”

FoMR have offered to meet with and support Boral in undertaking an independent EIS. The community demands vigilant monitoring to ensure all conditions placed on the mine will be implemented.

Mayor Saliba said it is usually challenging to win Land and Environment Court cases. However she believes that holding Boral to account is a very important thing to do.

“This is one big part of the problem” Mayor Saliba said. “State government makes determinations and sets conditions without issuing any accountability measures and the Council doesn’t have the capacity to take that on.”

Groups such as FoMR have become the front line advocating to protect the local environments residents hold dear. The Minnamurra River system and its surrounding beaches are far too magnificent to lose but these issues are weighted unfairly against communities.

It seems incredible that Boral’s project was approved when the evidence so clearly points to a bad environmental outcome; the community is quite understandably anxious.

Many questions remain unanswered. How does the EPA intend to monitor and ensure the consent conditions are met? Does the community have to be the police for the EPA? And how could that even work?

In an age where all remaining habitat is precious, short-term mining projects make no sense. Our environment must be protected at all costs; critical cases such as this deserve to win.

Feature image: Minnamurra Headland. Photo credit: Ian Hollis

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