An archaeologist recruited by consultants for WaterNSW to advise on the Aboriginal significance of an area set to be flooded by the controversial Warragamba Dam wall raising said he was hired as a public relations move to win over the traditional owners.
Michael Jackson, of Jackson Ward Archaeology, said he was “managed out” of the project as his opinions were unwanted, that WaterNSW and its consultants refused his input, and his own findings regarding the myriad Aboriginal sites in the Burragorang Valley were misrepresented.
The traditional owners of the land last month launched an application with Environment Minister Sussan Ley on behalf of the Gundungurra Aboriginal Heritage Association for the protection of the area against the wall raising.
“As the project unfolded, I began to feel that their primary purpose for employing me in the project was an attempt to pacify some Aboriginal representatives with whom [consultancy] NICHE, WaterNSW and [consultancy] SMEC had a tumultuous relationship,” Mr Jackson told a NSW parliamentary inquiry into the proposed flood mitigation project.
Mr Jackson was hired to undertake an archaeological survey by Niche, a subcontractor to SMEC, which was contracted by WaterNSW regarding the Environmental Impact Statement for the project.
A WaterNSW spokesman said the government-owned organisation stood by all aspects of the cultural heritage assessment process for the proposal to raise Warragamba Dam.
“WaterNSW is undertaking Aboriginal cultural heritage consultation and assessment for the proposal in line with all relevant policies, guidelines and requirements,” the spokesman said.
Mr Jackson also claimed another archaeologist hired by Niche was forced to send a retraction after initially agreeing with the Aboriginal community that 25 days to survey the extensive area was not enough time.
“The feeling was that they just wanted it to go away, they wanted us to go away and they wanted to get it done and to get the report out as quickly as they could,” he said in November.
In another alleged episode, Mr Jackson said he felt threatened after receiving a “friendly reminder” from SMEC about his confidentiality agreement the day before he was due to give evidence at another parliamentary inquiry regarding the dam.
“I have been told that this email was sent at the direction of a senior WaterNSW employee, ‘to scare but not threaten’, although I cannot verify this,” he told the inquiry in answers to questions on notice in December.
In a statement to the Sydney Morning Herald, SMEC Australia said it “rejects any suggestion that it has engaged in intimidation of any subcontractor or employee on the project”.
The area contains the landscape features from the story of the chase of Gurangatch by Mirrigan, which explains how the landforms were made.
Opponents of the project say rock engravings, scar trees, camp sites, burial sites and ceremony grounds would be wiped out if the walls are raised.
In October, Australia’s biggest insurer, IAG, withdrew its support for the project because of the “probable loss” of important Indigenous sites.
Mr Jackson told the inquiry the cultural heritage assessment was an example of primarily non-Indigenous consultants working with developers to clear the landscape of Indigenous heritage.
“In my view, and from where I stood in the project, there is no greater example than the scientific significance assessment that was done on the 337 sites that were found,” he said.
“That significance assessment was done by one person who only spent one day in the field and who had no discussions with the archaeologists involved in the field survey - not one discussion about any of the sites.
“If you look at the report you will actually see that ... it was just copy and paste, copy and paste, copy and paste, ‘low scientific significance’ over and over again.”
Mr Jackson said given his extensive knowledge of the area, he asked Niche to be involved in compiling the report, but that was declined. He said the report had misrepresented what he had found, including sites that were mislabelled, and a formal request to WaterNSW to review the report had been denied.
By Angus Thompson