WaterNSW has been accused of hiring an archaeologist to advise on Aboriginal cultural heritage for the Warragamba Dam wall raising project in a bid to win over Traditional Owners.

Gundungurra Traditional Owners and members of the Gundungurra community have been fighting to stop Warragamba Dam’s wall being raised 17 metres.

The archaeologist, Michael Jackson from Jackson Ward Archaeology, told the NSW parliamentary inquiry into the wall raising project that he believed his employment was a public relations stunt.

Jackson was engaged to support archaeological field work by sub-contractor Niche, who was contracted by SMEC Engineering.

“This appeared to me to be largely a Public Relations move, designed to make some Aboriginal representatives feel that they could trust the EIS process (in particular the Gundungurra Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) committee),” he said.

“It also gave WaterNSW an opportunity to say publicly that the archaeological project was a success, partly as they had employed an archaeologist with specialist knowledge of the area at the request of Traditional Owners.”

Jackson continued to say that he felt his expertise was unwelcomed by WaterNSW.

“In practice, I felt that my knowledge was unwelcome and uncomfortable to WaterNSW representatives and that I was managed out of the project by WaterNSW,” he said.

“When I saw that they were using my presence in the project publicly to talk of the great success of the project, yet were not willing to meaningfully engage with my archaeological knowledge, I felt misrepresented by WaterNSW.”

Jackson responded to questions regarding his employment and dealings with both SMEC and Niche, who are working as consultative bodies for the project.

“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 Niche, WaterNSW and SMEC had a tumultuous relationship,” he explained.

“Emails sent to Niche regarding invoicing and admin were immediately answered, yet emails concerning meaningful and deep engagement about the archaeology of the area were not responded to.”

Jackson also alleged another archaeologist was made to retract an agreement with the local Aboriginal community that 25 days was not enough time to survey the area which the project would affect.

He also noted feelings of intimidation from SMEC after receiving an email the evening previous to appearing before another parliamentary inquiry into the project.

“The email was presented as a ‘friendly’ reminder about my confidentiality agreements as part of the EIS process,” he said.

“I experienced the email as an attempt to intimidate me from appearing at the inquiry.”

“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.”

In a statement to NIT, WaterNSW said they stand by all aspects of the cultural heritage assessment process for the wall raising project.

“WaterNSW is undertaking Aboriginal cultural heritage consultation and assessment for the proposal in line with all relevant policies, guidelines and requirements,” the statement read.

“Aboriginal cultural heritage consultation and assessment is continuing. An updated draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Report, incorporating additional detail, will be reviewed by the Registered Aboriginal Parties for the project and their comments incorporated in the final document.

“All stakeholders and interested parties will have the opportunity to review and comment further during the Environmental Impact Statement’s public exhibition.”

The news follows Gundungurra Traditional Owners launching an application with Minister for Environment Sussan Ley on behalf of Gundungurra Aboriginal Heritage Association to protect the Burragorang Valley from the project.

By Rachael Knowles