Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell

Media student at University of New South Wales
Thom Mitchell is a Sydney-based investigative journalist. He writes mostly on environmental issues.
Thom Mitchell

Dave Paull: The Community Deserves Answers.


Just before Christmas Dave Paull, the Biodiversity Officer at the Newcastle branch of the Office of Environment and Heritage, resigned in disgust from his position. He was asked to write a resignation letter, something he initially refused to do, because he disagreed with the way he’d been treated before and during his resignation.

Mr Paull – an ecologist of more than 25 years experience – decided after reflecting over the Christmas break, to write the resignation letter, and to share it with the NSW public. A broken system, he said in the letter, was putting the expert, fact based, work of scientists behind the interests of mining companies.

Mr Paull has written a second letter for No Fibs, which is reproduced below this article. In it, he responds to NSW environment minister Rob Stokes’ criticisms of his initial resignation letter.

Mr Paull’s letters identify a range of problems within the planning system, chief amongst them that it cannot say ‘no’ to big extractive developments. If this sounds like an exaggeration, that’s understandable.

The people of NSW reasonably expect the government to value the interests of the public over mining and gas companies.

An illusion that, if you spend much time following developments in this sector, is soon shattered. It is an ideal that Mr Paull and many of his colleagues have clung to as they watched this state’s environmental protections degenerate.

The reality is that the government has ceased to act in the interests of the environment, or the community. It is a reality that is obfuscated by a smokescreen of lengthy documents and propaganda, one that is understandably beyond the time and energy of most ordinary people to penetrate.

And the media? It’s their job to wade through this mire of spin; to sort the bullshit from the facts; to draw on the independent experts who know best. Why have the media not catalogued and criticised the degradation of the state’s ecosystems?

These questions, which those toiling away with the Office of Environment and Heritage ask themselves frequently, invariably fall on the deaf ears of the political arm of our environmental planning system.

Dave Paull’s resignation stands as a protest against this systematic disregard for science and nature. It is a blowing of the whistle, a direct call to the public about what exactly is going on.

For his honesty, Paull was lambasted by the current NSW environment minister Rob Stokes. Minister Stokes was, he said, “perplexed” that Mr Paull would attempt to tell it to the public straight.

And during an election campaign! God forbid!

Dave Paull (left) birdwatching in the Leard State Forest. Photo: Thom Mitchell.

Minister Stokes shouldn’t be too worried, though; the reality is that disregard for the environment is not isolated to either one of the major parties.

The planning system is, as I’ve said, complex. This, in large part, is why the public don’t see it for what it is.

The term ‘planning’ rather implies a process whereby decision makers look to the future. But, over the past five years the planning system has become increasingly short-sighted.

There isn’t the space here to explain it, but a few examples should give the reader an idea.

Perhaps the most obvious mark of a failed system is that it, as Aiden Ricketts, a law lecturer at Southern Cross University and prominent environmental activist told me the other day, “can only say ‘yes’ or a qualified ‘yes’”.

To my knowledge only three major developments have been knocked back since the Planning Assessment Commission – a supposedly independent ‘decision’ maker which advises the NSW Department of Planning and Environment – was convened in 2008.

It may be four, five, even – but no more than that. Literally hundreds of developments have been determined over that time.

There is another project which was stopped – the expansion of the Warkworth/Mount Thorley mine, near the small village of Bulga in the Hunter Valley.

It was not stopped by the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC), or the state government.

Indeed the PAC noted in its determination that, effectively, it was unable to reject the development application.

It had to be stopped by the courts. The NSW Land and Environment Court, and later, the NSW Supreme Court of Appeal, rejected the expansion on all fronts.

It would destroy a critically endangered ecosystem, it would bring an open-cut mine, along with the inevitable dust, noise, and light pollution, to within 2.5 kilometres of people’s homes.

Importantly, it would also break a promise made by the miner – Rio Tinto – and the state government, in 2003, to never mine Saddleback Ridge, an area of environmental significance that also serves to shield Bulga from the impacts of the mine.

