The New South Wales environment minister, Matt Kean, has said he is disappointed by the decision of his federal counterpart, Sussan Ley, to approve the expansion of a rock quarry in koala habitat in Port Stephens, despite the state government previously recommending environmental approval for the project.
The Brandy Hill quarry expansion will clear 52 hectares of koala habitat after it was approved this week by Ley, despite a high-profile grassroots campaign.
The decision prompted public outcry and has led to calls from the Australian Greens for a moratorium on the clearing of koala habitat.
Kean, whose own government has been split over koala policy, does not support Ley’s decision.
“As minister for the environment, I find this a disappointing outcome,” he said.
“I want to see our state’s koala populations not only protected but thriving into the future. Let me be clear, if the proponent of this project in any way does not comply with the strict conditions of its approval, I would expect our state environmental agencies to apply the full force of the law.”
The expansion is planned over a 25-year period and will more than double the quarry’s annual production from 700,000 tonnes a year to 1.5m tonnes to supply the Sydney construction market.
Before it received federal approval, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment recommended it receive a state environmental approval. The state’s Independent Planning Commission approved the project with conditions in July.
Kean has said he wants to double the state’s koala population by 2050, but state policies have led to increases in land-clearing and allowed for continued logging of habitat after the state’s bushfire disaster.
Clearing for the quarry is to occur in stages. In making her decision, Ley imposed additional conditions, including that the construction company Hanson develop a plan within the next 12 months to replant 74 hectares of suitable habitat on the quarry site.
She has said this represents a “net gain” for koalas that would provide “better-quality habitat than is there at present”.
Ley said: “Matt Kean may well be preoccupied with the politics around koalas but I am focused on one thing only, achieving genuine conservation outcomes.
“As a result of my intervention, we have secured an additional 22 hectares of high-quality koala habitat, over and above the conditions imposed by Mr Kean’s government.”
She said Australians were rightly concerned for koalas in the wake of the fires and she had ensured “an extra lens” was applied to projects that affected the animal.
But environment groups have raised concerns about the time lag between when the new trees are planted and when they reach maturity and have stressed that the continued decline of koala populations require their habitat be protected now.
The Greens environment spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, said the decision to approve the quarry expansion had provoked public anger.
“The feedback to my office since the Port Stephens announcement has been huge,” she said. “The devastation of the summer bushfires are still fresh in people’s minds and no one wants more habitat destroyed or koalas killed.”
The Greens plan to move for a moratorium and say Australians are demanding governments act to save the species from extinction.
“Saving the koala should be above politics and I welcome minister Kean’s acknowledgement more should be done to save our national treasure,” Hanson-Young said.
Rachel Walmsley, of the Environmental Defenders Office, said both state and federal levels of government had failed to protect koalas.
She pointed to the recent NSW government turmoil over koala policy that has resulted in proposed changes to laws that would further weaken environmental protections.
“Neither the federal nor the NSW government seem interested in preventing koalas from going extinct,” Walmsley said. “Both of them are failing koalas.”
A NSW parliamentary inquiry found this year the species would be extinct in the state by 2050 unless its habitat was protected.
East coast populations of koalas are also being assessed for an official listing as endangered. They are currently listed as vulnerable, but further habitat destruction and the summer bushfire disaster has prompted a reassessment.