A proposal to build a windfarm in wetlands used by migratory shorebirds off north-west Tasmania has been approved by the state’s environmental regulator on the condition that it shuts down for several months of the year.
The Tasmanian Environment Protection Authority has given renewables company ACEN the green light to build up to 122 turbines on Robbins Island, which is home to a wild disease-free Tasmanian devil colony and is habitat for migratory birds including the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot (OBP) and eastern curlew.
The project has been opposed by environment groups because of its potential impact on wildlife.
Emails released under freedom of information laws last year showed federal environment officials raised concerns that no comparable habitat existed anywhere else to compensate for the effects the project could have on the island’s unique devil colony, which they considered a stronghold for the survival of the species.
The turbines would be constructed in two stages and would have a total generating capacity of up to 900 megawatts (MW) of electricity. Other infrastructure, including a wharf and a bridge to the Tasmanian mainland, is also proposed.
The EPA board concluded the project could be managed in an environmentally sustainable manner subject to conditions.
They include a requirement that all turbine generators shut down during the orange-bellied parrots’ migration periods from March until the end of May and September to November each year.
The chair of the EPA’s board, Andrew Paul, said the board had determined “significant mitigation measures” were required for orange-bellied parrots given there was only limited knowledge about the importance of Robbins Island in the species’ annual northern and southern migrations.
But environment groups noted the site was also important for other species, including migratory shorebirds such as the eastern curlew and bar-tailed godwit.
“It’s a double standard by the EPA,” said Eric Woehler, the convener of BirdLife Tasmania.
“They’re worried about OBPs which are a critically endangered migratory species but they’re not worried about the 10 or so migratory shorebirds that are endangered or critically endangered that will also be affected by this project.”
He said thousands of migratory shorebirds used the island for several months of the year.
The EPA has applied further conditions to manage the project’s effects on other bird species and the Tasmanian devil.
The development still requires approval from the federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek.
The Tasmanian EPA’s own assessment report includes feedback it received from the federal environment department stating the project would result in “unacceptable impacts to the orange-bellied parrot and significant residual impacts to the Tasmanian devil”.
The department said the impact to orange-bellied parrots would be unacceptable primarily because it would be inconsistent with the species’ recovery plan. Under national laws the environment minister must not make a decision that is inconsistent with a recovery plan.
The department’s feedback said the offsets proposed for the project were also not sufficient to compensate for the loss of denning and foraging habitat for the Tasmanian devil.
Kim Anderson, of the Circular Head Coastal Awareness Network, said the decision would be a test for Plibersek after she announced the development of new national environmental standards and a national environment protection agency on Thursday, aimed at turning the tide “from nature destruction to nature repair”.
Anderson said the EPA’s approval of the project was a “massive blow for the wild colony of endangered devils of Robbins Island”.
“The EPA should have had the intestinal fortitude to call this development for what it is – the worst possible place for a windfarm in Australia for wildlife and cultural reasons,” she said.
A spokesperson for ACEN said the company was pleased the project had been approved and was awaiting further decisions from the federal government and the Circular Head Council in early 2023.
They said the company had not fully considered the implications of the requirement to shut the turbines down but it had concerns.
“Given the work undertaken over the past five years in terms of assessing the risks and developing mitigations, we are surprised by this condition as it does not seem commensurate with the potential risk posed to OBPs,” they said.
The energy park’s management plan “was one of the most extensive”, the spokesperson said, and covered the key risks from the project to all fauna, with “30+ pages of conditions that cover all key risks identified and mitigations required”.
A spokesperson for Plibersek said the minister was unable to comment while the project was still under assessment.
The EPA said its position was “laid out in detail in its assessment report”.
“The assessment considered the population status of different species. The orange-bellied parrot is critically endangered, with less than 100 birds left in the wild, and has a different profile to other species considered during the assessment process.”