Where was the government when these promises were being broken? They were teaming up with Rio Tinto to cross-sue the people of Bulga. They were busy nullifying the ministerial deed of agreement that was supposed to protect, in perpetuity, Saddleback Ridge as per the 2003 conditions of consent.

When the courts knocked the Warworth/Mount Thorley expansion back, the government actually changed the planning system to remove the right to have determinations heard in the courts on their merits.

The planning system now bears an uncanny resemblance to that suggested by Rio Tinto’s Chief Executive of Energy when he met personally with then Premier Barry O’Farrell just under three weeks after the Land & Environment Court knocked the development back for the first time.

That project is now in the last stages of being approved for the second time, only this time residents are powerless to stop it.

There are other stories, and they are all complex. The crux of the matter, though, is that communities across NSW are increasingly powerless to say ‘no’ to extractive industries.

I have seen dozens of people brought to tears by this powerlessness in my short time working as an environmental journalist.

I have also heard numerous ecologists warn that certain developments will lead to extinction events.

Environments such as the Leard State Forest, which is probably the largest and most mature patch of the critically endangered Box-Gum Grassy Woodland, will simply not exist in a couple of years.

The Leard hosts an ecological community that has been degraded to just one per cent nationally, and half a per cent in NSW . Yet it, and the thirty threatened species that rely on it for habitat, will be destroyed by two of the state’s largest open-cut coal mines.

This, in spite of the fact that over 300 people have been arrested trying to defend the Leard. This, in spite of multiple court challenges and widespread scientific condemnation.

And this – the unfortunate reality of those concerned about the environment having to get themselves arrested in an attempt to stop the wanton destruction – is something that Premier Mike Baird has recently signalled he will be putting a stop to.

The Premier has also flagged significant changes to the planning system that will make approvals for extractive developments easier to get.

Reproduced below is a response from Dave Paull to Minister Stokes’ dismissive reaction to his now widely published resignation letter.

“The community deserves answers”, he says. He challenges “the NSW Government and the mining sector to address the substantive allegations [he has] made”.

Wishful thinking, perhaps, after decades of bearing witness to increasingly weak and obfuscatory ‘answers’.

The community does deserve answers, and they deserve a government that will act in their interests.

Unfortunately, it seems, the community must seek those answers for themselves, because history shows that real answers will not come from the government, and much less from a desperate and dying industry.

Dave Paull’s letters, below, are a good place to start.


Thom Mitchell.

The Laird family look out over the Liverpool Plains, near Leard State Forest. Photo: Thom Mitchell.

The Laird family look out over the Liverpool Plains, near Leard State Forest.

Dave Paull responds to criticism of his open resignation letter:

The Community Deserves Answers,

Due to pressure applied to me late last year and the growing disillusionment of myself and many others, I resigned from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage just prior to Christmas. Though instead of an equitable arrangement being made, I was virtually pushed out the door.  I was then requested to put my resignation in writing which I initially refused – as I did not agree with the way I was treated. I retreated with my tail between my legs.

Upon reflection over the Christmas break, I decided that I would write that letter, but make it accessible to all people in New South Wales so they could see, clearly, the dire situation that our public service was in. All the signs are there. The planning system, the Department of Planning and Environment, Office of Environment and Heritage and the Department of Resources and Energy who assess major project applications and environmental reviews are playing to the tune of big developers in this state, particularly the mining and gas sector, to the detriment of our environment and citizens.

This is being achieved in several ways, by a lack of transparency in the assessment process, by changing regulations and laws to remove the voice of dissent in the community and by introducing new policies that undermine credible environmental outcomes. Nowhere is the latter more evident than in OEH’s new assessment and offset policy for major projects which assist the development sector treating impacts and offsets as an afterthought as there is now no requirement to meet like-for-like, no ‘no-go’ areas or requirement to retire biodiversity credits in a transparent way.  These issues should be of concern for everyone because the future of the environment and our communities are at stake.  Australia has a bad record for species extinction and decline in recent times (one of the worst in the world), and these policies will lead to further decline and species loss in my view.  Rather than being proud of our unique environmental heritage, the government is allowing those things to be taken away. These are things that help contribute to our identity as being Australian, mining companies and the majority of their profits generally aren’t.

