A south-west farmer and brolga conservation activist has criticised the developer of the Willatook Wind Farm for its "misleading" claims about the Planning Minister's environmental assessment for the project.
Hamish Cumming has fought several proposed wind farms across the region because they planned to build turbines on or near brolga nesting sites and has battled the Willatook project for years because of its proximity to a number of nesting sites.
Planning Minister Sonya Kilkenny completed an environmental impact assessment of the project in late July 2023, which recommended a range of changes to the proposal including one-kilometre buffer zones around any wetlands within two kilometres of a brolga nesting site.
Willatook developer Wind Prospect and Australia's top renewable energy organisation the Clean Energy Council (CEC) both strongly criticised the minister's assessment, saying it relied on inappropriate standards and would severely set back renewable development in Victoria.
Wind Prospect managing director Ben Purcell said the decision had "blindsided" the company and represented a drastic change in direction from the minister.
"The Minister's assessment includes recommendations that go well beyond existing guidelines (in the case of brolga) and other topics that were not raised throughout our engagement with government or the subsequent panel inquiry (such as the construction moratorium)," he said.
"This represents an issue not only for Wind Prospect, but for all every proponent of any infrastructure project navigating the planning system in Victoria."
CEC energy generation and storage director Nicholas Aberle said the assessment "set a disastrous precedent" that "would jeopardise the state's renewable energy and climate goals".
But Mr Cumming said those claims were "rubbish". He said implying the minister's Willatook assessment came out of the blue or went beyond existing guidelines were "totally incorrect" and even amounted to "misinformation".
"The Victorian interim guidelines for avoiding impacts on the brolga population have been around for more than a decade, before Willatook was proposed," he said.
Mr Cumming said if the interim guidelines had been applied there would have been a 3.2-kilometre buffer around the relevant wetlands, significantly larger than the buffers Wind Prospect was protesting.
"Wind Prospect know the guidelines, they haven't been blindsided," he said.
"If they followed the interim guidelines there would've been no turbines at Willatook. It could never ever have had turbines and they knew that from the beginning.
"We fought with Wind Prospect for four years to even get them to accept there were brolgas on the Willatook site."
Mr Cumming also rejected the suggestion the buffers proposed in the assessment represented a new or unprecedented threat to wind farm development in Victoria. "The existing buffers at the Dundonnell and Golden Plains wind farms are much bigger than the ones in the Willatook assessment," he said.
"If they followed the same criteria as Dundonnell or Golden Plains for Willatook it couldn't have had turbines either."
One point Mr Cumming agreed with Wind Prospect and the CEC was the need for legislated guidelines for brolga avoidance.
The government wrote new draft guidelines in 2020, saying its understanding of how wind farms affected brolga populations had developed since the interim guidelines were released in 2011. The draft guidelines were supposed to be finalised in 2021 but were suddenly shelved with no explanation.
Despite this, the minister's assessment for Willatook relies heavily on the draft standards, which identify important wetlands based on physical characteristics rather than the historical brolga nesting data the interim guidelines used.
"The approach in the draft standards to identify wetlands as potential breeding wetlands based on geographical characteristics rather than solely on historical breeding records is an advance relative to the approach in the interim guidelines, while noting that wetlands with acceptable historical records should also be regarded as breeding wetlands even if their geographical characteristics might not match the model," the minister wrote in her assessment.
The Standard asked Wind Prospect whether it disagreed with Mr Cumming when he said Wind Prospect hadn't been blindsided and had misrepresented the minister's assessment as exceeding the existing guidelines. Mr Purcell said Wind Prospect "welcomed broad scrutiny on the project overall, and particularly on the important matters of brolga buffer zones, nesting sites and breeding habitats".
"Wind Prospects' proposals are fact-based, use agreed methodologies and expert-led surveys, and are publicly available," Mr Purcell said.
The Standard also asked whether Wind Prospect had been "blindsided" because the government had given it the impression the existing guidelines wouldn't be used to determine the buffer zones for Willatook, but they declined to answer.
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