The Snowy Hydro 2.0 project is a step closer to going ahead after being approved by the New South Wales government, less than a month after it topped a list of 24 infrastructure projects the government wanted fast-tracked as part its Covid-19 economic response.
The deputy premier, John Barilaro, announced on Thursday the government had approved the main works for the 2,000-megawatt pumped hydro storage project in the Snowy Mountains.
He said the $4.6bn development would bring thousands of jobs to regional NSW. The project still requires federal environmental approval before work can start.
The decision was immediately criticised by environmentalists, who described the project as an “act of environmental vandalism” that would harm threatened species.
The chair of the NSW threatened fishes committee, Mark Lintermans, resigned after the announcement, saying the decision would likely cause the extinction of a species in the wild, in this case the critically endangered fish the stocky galaxias.
Barilaro said: “Snowy Hydro is an icon of our community, with Snowy 2.0 already employing about 500 people, directly injecting more than $35m into the Snowy Mountains and involving more than 100 local businesses.
“This latest approval will see the creation of an extra 2,000 jobs during the construction phase, unlock billions of investment in regional NSW and allow the next stage of construction to further progress this legacy project.”
The NSW planning minister, Rob Stokes, said environmental conditions were attached to the approval, including offset requirements related to threatened species in the Kosciuszko national park.
Snowy Hydro Limited will be required to develop a captive breeding program for the stocky galaxias and the endangered Macquarie perch. This would involve “spending of $5m over five years during construction to establish self-sustaining, insurance populations of these species in the surrounding region”.
Both species were already under serious threat but that pressure has increased in the aftermath of the bushfire crisis.
Lintermans is an associate professor at the University of Canberra and fish expert who has been assessing how the fires had affected fish including the stocky galaxias.
He said he was resigning as the chair of the state’s threatened fishes committee because he “cannot continue to serve a government that so wilfully ignores the destructive impact of Snowy 2.0 on two threatened fish species.”
Lintermans said the government had granted an exemption to Snowy Hydro 2.0 from two provisions of the NSW Biosecurity Act designed to prevent the transfer of invasive fish species. As a result, he said the stocky galaxias and the Macquarie perch were at risk the project would expose them to predators.
He said the project would likely transfer invasive climbing galaxias into the only 3km stretch of stream the stocky galaxias inhabits in the Kosciuszko National Park.
“It is unprecedented for a government to grant an exemption that will likely cause the extinction in the wild of a species,” he said.
Last month, Snowy Hydro 2.0 topped a list of 24 infrastructure developments the NSW government wanted to fast-track to stimulate the construction industry.
A group of engineers, economists, energy specialists and environmentalists, led by the National Parks Association of NSW, had called for a final decision on Snowy Hydro 2.0 to be delayed, claiming it will cost far more and deliver far less than has been promised.
They said the project would cause permanent damage to the Kosciuszko national park, was likely to cost about $10bn, and about 40% of the energy generated would be lost before it reached consumers.
Gary Dunnett, the executive director of the National Parks Association of NSW, said the organisation was “incredibly disappointed” with the decision and the impact on the park would be “huge”.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable … knowing that we are facing an extinction crisis, to approve a development that will drive a species, the stocky galaxias, into extinction,” he said.
Dunnett described the requirement for a captive breeding program as “tokenism” and said the fish should be protected in its natural environment.
He said the group the association had assembled would review the published justifications for the approval and “will make decisions about future actions accordingly”.
“We are convinced that this environmentally destructive project will prove an infrastructure white elephant and act as a monument to environmental vandalism,” he said.
In a separate development, the NSW planning department has recommended approval of Whitehaven Coal’s Vickery coalmine extension near Gunnedah.
The project must now be considered by the NSW independent planning commission, which is expected to make a final determination in coming months.