Plans to build a 340MW wind farm on Robbins Island off the north west tip of Tasmania face a major new challenge, with a push for the project to be blocked under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.
A request for Robbins Island and its surrounding waters be declared a significant Aboriginal area, to be preserved and protected from injury or desecration, has been submitted to federal environment minister Sussan Ley, RenewEconomy has learned.
The Aboriginal man behind the petition, Malcolm Stokes, said he was trying to protect the Island from having a “Rio Tinto moment,” referring to the desecration of the 46,000 year-old Juukan Gorge Caves in the Pilbara in Western Australia.
Stokes said hundreds of members of Tasmania’s north-west Aboriginal tribes would travel along coastal paths to gather on Robbins Island for a month each year, bringing gifts of tools and ochre to gain safe access to Peerapper lands.
On the island, “a place of abundant bush tucker,” Stokes said Aboriginals had conducted ceremonies, organised marriages between tribes, made spears and baskets and gathered shells to make necklaces for decoration and trade.
There are also three points of first European contact on Robbins Island, a legacy Stokes believes has been largely dismissed as a significant turning point in the history and demise of North West tribes.
Stokes believes it is not a matter of “relocating turbines a few metres this way or that,” or relocating artefacts to a museum, because the whole island was considered sacred.
“Robbins Island is special to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people; artefacts should be left on country and Robbins Island should be protected from desecration,” he said in a statement.
The more than $1 billion Robbins Island Renewable Energy Park is proposed for development in two stages by UPC\AC Renewables, including the potential for a second stage of the wind farm to take its total capacity to a whopping 900MW.
According to the project website, the privately owned island, currently a mix of coastal heath and pasture, is “one of the windiest places on earth” with wind speeds averaging around 36km an hour.
But the project has stirred strong local opposition based on a range of concerns, including its remote location, its size, and the impact of the supporting infrastructure that would need to be built to around it.
This includes the construction of a bridge connecting Robbins Island to mainland Tasmania, construction of a 500-metre piled wharf on the island’s north-east to take deliveries of turbine parts and equipment, and a new transmission line connecting to Hampshire via Jim’s Plain, where UPC\AC has got the nod from the federal government to build another wind farm.
Critics of the Robbins Island project range from local groups like the Circular Head Coastal Awareness Network and BirdLife Tasmania, to the founder and former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, who in 2019 said the project’s benefits were outweighed by its impacts on scenery and bird life.
Opponents have argued that Robbins Passage and Boullanger Bay wetlands are a vital habitat for shorebirds in Tasmania, supporting more migratory and resident species than the rest of the state combined.
UPC\AC Renewables said in an emailed response to RenewEconomy on Wednesday that it was aware of an application submitted by Stokes for the protection of Robbins Island under Section 10 the ATSHPA Act and was doing its part to cooperate with the assessment.
“UPC\AC has undertaken detailed cultural heritage investigations on the site (an operating beef cattle farm) in accordance with the requirements of Aboriginal Heritage Tasmania (AHT) and have provided a report to AHT,” said UPC\AC chief operating officer David Pollington.
“UPC\AC will provide factual details into the assessment in relation the project, the cultural heritage investigations and our engagement with community.
“We have engaged and will continue to engage with Circular Head Aboriginal representatives in relation to the project and how it may assist their aspirations for the recognition, protection and management of their cultural heritage in the area,” Pollington said.
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