It took less than a week for the New South Wales planning minister to agree to fast-track the controversial $2bn Warragamba Dam wall-raising project, despite his predecessor previously rejecting the application because of its impacts on world heritage-listed environment.
Documents obtained by Guardian Australia show Anthony Roberts’ decision to designate the dam raising as a piece of critical state significant infrastructure (CSSI) came just five days after WaterNSW asked him to consider doing so.
The designation, which allows the minister to speed up its approval and bypass legal challenges, came despite his predecessor rejecting it on environmental grounds and using justifications critics say were “completely faulty”.
According to the documents, WaterNSW’s chief executive, Andrew George, wrote to Roberts on 30 September and requested that he give the dam-raising proposal CSSI status.
The minister approved the request on 4 October, before it was publicly announced by Dominic Perrottet at a press conference the next morning when the premier declared he was putting “people before plants” by “streamlining” approval of the project. The designation also severely limits judicial challenges and weakens the enforcement powers of state regulators.
It was widely criticised by Labor and opponents of the project – who labelled it an attempt to avoid scrutiny.
Kazan Brown, a Gundungurra traditional owner, said the rapid-fire approval showed the designation had been “a farcical decision-making process”.
“Making the project critical state significant infrastructure was nothing more than a cynical political manoeuvre in the lead up to the state election,” she said.
The former planning minister Rob Stokes had rejected a request for a CSSI designation in 2021, citing the government’s Unesco obligations amid concerns about its impact on the world heritage-listed Blue Mountains region.
“Declaring the project CSSI may impact on the Australian government and the NSW government’s ability to implement obligations under the World Heritage Convention,” a briefing, prepared by the planning department, stated at the time.
The briefing raised concerns a CSSI designation would “inhibit the capacity of relevant Australian and NSW government agencies in taking effective regulatory action for the project in the future”.
Despite that, the documents show staff and ministers later sought to use the release of an independent flood inquiry to justify reversing the decision, after Stokes had been removed from the portfolio.
In August, the inquiry led by the former police commissioner Mick Fuller and Prof Mary O’Kane made 28 recommendations after the devastating Lismore floods.
Raising the dam wall was not one of them. Instead, the report described the proposal as a “conundrum”, noting Infrastructure NSW’s favourable assessment of the project as “the single most effective flood mitigation option available”, while highlighting the significant objections from environment groups and traditional owners.
But a fortnight after the report was released, a member of Roberts’s staff wrote to the planning department requesting the “historical advice” on the Stokes decision, while erroneously stating that Fuller and O’Kane’s findings “recommends approval” for the project.
Three weeks later the water minister, Kevin Anderson, wrote to the WaterNSW chief executive and instructed him to ask Roberts for the CSSI decision.
In the 21 September letter, Anderson said he was writing to “provide my support for an application”, saying it was essential “to the ongoing social wellbeing of the state as it would achieve higher levels of public safety during flood events in the Hawkesbury Nepean Valley”.
The flood inquiry’s findings, as well as advice from the planning department and the government’s NSW water strategy, were also cited.
“I encourage you to apply to the minister for planning to seek a CSSI declaration for the project as soon as practicable,” he wrote to George.
The independent MP Justin Field said that intervention “raised questions about the integrity of the planning system”.
“It looks to me like what has happened is Stokes has won an argument and then as soon as he is gone the people on the other side have done what they wanted to do all along,” he said.
“You have a situation where the government is the proponent and approver of this hyper-political project, which they try to tell us is going through a robust and independent planning process but the people who are its major champions are the ones concocting the process.”
Asked why he had intervened, Anderson said raising the dam wall would “save lives and properties, and help protect western Sydney from floods”.
“My letter to WaterNSW in September this year clearly states why the raising of the Warragamba Dam wall should be declared CSSI,” he said.
“Declaring the project Critical State Significant Infrastructure is a planning mechanism that removes red tape to fast-track approvals to ensure communities in Western Sydney are protected sooner from the impact of floods.”
A week after Anderson’s letter, George wrote to Roberts asking him to reconsider the designation. George also cited the flood inquiry, despite the wall-raising project not being one of its recommendations.
In a statement, Roberts said the flood inquiry had called raising the dam wall “the single most effective flood mitigation option” and “the only one that offers regional benefits”.
“The Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) and WaterNSW recommended to Minister Stokes in 2021 that the project be declared CSSI,” he said.
“In 2022 the same recommendation to declare the project CSSI was again made by DPE and WaterNSW to the current minister, and was approved.”