Kempsey Shire Council is set to recommence work to seal Point Plomer Road following a decision by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment regarding the area's heritage significance.
Council was advised on Friday, February 12 that the application made under section 18 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ATSIHP Act) had been assessed and has not resulted in an emergency declaration of significance for the Point Plomer Road area.
The sealing of Point Plomer Road has been considered and debated by Kempsey Shire Council since 1997, with council making the decision last year to move forward and tar the northern section of the road from the end of the existing bitumen to Racecourse, and the southern section of the road to Big Hill.
Some members of the Crescent Head community have protested saying local Indigenous sites along the stretch of road, which were highlighted recently by a study conducted by Associate Professor Michael Westaway, and native wildlife will be impacted.
"We're devastated that council hasn't listened to us about the cultural significance of the area," Dunghutti elder James Dungay said.
"We believe tarring the road will lead to the destruction of Aboriginal sites in that area."
Council voluntarily halted the work on Point Plomer Road last week after it was informed heritage significance applications had been lodged.
Director Operations and Planning, Robert Fish, said council's contractors will now resume work on the project to bitumen seal the existing road.
"Council remains satisfied with the work undertaken to review Aboriginal Heritage during the project's design and investigation phase. The traditional culture and heritage of this land is of high importance to council and is always a factor in decision making," Mr Fish said.
"The Due Diligence assessment completed as part of the Review of Environmental Factors council's consultants undertook clearly indicated that the proposed sealing of an existing road did not constitute a substantial threat to heritage.
"As such, council welcomes this outcome which validates council's process."
Council was not required to cease work under the ATSIHP Act as a result of these applications, but acted in good faith and paused civil works associated with the sealing of Point Plomer Road until the end of the week, awaiting further guidance from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.
Council has been informed by the federal agency that its actions to date in planning and commencing the work constitute best practice.
Under the terms of the ATSIHP Act, the section 18 application was assessed against two key criteria:
- The area or object is a significant Aboriginal area or object; and
- The area or object is under serious and immediate threat of injury or desecration
Friday's declaration means that work on the road may resume and continue to completion unless a declaration is made by the Federal Minister for the Environment under the provisions of sections 9 or 10 of the ATSIHP Act, which provide for a longer-term declaration of significance.
The remaining applications under sections 9 and 10 are yet to be determined, however these are assessed against the same provisions as section 18.
Council says it is not aware of any evidence that suggests a need to review the Due Diligence work undertaken to date in relation to Aboriginal heritage.
Council will continue to liaise with the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment in relation to the outstanding applications that are yet to be determined.
"The sealing of Point Plomer Road remains a project that council sees of tremendous value to the entire community from a cost, environmental and safety perspective. The proposed sealed road is being largely constructed on top of the existing road to minimise any environmental or heritage impact," Mr Fish said.
"A fully sealed road is expected to result in less long-term environmental impact than the current unsealed sections which mandate a regular cycle of grading and gravel resheeting.
"This was once again evidenced over the recent holidays where the road condition was so poor that many vehicles were driving off road, to the detriment of the environment adjoining the road."