Calls for Warragamba Dam cultural assessment consultants to be replaced

An international group has claimed the consultant commissioned by the state government to do cultural and environmental assessments for the raising of the Warragamba Dam wall, has a history of abusing Indigenous rights internationally.

Environmental groups are calling for the consultants appointed to conduct cultural assessments in the proposal to raise the Warragamba Dam by 14m, to be replaced. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Environmental groups are calling for the consultants appointed to conduct cultural assessments in the proposal to raise the Warragamba Dam by 14m, to be replaced. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The Rivers Without Borders International Coalition says in a submission to a Senate Committee inquiry into proposal to raise the Warragamba Dam wall, that the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) has abused Indigenous rights as part of environmental and cultural assessments for dam projects in Southeast Asia, Mongolia and Africa.

The submission details that in 2015 SMEC faced controversy for undertaking an environmental and social impact assessment for the Mong Ton, or Tasang, Dam in Myanmar, which is predicted to displace as many as 300,000 Indigenous people and threatens the existence of 104 migratory species of fish that are crucial to the livelihood of people living along the Salween River.

They have called on the committee of inquiry to reject SMEC's assessments for the Warragamba Dam wall raising project, and that a company with appropriate credentials be put forward to re-do all relevant assessments.

In another submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry, archaeologist Dr Michael Slack described the cultural assessment completed by SMEC on the Warragamba Dam project as "flawed" and "inadequate".

"The overall assessment of heritage is too much focused on archaeological sites and pays too little attention to Aboriginal cultural values and the importance of cultural landscapes," he says in the submission.

"The recommendations do not provide directions to mitigate impact or to manage any places that will be destroyed by impact."

Gundungurra woman and Warragamba resident Kazan Brown had asked Dr Slack, an independent archaeologist, to review the Draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Assessment on Warragamba Dam.

Ms Brown has previously described the cultural assessment as inadequate and rushed, and the consultation was the furthest thing from "robust community consultation" she had ever experienced.

Give a Dam campaigner Harry Burkitt from the Colong Foundation said the government must find a world's-best practice environmental consultancy firm to conduct the cultural and world heritage assessments for the Warragamba Dam project.

"If the NSW and federal governments' are serious about their commitments to the World Heritage Committee, they must find a new consultancy firm," he said.

"The coming NSW Parliamentary Inquiry must examine SMEC Engineering's work in detail. The community deserves to know how the government came to choose such a controversial firm to undertake the Warragamba cultural and environmental assessments."

The Nature Conservation Council has also called for the government to engage a new company.

"It is very troubling that a company under such a cloud was ever chosen for this sensitive and critical work. The government must explain what probity checks, if any, were undertaken prior to the appointment of SMEC and whether the government was aware of the serious allegations as outlined by the Rivers Without Boundaries International Coalition," said the council's CEO Chris Gambian.

A WaterNSW spokeswoman said: "SMEC Australia Pty Ltd is not a part of SMEC international and therefore not involved with projects in other countries by other SMEC International subsidiaries.

"SMEC Australia Pty Ltd engaged Niche Environment and Heritage, a specialist local Australian company to deliver the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Assessment on the project."

She said the Aboriginal cultural heritage consultation and assessment for the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) was being undertaken in line with all relevant policies, guidelines and requirements.

The dam wall proposal was announced by then premier Mike Baird in June 2016 as flood mitigation in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley. The EIS for the project will go on public display in 2020.