Environment

A new coal mine is planned for an area where koalas were thought to be extinct. But what if they’re not?

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Activists are trying to prove that land earmarked for an underground coal mine needs to be protected, following a koala sighting less than 10km away.

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Nocturnal, well-camouflaged and relatively inactive; koalas can be hard to spot at the best of times.

NSW Central Coast resident Jake Cassar, who is on a mission to prove there are koalas in the Wyong area, likens the task to finding a needle in a haystack.

"They sit in a tree motionless for around 20 hours a day, they're the same colour as the Grey Gums that you've got in this area, often you're looking up to the sky, which is bright and they're very, very difficult to see," Mr Cassar told The Feed.

The environmental activist says that despite the marsupials being considered functionally extinct on the Central Coast, there have been close to 80 sightings in the past 20 years, most recently in December 2019.

"The most recent sighting was in Yarramalong Valley, and it was by a local called Mark Davis and he took a photograph of it," Cassar said.

"The government might say it's just a roaming koala coming through, but we've got evidence of koalas in that area for quite a long time...and where there's one koala there's more."

A koala spotted by Yarramalong Valley local Mark Davis
Mark Davis

Cassar believes the summer's fires in Mangrove Mountain, Mogo and Wyee have forced koalas to flee -- increasing their dependence on suitable habitat on the Central Coast.

He's calling for a moratorium on all developments in the area, including an underground coal mine approved by the Morrison government in 2019.

"Because koalas are in such a critically dangerous position, we need to do everything we can to protect their habitat. And that includes stopping the Wallarah 2 coal mine."

The Wallarah 2 Coal Project is owned by majority shareholder KORES, a South Korean company.

It plans to extract up to five million tonnes of export quality thermal coal from the ground each year, over a 28-year lifespan.

The Wallarah 2 Coal Project
The plan for the Wallarah 2 Coal Project on the NSW Central Coast.
Wallarah 2 Coal Project

An ecological impact assessment conducted by Cumberland Ecology in 2016 found more than 40 hectares of potential koala habitat will be cleared during construction of the mine.

A previous assessment by the same company found a further 2000 hectares of potential koala habitat may be affected by subsidence -- disturbance to the land above the area being mined.

NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann is chairing an inquiry into the survival of koala populations. She wants the government to urgently reconsider the Wallarah 2 project.

"That area contains koala habitat. And even if there's not heaps of koalas there now, it's the habitat that's important," Ms Faehrmann said.

"If the government is serious about stopping the koala from becoming extinct, it has to stop their habitat being cleared. Right now, because of the fires and the impact of the fires, that means looking back at current approvals and just saying 'sorry, we have to reassess everything'."

Photo by Nathan Edwards/Getty Images
Lake Innes Nature Reserve Paul in the ICU recovering from burns at The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital on November 29, 2019 in Port Macquarie, Australia.
Getty Images AsiaPac

But with local unemployment on the rise, those set to benefit from jobs the mine will create say the NSW Central Coast can't afford to have the mine scrapped.

Stuart Woolnough is a mechanical engineer who works in the underground services sector.

"The fact that we've got an opportunity for people to stay local, keep the kids local, develop the local community -- it's far more important to have a mine here than to worry about the impact that isn't actually there," Mr Woolnough said.

"There's environmental people involved in mines that have more control over the sustainability of the mine than anyone else. Their job is to make sure that what's on the surface is protected, so ultimately it's probably going to be a plus for the koalas because they've been found and they're going to get managed properly."

The coal mine is expected to generate 1000 jobs during construction, and will employ 300 people once coal extraction starts.

Aaron Suckling's mechanical apprenticeship was sponsored by Wallarah 2, and he's hoping to fill one of the jobs.

"All the young kids, my age, they would love to get in there and have a go. And if it doesn't happen they're going to move out. They're not going to live on the Central Coast anymore, there's going to be no one," Mr Suckling said.

The Central Coast Council has agreed to conduct a koala survey over the coming months.

Jake Cassar is hopeful it will provide the evidence needed to stop development in the area before the bulldozers arrive.

"I believe we can do this. We're certainly not winning the fight against Wallarah 2 on paper, it looks like we're losing the battle, but we refuse to give up," he said.

The Wallarah 2 Coal Project declined The Feed's request for interview and did not provide a statement prior to publication.