As Save the Koala Month begins today, Shenhua is facing a court challenge arguing its Watermark mine will threaten the local koala population with extinction.
The high-profile case has been brought by the Upper Mooki Landcare Group supported by the Nature Conservation Council.
But as the second day of the four-day hearing goes ahead at the NSW Land and Environment Court, one koala expert has said the figure of 262 koalas living in the area could be over-estimated by more than 200.
Environmental researcher John Lemon, who has studied koalas on the Watermark site near Breeza and close by, said he was “very surprised” not to have been called to speak at the hearing.
Mr Lemon, who is a former Office of Environment and Heritage employee and now works as a consultant, said he wrote Shenhua’s Interim Koala Habitat Plan and was very familiar with the koala habitat in the area.
He, fellow koala expert Dr Dan Lunney and other Office of Environment and Heritage staff were among those who questioned the original number of more than 500 koalas estimated to be in the area some years ago.
The figure was revised down to the estimate of 262 koalas now in use.
“That figure of 262 seems very high,” Mr Lemon said.
“Lots of things have happened since that figure was arrived at – there have been a series of heatwaves and droughts.
“Personally, I would be surprised if there are even 62 koalas in that area.”
Upper Mooki Landcare Group spokeswoman Heather Ranclaud said the group was arguing the NSW Planning and Assessment Commission had failed to determine whether the mine would place the viable local koala population at risk of extinction.
“We are pursuing legal action because there are still so many unanswered questions about the viability of Shenhua’s proposed koala plan and it seems at this point the plan does not guarantee the survival of the estimated 262 koalas currently living where Shenhua wants to put its mine,” she said.
“This open-cut coal mine will clear 847 hectares of koala habitat and risks decimating the local koala population.
“The Planning and Assessment Commission admitted the Gunnedah koala population has already been hit hard by drought and heatwaves, with an estimated 70 per cent reduction in numbers from 2009.”
She said Shenhua was “relying on dubious offset plans”, with koalas encouraged to move or translocated.
“Even Shenhua itself has acknowledged the destruction of important habitat for fauna and that translocations have failed in the past.”
Mr Lemon told the Planning and Assessment Commission hearing in Gunnedah last year he believed with careful planning, Shenhua could create a better habitat for koalas and other native wildlife than currently existed on the site he described as a “degraded cropping/grazing landscape”.
Mr Lemon said today he believed Shenhua had “gone over and above” the requirements of consent at the site in its plans for rehabilitation.
Shenhua Watermark project manager Paul Jackson said Shenhua Australia stood by its Environmental Impact Statement.
“The company commissioned leading experts to study the local koala population and habitat in developing management and revegetation plans and has committed to preserving 8000 hectares of preferred koala habitat in both the onsite offset areas and via additional land holdings,” Mr Jackson said.
“Shenhua will continue to work closely with local experts and regulators to ensure the company is able to improve the amount and quality of koala habitat available in the historically cleared region.”
The hearing will continue for the next two days.