A proposed new windfarm on Robbins Island off north-west Tasmania could threaten a disease-free Tasmanian devil population, according to federal environment officials, who say the damage to habitat could be difficult to offset.
Correspondence obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws shows 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 is considered a stronghold for the survival of the species.
UPC/AC Renewables wants to erect up to 122 turbines with combined tower and blade tip heights of about 270 metres.
The project would also involve building a new bridge to connect to the Tasmanian mainland.
Robbins Island is a privately owned island in Tasmania’s north-west with large areas of land that have been cleared for beef farming.
The island is surrounded by intertidal mudflats that are critical feeding habitat for migratory and resident shorebirds and water fowl, including endangered species.
About 150 endangered Tasmanian devils live on the island and they are one of few remaining wild colonies free of devil facial tumour disease.
UPC/AC Renewables has been developing its proposal since 2017 and has been preparing its environmental impact assessments for the Tasmanian and federal governments.
Internal correspondence shows federal officials noted the company had not even addressed potential offsets for devil habitat in its draft assessments, despite the fact that the infrastructure would be built and operated in an area of extensive foraging and denning habitat.
Officials wrote that devil facial tumour disease had not made it to Robbins Island and “this healthy, abundant population is likely a stronghold for the survival of the species”.
Under Australia’s environmental offsets policy, proposed offsets are expected to be a match for the habitat that is being cleared – what is known as “like for like” offsetting.
Drafts of an email officials were preparing to send to UPC in May this year show they believed the island’s devil colony was unique and that no such offset therefore existed.
“There are likely to be challenges in finding suitable offsets for impacts to Tassie Devil habitat as no ‘like for like’ habitat (isolated, high density, uninfected population) exists,” an official wrote.
Kim Anderson is a resident of West Montagu in north Tasmania, which looks out towards the island.
She is a member of the Circular Head Coastal Awareness Network, which is opposed to the proposed development.
She said the state’s north-west had two of the last strongholds – in Woolnorth and on Robbins Island – for wild, disease-free devils that were not introduced insurance populations.
‘It’s the wrong place when you’ve got a healthy population of devils with no facial tumours,” Anderson said. “How on earth are you going to offset that?
“We are not against windfarms, we just want the government to start planning where windfarms should go.”
Alice Carson is another member of the group and a local wildlife carer.
“It’s a disheartening situation. I don’t know where the devils are supposed to go,” she said. “This whole project, I just cannot get my head around how it has got to this stage.”
The federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, met with UPC on a recent trip to Tasmania for an overview of the project, her spokesman said.
A spokesperson for the environment department said the department had reviewed UPC’s draft documentation and provided comments for the company to address.
A spokeswoman for UPC/AC Renewables said the company was working with the department to address the feedback related to devil habitat.
She said it was proposing a number of avoidance and mitigation measures, including excluding from development an area of the island that the company’s assessments considered to be “optimal” devil habitat.
It also planned to offset the impacts to devil habitat by protecting part of the island under a conservation covenant and would use fencing and road monitoring to try to minimise vehicle collisions with devils.
In the event a devil was killed the company would make a donation to the Save the Tasmanian Devil program.
In response to concerns about the Robbins Island environment and wildlife more broadly, she said: “After many years of study and numerous reports, UPC/AC considers that we have developed a comprehensive set of avoidance and mitigation measures to address all the concerns flagged by those opposing the project.”
She added that the project would have a net positive benefit for the environment by accelerating the retirement of coal-fired power generation.
But Bob Brown, who has opposed the project because of the effect it could have on Tasmania’s natural beauty, said environmental offsets were “nonsensical” and had documented problems.
He said the island should instead be declared a wildlife sanctuary for mammals, birds and wetlands.
“The fact is, this is a healthy and large (devil) population – the company itself says this – and it is a natural stronghold for a critically endangered species.”
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