Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley has visited the controversial Brandy Hill quarry site as the battle to save 52 hectares of core koala habitat intensifies with celebrities, politicians and community groups lending their support to the ever growing 'Save Port Stephens Koalas' campaign.
With less than two weeks to go before Ms Ley is expected to hand down her decision on the proposed expansion of the Brandy Hill rock quarry by Hanson, opponents to the quarry have rolled out the big guns. Public support has come from the likes of Olivia Newton-John, Magda Szubanski, Jimmy Barnes, The Greens and the Nature Conservation Council - and the list is growing by the day.
The quarry expansion was granted with conditions by the Independent Planning Commission in July, but required federal approval because the project had been deemed likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance.
Minister Ley told the Examiner that as of September 25 her office had received approximately 850 submissions about the Brandy Hill quarry. Ms Ley visited Brandy Hill and spoke with campaigners on Wednesday.
"[My department] is still considering the assessment report and other relevant information, including the new report prepared by Dr Witt and Prof Clulow for the Brandy Hill and Seaham Action Group, regarding the impact on koalas," Ms Ley said.
A Hanson spokesperson said the company welcomed the input and contribution made by the local community and that the information contained in the report commissioned by the BHSAG was consistent with the findings of a Hanson report from Biosis, a leading independent ecological consultancy.
"The NSW Biodiversity Conservation Division and Department of Planning, Industry and Environment recommended to the IPC that the quarry expansion project be approved. We are proposing to clear less than two hectares a year and replace each cleared hectare with nine hectares of high value koala habitat. We strongly believe that the commitments made by the company will ensure that the quarry is developed and operated in an environmentally responsible manner."
In a visit to the area last Monday, Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi vowed to take the fight to Canberra when parliament resumes on October 6.
"It may be Budget week in Canberra, but I will be focusing my attention on the fight to save the Port Stephens koalas by calling on the environment minister to put a stop to the quarry expansion," she said.
"In addition to personally writing to her, I will be putting up a federal senate motion on October 6 calling on Ms Ley to reject the proposal. My fear is that if we don't take urgent action we will be left without any koalas in the wild."
The contentious issue has also prompted the NCC (with whom EcoNetwork-Port Stephens is affiliated) to urge community members to make a stand. "We have a short window of time to show Sussan Ley the community wants her to save this koala forest and protect NSW koalas from extinction."
At the opening of the Port Stephens Koala hospital and sanctuary in One Mile on Friday, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean also called on his federal counterpart [Ms Ley] "to look very closely at this Brandy Hill facility", despite his own government supporting the proposed expansion.
"The loss and fragmentation of koala habitat is the number one threatening process for koalas and we've seen that right here in Port Stephens. I think we should be doing everything we can to protect koala populations and their habitat. And that means securing that habitat into the future," he said.
"Our government believes in science. We make our decisions based on science and evidence. We went through a rigorous assessment process [but] things have changed since the bushfires."
His comments earned the ire of Port Stephens MP Kate Washington, labeling them "hypocritical" while claiming it was his "government's weak environmental protections that have got us here".
"The minister needs to back up his words with action. He needs to make the changes necessary to stop this from happening. The community at Brandy Hill is doing an incredible job... but we shouldn't have to do this every time," she said.
"We've done it for Fishermans Bay, we did it for Mambo Wetlands, we're now doing it for Brandy Hill and quite frankly we shouldn't have to be doing it [campaigning] because extinction of koalas is not an option."
Meanwhile, the 'Save Port Stephens Koalas' campaign has launched a last-ditch letter writing campaign to the Minister's office.
Campaign leaders Chantal Parslow Redman and Victoria Jack said that the Port community had just 12 days to be part of a growing movement to save Australia's iconic marsupial from near extinction.
"To join the fight we urge you to make a submission to the minister to halt the expansion of Hanson's Brandy Hill quarry by sending an email or writing a letter addressed to Hon Sussan Ley MP, PO Box 6022 House of Representatives, Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600."