In response to my concerns, rather than address the issues at hand, some politicians and key stakeholders have dismissed them as being politically motivated, because there seems to be election coming up and because I was a member of the Green Party for one year, 10 years ago. This ignores the fact that I am published scientist, and have worked for 25 years as a biologist specialising in ecological survey, impact assessment and species ecology for the private, university, government and NGO sectors.  Being people, scientists can have a conscience too, I believe, as long as they pursue the facts in their professional career as I have always endeavoured to do regardless of who was my paymaster.

Unlike Mr Stokes, the NSW Environment Minister, I am not a member of a political party and do not intend to be. Unlike the Minerals Council and all the other mining companies, I have never donated any money to a political party or scattered money throughput the community in order to buy support. Looking at the disclosures of donations to political parties from mining companies over the last few years in NSW we find that they donated tens of thousands of dollars to both sides of politics. Doesn’t this suggest a vested interest?  Doesn’t this suggest a mutually beneficial agenda? Is this all the money that has been ‘invested’ by the mining sector? Is it ethical that political parties should receive ANY donations from companies and lobbyists at all? I know the government is looking to improve donation disclosure laws, obviously more needs to be done.

But does an agenda of concern for our environment or the well-being of citizens necessarily mean that you are a compromised greenie extremist?  The comments I have heard would make you believe that this is the case.  Or is this what the compromised mouth-pieces in government and industry have us think? I will leave that answer to the reader. Common sense is becoming harder to find in the politics of today’s world, though I am sure that the average person sees that concern for each other and the environment above selfish interest is perhaps the most important ingredient which keeps a society whole and functioning in a way conducive to a happy and healthy life.

Rather than resorting to demeaning accusations about motivations, I challenge the NSW Government and the mining sector to address the substantive allegations I have made. The community deserves answers to regain confidence in their elected representatives and public servants. I await your informed response.

David C. Paull

Ethical Ecology


A small blast at the Maules Creek mine box-cut, viewed from the nearby State Conservation Area. Photo Tom Mitchell

A small blast at the Maules Creek mine box-cut, viewed from the nearby State Conservation Area. Photo Thom Mitchell


Dave Paull’s open letter of resignation:

19 January 2015
David Paull
Robert Stokes,
Minister for the Environment
cc. Mike Baird, Pru Goward, Anthony Roberts


Dear Mr Stokes,

I was asked to provide to the Office of Environment and Heritage a letter of resignation from my position of Biodiversity Conservation Officer at the Newcastle Office. While I found my tenure with OEH to be largely rewarding, more recent developments in policy and legislation have seriously undermined the ability of OEH as a regulator to achieve positive environmental outcomes, despite the best intentions of myself and my well-informed colleagues.

So here is my resignation as I am unable to agree that improving our environment must come as second fiddle to ensuring that any mine or gas development proceed. The Mining SEPP makes a mockery of a transparent and ecologically sustainable planning process.  It should also be concerning to the people of NSW, as it is to me, that the Department of Planning and OEH itself has been captured in the big coal and gas rush by promoting policies which will guarantee further losses of biodiversity, a situation which is not consistent with international or national environmental obligations.  I have elaborated below.

While there was much anticipation regarding the OEH’s new ‘whole of government’ Framework for Biodiversity Assessment (FBA) and Offset Policy, it has been widely seen, both in OEH where hundreds of internal submissions were received with serious reservations about the new policy, and in the community, as a great leap backwards. In the current policy, no impact is so damaging that it cannot be approved, regardless of how close to extinction the ecosystem or wildlife species being harmed is, and habitat for species threatened with extinction could be replaced or “offset” with almost entirely different habitat. There are no thresholds for what is adequate and what is not. The watering down of the concept of ‘like-for-like’ for offsets make that concept now virtually meaningless.

