March 20, 2000

Article at The Sydney Morning Herald

Kurnell sands demand shift in attitude

Fresh moves to protect Kurnell's dunes may be too little too late, writes Fran Molloy.

ON APRIL 29, 1770, Captain Cook stepped on Australian soil at what is now Kurnell, on the then-pristine shores of Botany Bay. Great sand dunes flanked the coastline, the mangroves teemed with birds, and there were tall gums.

Today, the coast is dominated by the towers of the Caltex Oil Refinery and sand mining has all but stripped away the dunes. The birdlife is disappearing and the stream from which Cook drank is polluted with rubbish and infested with weeds.

Trucks rumble down the one road to the peninsula, piled high with "clean fill" dirt, roof tiles, timber and other demolition waste for the tips that have replaced the dunes.

"Countries around the world revere their birthplace [while] Australia has buried its under an oil refinery," says Bernie Clarke, president of the Botany Bay Planning and Protection Council, a residents' group.

Community activists are seeking a moratorium on development and mining though there appears little left to save. The most heated issue is the degradation of the sand dunes.

Resident David Phillips recalls that when he was a child, the "hills were like mountains, they went on forever. We used to ride down the sand hills on big bits of corrugated cardboard. Now it's all just flat".

Senior planner at Sutherland Council, Rod Logan, says the dunes were not originally bare, but covered in forest. Local historian Daphne Salt adds: "When Captain Cook walked over the land at Kurnell, there were rolling green hills, very tall timbers and all sorts of scrubby undergrowth."

Wealthy settler Thomas Holt acquired land in what is now Kurnell in 1861, and his direct descendants are now at the centre of the sand mining debate.

According to an 1868 report by Holt's manager, after logging tall forests of mahogany and blackbutt, Holt imported 13,000 sheep to the area. The flock was soon decimated by dingos and foot-rot, so Holt tried cattle. Overgrazing by the cattle stripped away the grass and finished the work that the sheep had begun.

For many years the area was left barren. Then Arthur Holt, the 80-something patriarch of the Holt family holdings, went into sand mining. Phillip Holt, present director of sand miner the Holt Group, is the great-great grandson of Thomas Holt. He would not comment for this article.

Sand mining has continued on land owned by the Holt family since the 1950s when approvals were issued by the State Planning Authority.

Though they have since been challenged by Sutherland Council, the Holt Group claims that, under "existing use" rights, it is able to go on removing sand.

The council would have to undertake an expensive court action to test this claim. In the 1950s, neither Environmental Impact Statements nor Development Applications were required for mining approvals.

Another landholder, Breen Holdings, has also been mining Kurnell sand for decades, but manager Eric Le Provost says it is rehabilitating the land: "We are filling it with inert materials, demolition wastes. We recycle 60 per cent of what comes in, the residue we are landfilling ..."

Le Provost points out areas on the Kurnell site where landfill is being formed into dunes, with soil on top, growing grasses and native plants.

But Sutherland Shire Councillor, Paul Smith, still sees it as just "dumping rubbish in big piles".

Smith has raised numerous motions in council over the last three years seeking to bring the whole peninsula under tighter control. This year, the council has endorsed a motion by Smith for a working party to co-ordinate activities on the Kurnell peninsula, and to consider how to eliminate sand mining.

For more than 30 years, Sutherland Shire Council has declared its opposition to sand mining, yet nothing has been done to stop it. A senior council officer has accused the State Government of "delaying the cessation of mining by instituting a series of inquiries while allowing sand mining to expand".

The Liberal member for Cronulla, Malcolm Kerr, raised the issue in State Parliament on several occasions in 1997, but the Minister for Planning at the time, Craig Knowles, refused Kerr's request for an inquiry. Since then the issue has faded from the State Parliamentary agenda. Paul Smith accuses previous councils of "lacking the political will to push the issue".

Breen Holdings received approval from the State Government for sand mining for brick-making in the 1950s. The brick-making has ceased but the company says existing use rights mean it is legally able to continue mining.

In May 1996 Sutherland Council advised Breen's offshoot, Kurnell Landfill, it would take legal action to stop sand extraction on a Breen site referred to as "B10".

However, minutes of a meeting at the time between the council's former director of environmental services, Keith Lund, and Kurnell Landfill record Lund as "eager to avoid litigation" and asking Kurnell Landfill voluntarily to lodge a Development Application for sand extraction. The application was never lodged, but Breen says that instead it prepared, in conjunction with the council, a landscape masterplan dealing with the rehabilitation of the whole site.

Now only two dunes remain. The large Calsil dune has been listed as a heritage item in the local government plan and is away from sand mining. The other was to be knocked over for a resort development which is now on hold. Local heritage listing for this second dune was recently passed by Sutherland Shire Council, and awaits State Government approval. The mining companies have taken so much sand away that they are now mining more than 30 metres below groundwater with machines which run 24 hours a day.

But possibly the most damaging activity is the landfill in the holes left by mining.

The Holt Group describes its operations as "accepting clean backfill on ... [its] own land."

Local resident Annette Hogan, who co-ordinates the Cronulla Dunes and Wetlands Alliance, complains: "For about 10,000 years, the whole Kurnell peninsula has been made up of sand ... The fill coming in is dirt from all over Sydney ... bringing in all kinds of seeds and weeds that are not native to the peninsula."

Bernie Clarke is quick to point out the special character of Towra Point, which hosts 34 species of migratory wading birds: "The International Wetlands Body, RAMSVAR, has listed Towra Point as an internationally significant site. Australia is a signatory to an agreement to preserve and look after these sites."

Clarke has been trying to protect the Kurnell peninsula for decades. "My first time in a paddy wagon was after I set up a roadblock in the 1950s to try and stop the oil refinery being built," he grinned.

"We have the largest habitat of the green and gold frog in NSW here," says Hogan, adding that the State Government spent more than $400,000 to ensure that the frogs' habitat at the Homebush Bay Olympic site was not destroyed, and that the frogs' Kurnell habitat needs protection.

Le Provost is proud of Kurnell Landfill's role in preserving the frogs. The company has partly funded research by a PhD student into their habitat, has created special ponds for them and even moved part of its operations away from areas where the frogs were discovered.

Le Provost is critical of conservation groups, such as the Dunes and Wetlands Alliance, claiming they endanger the very dunes they want to protect by preventing their rehabilitation by the landowners.

Annette Hogan has been active in the cause of the Kurnell area for more than five years and is very frustrated by the lack of action by local and State governments. "There needs to be a moratorium on the whole peninsula, including current DAs, until there are proper environmental studies," she says.

Federal MP for the area, Bruce Baird, used to play in the sandhills as a child. "I find it devastating what they have done there," he says.

In 1956, Baird and other Sutherland High School history students were taken by teacher Bob Walshe to Kurnell, where they re-enacted Captain Cook's landing.

Walshe, a founder of the Sydney-based Total Environment Centre, is now the chairman of the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre and won't let his former student off the hook: "We need an injection of Federal funding to rehabilitate this peninsula," Walshe says.

Baird wants further funding for environmental causes in Kurnell, and to get acknowledgement for the historical importance of the area. In the meantime, the dunes have gone, the wetlands are threatened, and the developers loom.


TWO ILLUS: Bernie Clarke takes a group of students through the Kurnell wetlands, while (top) Annette Hogan ponders the future of the Kurnell dunes: ``There needs to be a moratorium on the whole peninsula ...'' Photographs by SALAN HAYES