A proposed $100 million Cooks Cove development faces determined opposition from residents – but its most implacable adversary could prove to be an iconic species of frog, reports JENNIFER MCMILLAN and FRANCOIS MARTIN.
Land covered by the development proposal includes habitat for the only remaining population of the green and golden bell frog (GGBF) in the lower catchment of the Cooks River.
The plan is to relocate Kogarah Golf Course to 52 hectares of public land currently occupied by parks, sports grounds, cycle tracks, and protected wetlands which provide important habitat for migratory birds and the bellfrog. A development application for the project was lodged with Bayside Council in late 2016.
Developer John Boyd Properties claims the development on land where the current golf course stands will create new sporting, community and civic facilities including 5000 new apartments.
According to the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, the GGBF is a “relatively large, stout frog, ranging in size from approximately 45mm to approximately 100mm” – about as long as your index finger.
The bellfrog once lived all along the NSW coast, from Brunswick Heads all the way southwards to the Victorian border and into East Gippsland.
But the frog is now an endangered species in NSW, with remaining populations widely separated and isolated.
A Species Impact Statement (SIS) prepared for the developer by environmental consultants Cumberland Ecology concluded that there had been no sightings of the frog on the proposed site of the new golf course in recent years, and that the development would “not have a significant impact on threatened fauna as the habitats present on the subject site represent low value or marginal habitat.”
But analysis by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage obtained by Central News is highly critical of the Cumberland Ecology report.
It questions the accuracy and currency of the CE survey data and calls on Bayside Council “to facilitate the rehabilitation and conservation of endangered ecological communities in the Cooks Cove Precinct, including the Marsh Street, Eve Street, Spring Creek and Landing Lights wetlands” - a clear sign OEH prefers remediation of the existing public lands to a private redevelopment.
And in a further twist, the Federal Department of Environment has got involved, placing a further obstacle in the way of any speedy sign-off for developer John Boyd and the Kogarah Golf Club.
An iconic species
The Green and Golden Bell frog is something of a celebrity in NSW. “It’s an iconic species,” says Dr Graham Pyke, a Distinguished Professor in the School of the Environment at UTS, who has extensively researched the population biology and decline of the GGBF, “it’s a species that a lot of people are familiar with, especially with the Olympic site, and it’s quite a beautiful frog.”
A colony of GGBF was found in the midst of an extensive site development for the Sydney Olympic Games back in 2000. Legislation, science and policy came together to bring about the bell frog’s conservation, and it even became a mascot for the Olympic Roads and Traffic Authority.
But almost two decades on, the population of the GGBF is in decline and the species is listed as ‘endangered’ in NSW. “In 2008 […] there was about 40 populations in NSW, now there’s somewhat less, I’d say around 30,” says Dr Pyke, “a major reason why this species have declined over the years is habitat loss. The population at Cooks Cove has taken something of a nosedive.”
In comments to Bayside Council, provided as part of its response to the development application, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) quotes monitoring of the GGBF population in around the development site – technically referred to as the “Arncliffe key population” – done by Roads and Maritime Services.
The monitoring shows that the GGBF has suffered decline over the past decade, and is under “increasing pressure” from the cumulative impacts of the earlier M5 East construction , and now WestConnex.
In their SIS, Cumberland Ecology propose mitigation measures to deal with this pressure if the development goes ahead, such as the creation of new ponds to supply additional breeding sites. CE claims that the “increased available habitat and connectivity between habitats has the potential to increase the key population’s distribution within the locality and its ability to persist in the long-term.”
But Professor Pyke disagrees. “One tempting deduction is that you can just go out there, create some new habitat and all will be fine” he says, “but it turns out that’s not the case. You have to get the recipe right, there’s no guarantee that [the proposed ponds] will work, and if you take the odds involved they probably won’t.”
NSW Office of Environment and Heritage cite what they believe to be a number of flaws in Cumberland Ecology’s SIS.
The SIS states that “no Green and Golden Bell Frogs were detected at the subject site for the duration of the survey”, and that “annual monitoring” by other agencies shows the frog to be “largely restricted to constructed habitat in the Northern Precinct” [the current Kogarah Golf Course site].
OEH disputes this, stating that “very little recent survey for GGBF appears to have been undertaken [by Cumberland Ecology] to support impact assessment and none of this was conducted within the subject site.” Moreover, OEH claims Cumberland Ecology ignored recent data showing clear evidence of frog sightings in recent years.
