With submissions on the Winterbourne Wind proposal now closed, it is certain the large wind farm project near Walcha will need to pass an independent review to proceed.
832 submissions were received on the Winterbourne Wind project environmental impact statement (EIS), 387 of them objecting to the proposal which has triggered an automatic review by the Independent Planning Commission (IPC).
The proposal, which has been deemed a State Significant Development (SSD), must be reviewed by the IPC if there are 50 or more unique public objections to the application, the Applicant has made a reportable political donations disclosure, the local Council has objected to the application. If none of those three conditions are met, the Minister for Planning can make the decision; when one or more of these conditions are met, only the IPC can determine the matter.
The large number of submissions was driven by intense debate in the community, particularly about the poor quality of the EIS and lack of engagement, as well as the huge environmental cost including $64 million worth of damage to endangered flora and fauna on the edge of the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park.
Muswellbrook and Uralla councils both put in objections to the proposal, while the Walcha Council submission was technically neutral but the most strongly worded in detailing their concerns.
The Uralla Shire Council submission was wide ranging, citing the failure of the EIS to address concerns including waste management, disposal of turbines, impact on roads, impact on amenity and heritage, and a failure to identify where they are getting the 100 or more megalitres of water required for the project.
The Muswellbrook Council objection, noting the project does not fall within their jurisdiction, is limited to the impact on their roads. Concerned by the cumulative impact of all of the transport of turbines and other equipment to the New England Renewable Energy Zone, the Muswellbrook Council resolved in 2021 to object to all proposals until EnergyCo, Transport for NSW, and the Department of Planning, with other stakeholders, come up with a solution to managing the transport issues.
The Walcha Council, after some debate and a special meeting, made a ‘comment’ submission – that is neither supporting or opposing the proposal – with many scathing comments about the standard of the proposal and the quality of information provided.
“In its current form, Council submits that the EIS is inadequate and, as such, an informed decision in respect of the merits of the Proposal cannot be made by the consent authority,” Walcha Council Mayor Eric Noakes wrote.
“The information provided in the EIS in respect of the Project is inadequate, inaccurate and inconsistent.”
“Council is alarmed by multiple references throughout the EIS to terms and phrases that indicate the scope of the Project is not yet clearly defined and that the extent of its impacts are proposed to be determined at a later stage,” the submission states.
The immediate past mayor of Walcha Council Jannelle Archdale also submitted a comment noting the significant division the proposal has caused the community.
“Walcha has a strong, supportive, and tenacious community that sticks together like glue. It is heart breaking to see this proposal divide this community in such a devastating and disrespectful way,” she wrote.
10% of Walcha’s population have their say
Of the 832 submissions to the EIS, 783 were from members of the public. Of these, 364 objected to the proposal, 411 supported the proposal, and 8 were comments.
Some 259 responses were from people in Walcha, which equates to 10% of the small village’s adult population. A further 191 submissions were received from people in other New England towns, mainly Uralla and Armidale. Some three quarters of the local submissions were opposed to the Winterbourne Wind Project proceeding.
In deeper analysis of the submissions provided to the New England Times by local community group Voice for Walcha, of the 118 submissions from the New England that supported the proposal, 40 have a direct financial interest in it going ahead. However, those supporters were by and large genuine in their submissions, clearly disclosing their interest and had clearly grappled with the issues.
One such individual, fifth generation local farmer Sophie Fletcher, was very upfront about being a host landholder, but said she was supporting it for future generations.
“Through caring for this land we are doing everything in our power to continue our family’s legacy and ensure we are mitigating the effects of global warming to hopefully one day reduce the impacts of extreme weather events for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
Plenty of farmers were also opposed, and equally genuine in their concerns and deep consideration of the issues. Cattle farmers Andrew and Brittany Moore were concerned about water impact and raised animal welfare issues that have not been a part of broader debate.
“Delays, stoppages and intermittent road closures will affect our sale and purchasing opportunities, as well as result in negative animal welfare issues due to increased travel time and route issues,” they said.
Some of the locals’ reasons for opposing or supporting the proposal were quite simple and small, such as the supporter who wanted more people in town so they could have a rugby league team again.
The influence of groups like Voice for Walcha and Walcha Wind, as well as political leaders, was evident from the content of the submissions. Opposers frequently cited Voice for Walcha’s catch phrase of ‘wrong place, wrong size, wrong developer’ or went through the issues identified in the group’s fact sheet in the same order. Alternatively, a good number cited the claims of Member for New England Barnaby Joyce about the technology being outdated and the issues with disposal, or state Member for Northern Tablelands Adam Marshall’s comments about it being the worst EIS he’s ever seen. Supporters frequently recited the criticisms of Walcha Wind against Voice for Walcha’s “misinformation”.
A notable submission from Woolbrook resident Vicki Campion, who has mentioned her opposition to the project a number of times in her Daily Telegraph column, cites multiple concerns including how the Dunghutti people have been treated by the project developer Vestas, the impact on biodiversity, visual impact, noise, and disposal issues.
“If this were not a wind farm, this proposal would be laughed out of any planning authority for the literal monumental environmental destruction it will cause,” Ms Campion wrote.
Local businesses made a number of submissions too, splitting more equally among opposers and supporters. Opposers such as Walcha Coffee, Betts Transport, and Graytill, expressed concerns about the traffic impact and the challenges of getting staff. Supporters such as Walcha Taphouse and The Fruit Shop, support the economic boost the investment will bring.
Outsiders and ill-informed noise not helpful
Of considerable concern is the number of outsiders, both individuals and organisations, who have made submissions without bothering to read the proposal. The vast majority of these are people or organisations who claim to advocate for the environment or the transition to renewables, almost all indicate they live in major cities, and support the proposal going ahead regardless of the consequences, because ‘we have to’.
Community action groups including the Wollongong Branch of the Citizens Climate Lobby and the Ryde Gladesville Climate Change Action Group added nothing but noise with their generic statements in support of renewable energy.
Disappointingly, Farmers for Climate Action, an organisation that is usually careful, deliberate, and informed in its actions, also put in a generic supportive statement that made clear they had not engaged with the specifics of the proposal at all. This was confirmed by Strategy Director Cam Klose, who said they based their submission off previous reports.
“A number of our farmer members who are local to the area asked us to provide a submission of support for the project, which we did.”
“We drew upon some of our previous reports, which outlined the need for, and Farmers for Climate Action’s support for, similar types of projects,” Mr Klose said.
The Uarby Tongy Lane Alliance, an anti-wind farm group from Warrambungle Shire, and the Hastings Birdwatchers from Camden, are notable exceptions that had clearly read the proposal and were detailed in their concerns.
A large block of ‘name withheld’ submissions from the western suburbs of Brisbane supporting the proposal used near identical language and phrases, indicating their submissions were either fake or being distributed by a group who support renewable energy transition. A very odd number of submissions from Sydney’s Upper North Shore also used similar language in their submissions. Submissions blindly supporting renewable developments were received from as far away as Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and even Canada.
Some of the non-local comments were disparaging of people in Walcha, accusing them of being ‘NIMBYs’ (not in my back yard people), opposed to climate action or progress. Most were short comments lacking in detail.
With the independent review now triggered, there will be another public consultation process held. The Independent Planning Commission’s decision making process is firmly structured and includes another invitation for public submissions, stakeholder consultation, a physical inspection of the site, and public meetings or hearings, before the commissioner makes a decision.
Vestas have been given until April to respond to the 832 submissions. Assuming that Vesta’s do not withdraw their proposal, and do provide that response, the IPC process will delay the project for roughly 18 months.