The current offset policy is also flawed with respect to protecting our biodiversity because under this policy, if offset areas can’t be found that actually replace or compensate for the clearing mining want to do, they can just negotiate other arrangements with OEH, including the payment of money and OEH will sort out the details. But in places like the Hunter Valley, the options to retire those credits are few and far between.  There is no requirement for feasibility assessments on whether those offset requirements can be met because there is no threshold on what is acceptable.

We are condemning a suite of ecosystems and species to extinction. As a result of new major projects, it is likely we will see the extinction process accelerate for species such as the Koala and Regent Honeyeater and ecological communities such as the Warkworth Sands Woodland.  This is not helped by the condition in the FBA that assessments of impact will now be framed across an entire region and not at the local scale. It seems that consideration of the local scale of impact (the basic way impact on populations should be assessed) is not in favour by your government.  I look with concern at your recent Biodiversity Legislation Review and noticed that it again states that impacts on biodiversity should be done at a ‘regional or state scale’.  Extinctions start at the local scale. Surely in 2015 we could have an environmental planning process which is capable of looking at all scales of impact?

As well, the recommendation in the Review to abolish the Native Vegetation Act is just pandering to a vocal minority of landowners who oppose any kind of government regulation. In fact all that was needed was to introduce a mechanism by which landowners could receive realistic compensation for protecting native vegetation.  It is shameful that this is the government’s response to the murder of Glen Turner by a nutter while he was carrying out his duty for the citizens of this state.

For the last two years I have been undertaking mostly mining assessments, a challenging task at the best of times, considering the impacts of mining on the environment. This task was made more difficult by the way the Planning Department handed out conditions of approval.  OEH has the technical skills to deal with these issues and advice DPE on biodiversity and cultural heritage matters.  However repeatedly these conditions are altered by DPE (often with no feedback to OEH) for example by the insertion of terms like ‘negligible’ or ‘minor’ as impact thresholds.  These terms cannot be regulated as they lack any kind of quantification.  As a result, subsidence disasters like Mt Sugarloaf and damage to sensitive groundwater dependent and wetland communities WILL occur again. Sometimes other ecological details in OEH recommendations have been changed in the approval conditions, seemingly, to suit the goals of the mining company. I am happy to discuss with you some of the specifics in relation to this.

The Mining SEPP and its more recent amendments also make a mockery of a transparent assessment process by placing greater emphasis on economic outcomes over environmental and social ones and the introduction of an offset ‘certification’ mechanism which undermines NSW offset policy by accepting a standard for offsets as ‘adequate’ – though what is adequate and what isn’t is open to conjecture.

Clear evidence of the mining sector’s infiltration into the planning system in NSW is the acceptance by OEH of offsets for mining rehabilitation. That is, companies can now receive upfront biodiversity credits for what are currently areas of mine pit to offset the removal of remnant vegetation. While some have hailed this as a new standard for mine rehabilitation, the creation of ecosystems (or even plant community types) on areas where there is no natural substrate is not supported by any scientific evidence and should not have been put into the new offset policy which is supposed to be a quantifiable assessment of biodiversity credits.

OEH has supported and promoted the Upper Hunter Strategic Assessment for the coal industry, which will provide an umbrella approval for the Commonwealth in the Hunter over the next 20 years.  Given the failings of the current offset policy in NSW and the extent of the proposals given to OEH, I doubt this process will be welcomed by the community once they discover the scope of what is being proposed and the expected loss of biodiversity in the Hunter that this will entail.

Australia, and the world, is in a time of transition in the way we generate energy and manage our environment. The fact that NSW seems to going backwards at a time when innovation and strong measures to prevent further environmental degradation need to be embraced is a great disappointment to myself and many others. I believe that not only people have a right to live in this world with a healthy environment, so do the other species we share this world with.  They are our customers too.  As custodians of our environment it appears we are still going to fail. It’s time to change this situation around and I will be working in the future to achieve this.


David Paull