Highway contractor hit with heavy fine

ABIGROUP Contractors was convicted of damaging national park vegetation and received a $3250 fine yesterday in Coffs Harbour Local Court.

The Pacific Highway contractor for the 9.9km Bonville upgrade project pleaded guilty to damaging vegetation in Bongil Bongil National Park in 2006 during work on the Pacific Highway upgrade.

The contractor was fined $5000 with $1500 court costs by magistrate Judith Fleming for its offence under the National Parks and Wildlife Act.

But Ms Fleming discounted the fine because Abigroup had pleaded guilty to the offence at their first court appearance on June 24, when the matter was adjourned to yesterday for sentencing.

She said the company had also carried out remedial work at the site, along an old logging track near near Reedys Lane at Bonville, to restore it to its original condition.

She said the plants damaged were not endangered species and the offence had occurred because the defendant was seeking to relocate endangered species, so the offence was at the lower end of the scale of damage.

But she said the court and the community accepted that Abigroup was a large company which was well-placed to know its obligations and the regulations it worked under and it had made incursions into the national park on two occasions.

She said the onus was not on the Bongil Bongil National Park ranger Martin Smith to indicate to the company that incursions had taken place.

Barrister Matthew Baird agreed that his client Abigoup had failed to recognise the national park boundary and damaged 300 square metres of vegetation inside Bongil Bongil.

This occurred during relocation work being done to transfer threatened plant species out of the path of the highway upgrade.

But he said the company had a good environmental record and the damage would have been reduced if ranger Martin Smith had notified Abigroup as soon as he had found there had been an incursion into the national park on Sunday, November 5, 2006.

Mr Smith discussed the matter at a previously arranged meeting with Abigroup on Wednesday November 7, 2006, by which vegetation had been more seriously damaged.

The prosecutor for the Department of Environment and Climate Change, Erin Shepley, said Abigroup's three previous offences in the Land and Environment Court, in relation to pollution of waters by sediment, were significant because while they were different offences in other locations, they had all come about because of construction projects and the upgrading of roads and the company had also received four penalty notices.

She said the Bongil Bongil matter was not trivial because the area, which had not been logged since 2005, had been rehabilitated by National Parks to make the former logging track blend in with the rest of the park and $10,000 had been spent on weed and lantana control.

Ms Shepley said it was not Mr Smith's responsibility to make sure Abigroup worked within agreed boundaries and in any case, when Mr Smith visited the first site on Sunday and saw flattened grass, nothing he saw suggested anyone was going to drive a backhoe through the area; the Abigroup site office was closed and he was not at work again until Wednesday November 7.

Abigroup has 28 days to pay the fine and court costs.

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