Speech on Cliefden Caves

In Parliament | 21.09.16

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (19:20): I bring to the attention of the House the Cliefden Caves. The Cliefden Caves area is located on the Belubula River, south-west of the City of Orange in the Central West. The site is unique, containing internationally significant Ordovician fossils, limestone caves, a warm spring, a habitat for threatened bat species and historic cultural sites.

The Cliefden Caves limestone was first found by non‑Indigenous Australians in 1815 during the explorations of surveyor G. W. Evans. There are more than 100 recorded caves and geological features at Cliefden in pristine condition due to controlled access to the site. Some of the caves are up to three kilometres long and hold important records of past environments in cave sediment deposit. The 45-million-year-old invertebrate fossils at Cliefden have long been recognised as examples of Australia's palaeontological heritage.

More than 60 scientific papers have been published in a variety of peer-reviewed Australian and international journals, documenting 191 genera and 263 species of fossils from these and other sites in the vicinity of Cliefden Caves. Of these fossil species, 45 genera and 101 species are unique to the area that is threatened by flooding. The fossil deposits at Cliefden are used as an international palaeontological reference site.

There is a thermal spring on the Belubula River adjacent to the caves. Warm springs such as these are rare in New South Wales—in fact, there are only three documented.

It is important to note that in February 2015 WaterNSW proposed a dam at one of two sites at Cranky Rock on the Belubula River.

The proposed dams have a capacity of 700 to 1,000 gigalitres. This would raise the level at Needles Gap by up to 50 metres and inundate the caves, fossils and thermal spring at Cliefden.

There are serious concerns about the impact of these proposed dams, and they cannot be ignored. The Belubula River is already dammed at a number of locations upstream of Cranky Rock, including at Carcoar Dam, Lake Rowlands and the Cadia Valley mine operations.

The Millennium drought saw the Belubula run dry, with the entire Lachlan system running out of water. Native fish and platypus also inhabit the river in the proposed area of inundation, and tributaries to the Belubula are known to have a high diversity of macroinvertebrate species compared with that of other watercourses.

The Belubula River is a tributary to the Lachlan River system. The wetlands at the end of the Lachlan River are protected by commitments from the Australian Government under international migratory bird agreements.

This is a very significant site to New South Wales. It is unique in New South Wales and understudied because it is relatively difficult to access. Most of it is on private land. It is a precious scientific resource that we must look after long into the future.

I recently asked a series of questions on notice in relation to Cliefden Caves, particularly in relation to the proposals around the dams. I asked what the selection criteria of the companies tendering for the second stage would be, what budget was allocated, what timetable had been set, whether the results of the investigation would be publicly available, what stakeholder engagement would be undertaken and by whom, and what geological expertise would be sought in determining the cost impact of any geological impediments to construction and safe water storage. I also asked about the cost-benefit analysis.

The answers, as usual, were probably—

The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: Excellent.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: —not as good as we had hoped. No, never excellent; usually hopeless, more often than not brief in their extreme or, frankly, misleading.

However, I am not saying that of this Minister: I did get some answers. As we know, there is an expression of interest process going on at the moment.

Up to $5 million will be spent on this investigation and $5 million in protection of the cave should be endorsed. The proposal is expected to take two years, but it is not guaranteed that the investigations into this matter will be made public. This again goes to the secrecy and lack of transparency of this Government.

This unique and valuable site in New South Wales has incredible scientific riches that we need to protect, yet we are not getting any promises around proper and full transparency, and public availability.

Tonight I call on the Government to ensure that any cost benefit in relation to this dam, which I do not support, is at least made available to the public.

This unique place must be protected. 

HANSARD - NSW Legislative Council, 21 September 2016