Gerroa Environmental Protection Society – a short history

The Gerroa Environmental Protection Society was formed in 1986 after community outrage over clearing of about 40ha of Littoral rainforest, swamp forest and bangalay/ blackbutt sand forests on Baileys Island Gerroa, (currently the STP site) for sand mining The mining company said that the clearing was for agricultural purposes and there was inadequate Council planning laws protecting this vegetation.

Community anger over Councils these weak environmental laws led to a significant change in the makeup of Council and two environmentalists were elected to Council. For the next 20 years Kiama Council was considered “green” due to the introduction of stronger environmental protection policies. The 1994 Kiama LEP recognised this SMB vegetation as an Area of High Conservation Value with a highest level of environmental protection.

Lots 22 and 23 adjoining Baileys Island at Gerroa had escaped the 1986 clearing and in 1991 Council engaged Dr. Ross Muston and Associates to undertake an environmental assessment of these two lots, which led to a special Environmental Protection (scientific) zoning. This special zoning was disallowed by the Labor government’s LEP template so in the 2011 Kiama LEP and this special zoning status was lost. The seeds of future environment problems were sown by this zoning change.

In 1990 the sand mining company lodged an application for a sand quarry on this cleared Baileys Island site. In 1991 the company appealed Council’s refusal in the Land and Environment Court. GEPS joined Council to successfully oppose the application and the quarry application didn’t proceed, (GEPS shared costs of this defense with the support of legal aid and funds raised from the local community).

1992 The mining company established an unauthorised sand quarry in highly sensitive vegetation including Littoral rainforest and bangalay sand forest (EECs) south of Lot 22 Gerroa. The company claimed ‘existing use rights’ but after a few days in court agreed to withdraw and was required to rehabilitate the site.

1998 The mining company made a further application to the minister to extend the current mine into highly sensitive EEC swamp mahogany and swamp oak forest west of current mine site. GEPS appealed to the then Environment Minister Dr Refshauge who refused the application.

2002 When the State Government was negotiating with the community regarding the site of the Gerroa Gerringong STP, GEPS supported the STP location on Baileys Island and negotiated an agreement to rehabilitate a large part of the land, which had been cleared in 1986. GEPS obtained $120,000 in funding and in-kind support and the Gerroa community planted 20,000 trees on this previously cleared land on Baileys Island. This rehabilitation has been successful with little loss of plantings and substantial natural regrowth.

In 2008 Cleary Brothers lodged a Part 3A application to extend the current quarry north through Blackbutt forest, EEC Bangalay sand forest and Littoral rainforest. Our Society attempted to negotiate with Department of Planning and the Minister to obtain more meaningful offsets to compensate for the fragmentation and loss of vegetation but these appeals were ignored. Minister Sartor approved the application with minimal offsets and without considering issues of vegetation fragmentation and ground water impacts adjoining EECs. GEPS successfully took the Minister and Department of Planning to the Land and Environmental Court. This appeal was upheld and the company was required to provide significant offsets to improve the habitat corridor to connect the vegetation that the mine dredge pond had isolated. The company was also required to monitor groundwater movement and provide remedial action if and when the dredging works altered the water table. The Environmental Defenders Office and pro-bono contribution of two biological scientists supported GEPS in their appeal. The cost to GEPS and this small community for this court case was $22,000.

In February 2014 GEPS unsuccessfully opposed roadside clearing of 145 large trees (including the Bum Tree). This clearing contributed to the ongoing reduction of connectivity within the Seven Mile Beach National Park, limiting wildlife access to important winter flowering swamp mahogany forests and the only permanent water at SMB in Foys and Coomonderry Swamps on the western side of the road. Shoalhaven Council did not consult with the community over this clearing. The widened road corridor in combination with the north/south sand quarry dredge ponds now largely divide the vegetation at SMB into western and eastern sections with insufficient connectivity.

GEPS has held meetings with Department of Planning and the local member to highlight concerns regarding the possible future continuation of sand mining into biologically significant vegetation north of the current mine site at Gerroa. The vegetation under threat consists of a rare assemblage of 5 Endangered Ecological Communities within the last remaining sequence of beach/dune/rainforest/wetland vegetation in the Illawarra.

The Draft Illawarra Growth and Infrastructure Plan has identified this vegetation as a key asset – High Conservation Value vegetation within the Illawarra Biodiversity Corridor, but it also identifies it as being within an extractive resource area. Unfortunately the Plan also has a provision for consideration of ‘offsets’ and other mitigation mechanisms where it’s not possible to avoid the impact of development on such key assets. This provision may enable sand mining into this significant vegetation in the future.

Our Society has always had regard for due process when fighting to protect our local environment, however after 30 years of watching Endangered Ecological Communities cleared for sand mining at Seven Mile Beach now we realize that we have to make this a political fight to make any real difference.