Dr Arthur White, an environmentalist and herpetologist who has been studying the GGBF for decades, supports the OEH analysis. He conducted extensive research in Barton Park in 2016. “I concur with OEH. Pertinent new information should be considered in the SIS so that the best outcome for the project and frogs is achieved.”
A set of observations carried out by Dr White from 2011 to 2017 have recently been incorporated into the Atlas of NSW Wildlife. These include sighting and recordings of the frog as recently as December 2016 and January 2017 “within areas of Barton Park north of the Spring St canal” – areas right in the middle of the proposed new golf course, and where Cumberland Ecology claimed there were no records of previous sightings.
In response, Dr David Robertson of Cumberland Ecology said that it was normal for a Species Impact Statement to receive comments and feedback from stakeholders. He said Cumberland Ecology had “responded systematically” to the comments from OEH, had consulted with OEH, conducted further detailed ecological surveys across the Cooks Cove site, and “provided ecological advice to the project design team that resulted in modification of the project”.
Cumberland Ecology previously the subject of controversy
It’s the not the first time Cumberland Ecology's work has been criticised. The company was the offset consultant for a major coal project near Lithgow, west of Sydney. Local environmental groups said there were serious problems with the offset sites.
In 2014, New England ecologist Phil Spark lodged a complaint about Cumberland Ecology’s director Dr David Robertson, who prepared the offset plan for a controversial coal mine extension project in Maules Creek, NSW.
The Ecological Consultant's Association of New South Wales (ECA NSW) considered the matter; its President Dr Martin Denny said that “Dr Robertson responded to all issues raised […], adequately explained his actions in relation to them or agreed that an improvement to future assessment would address the others.” Mr Spark’s complaint was not upheld.
Stephen Bell, a Conjoint Fellow at the Centre for Plant Science at the University of Newcastle critiques the methods, literature review and results of a Cumberland Ecology report in his Review of Flora Investigations: Proposed Expansion to Warkworth Mine Singleton LGA.
According to Mr Bell, it’s not unusual for environmental consultants – and government departments - to reach starkly differing conclusions about the impact of a particular development. “This is the sort of expert disagreement the Land and Environment Court is always trying to resolve,” Mr Bell said.
“For many endangered species, we just don’t know how specific developments will impact on populations; the science lags well behind the need to approve or disprove developments.”
Death by a Thousand Cuts
However Alex Lowrie, Researcher at the Institute of Policy and Governance at the University of Technology Sydney, says that “consultants aren’t there to protect the environment, the job of protecting the environment is the government’s".
When significant developments are proposed, the Department of Planning and Environment of NSW has to balance environmental, economic and social factors.
“The agenda is set by the politicians,” Mr Lowrie said. “The NSW Government policy agenda at the moment is to get development to happen, not to stop it. Because this is a government that has more of a focus on economic growth and development, it tends to under-resource the environmental stuff.”
Mr Lowrie recognises that too much development can take its toll on threatened species, “the issue to worry about is the death by a thousand cuts,” he says. But, he adds, “there are many things that get considered in a planning system and the environment is just one of those.”
A Federal-State standoff?
Even with full support from NSW Department of Planning, developer John Boyd and Kogarah Golf Course could have a further headache on their hands.
As a result of the recent frog sightings recorded by DR Arthur White, the Federal Department of Environment has called for public submissions on whether the Minister, Josh Frydenberg, should reconsider his determination that the Cooks Cove development is not a “controlled action” under section 75 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
Should the Minister change his determination, and declare Cooks Cove a controlled action, there’s strong potential for a Federal-State stand-off.
NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts could overrule his Federal colleague’s decision – but that would set the stage for a bureaucratic battle of wills and possible legal challenges which could tie the proposed development up for months – or even years.
An earlier version of this story stated that Dr Robertson was a member of the Professional Conduct Committee of the NSW ECA at the time the Committee considered the complaint against him. Dr Robertson has never been a member of the Professional Conduct Committee of the ECA. President of the NSW ECA Dr Martin Denny said that it is not normal practice for a conduct committee member to investigate a complaint against himself. Dr Denny said that the phrasing of his initial reply to Central News may have led to a misunderstanding that this was the case. An earlier version of this article suggested that Dr Robertson of Cumberland Ecology did not consider updated data on the Bellfrog provided by Dr Arthur White in its SIS. Central News notes that Dr White’s updated data was obtained after Cumberland Ecology’s SIS was issued.