Woolworths' $67 million expansion knocked back after rare flowers found on site

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the warehouse proposal which would wipe out hundreds of endangered flowers was 'unacceptable'.

Woolworths' $67 million warehouse expansion plans have been knocked back after a critically endangered orchid was found flourishing at the site. The project was signed off as “clearly unacceptable” by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek whose office rejected the proposal.

The supermarket giant had asked the minister to allow it to proceed with the development, and destroy roughly 35 per cent of the region’s last known Wyong sun orchids (thelymitra adorata). It has declined to comment on the decision.

Left, Woolworths' proposed plan outlines the land at Warnervale which would be used for the expansion which is inhabited by Wyong sun orchids (right) which are coloured bright blue.
Woolworths proposed destroying land inhabited by critically-endangered Wyong sun orchids for a warehouse expansion. Source: Woolworths Group & Conservation of Australian Terrestrial Orchids

Woolworths had forecast expansion of its NSW Central Coast distribution centre in Warnervale could have created 240 jobs, and increased the variety of foods available to customers on the NSW Central Coast. However with Australia’s biodiversity in rapid decline, conservationists have questioned how the retailer thought the plan could be acceptable.

“How would you possibly think that an application to destroy 500 individuals of a critically endangered species was okay, when previously it was thought there may be only 200 in existence in other sites in the local area?” Brendan Sydes from Australian Conservation Foundation told Yahoo News Australia.

Environment minister's steadfast rejection of proposal

The orchids are protected under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC), but applications can still be made to destroy listed species. Previous environment ministers have very rarely exercised their power to swiftly reject an application that could impact an EPBC-listed species so significantly, and they normally go through several stages of assessment.

Plibersek's decision, which was made public last week, follows her rejection of a planned wind farm development at Port Hastings in Victoria that posed an “unacceptable” risk to internationally-listed RAMSAR wetlands.

The minister’s ruling comes as the supermarket faces increased scrutiny over grocery pricing amid the cost-of-living crisis. It has also received both praise and criticism for its decision to no longer sell Australia Day products in its stores.

Proposal suggested retaining only six orchids

Woolworths' distribution centre would have been built alongside an existing facility and destroyed 1.5 hectares — equating to three quarters of the orchid’s habitat — killing 500 individuals. It was proposed by Woolworths that six plants should be retained.

Prior to planning, the orchid had been unknown at the site, but after non-native lawns around the property were mowed, Woolworths believes it created suitable conditions for the species to thrive.

It’s thought the orchid only exists on a tiny 10-square kilometre area of the Central Coast, and less than 1500 specimens have been discovered over the last 30 years.

In its application, Woolworths said its project risked “serious and irreversible impacts” on the species and it proposed making a payment to a biodiversity trust fund to help protect the orchid elsewhere.

A Woolworths store front with promotional signs at the entrance and the large logo overhead.
Woolworths has received backlash from the Australian Conservation Foundation after suggesting the orchids be destroyed. Source: Getty

It's not the first time Woolworths has sparked controversy over a development. In 2022, locals fumed after it removed wildlife habitat on the Gold Coast to make way for a new store.

Sydes applauded Plibersek's latest ruling, saying it shows she's taking her responsibilities seriously. He said it also highlighted the need for Australia’s national conservation laws to be updated, so that listed species receive stronger upfront protections.

“Then we wouldn’t be dependent on the environment minister of the day exercising discretion favourably, and making a good judgement call, like in this case where they were basically wanting to destroy the largest population of a critically endangered species” he said.

Minister Plibersek’s office has been contacted for comment.

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