The Cooks River community is in shock.

It is shocked by the news that more than 1,000 trees have been tagged along the north bank of the Cooks River from Port Botany to Newington, apparently slated for removal by oil companies.

This is a disaster for the people of the inner west and a failure of government to plan properly for the future of the river.


Volunteers noticed metal tags earlier this year and watched with alarm as they spread to more than 1,000 trees, including mature Morton Bay figs, casuarinas and eucalypts. The trees were planted in the 1970s when the river was considered nothing more than the quickest way to dispose of industrial waste and stormwater.

Since that time, three pipelines have been laid beneath the north bank of the river, transporting refined oil and airline fuel under extremely high pressure to and from the airport.

Most residents would not know the pipelines are there, neither would the hundreds of visitors who cycle or walk along the river each and every day and nor would the countless volunteers who have spent years revegetating the river's banks and nursing the river back to health. For more than 150 years, this now magnificent river was treated as nothing more than a stormwater drain—a dump for raw sewage, heavy metals, industrial waste and sullage.

As early as the 1860s, the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting on the pollution in the river. One report read:

Above the small dam the river was literally covered with scum for some distance, and had a most filthy appearance ...

Already has much injury been done by the destruction of the fish, and by the pollution of the river to such an extent as to render it unfit for bathing purposes.

Regular chemical spills and illegal dumping brought the river close to death until, finally, polluting the river was restricted by the Clean Waters Act 1970.

Luckily, for as long as people have been polluting the Cooks River, activists have been fighting to clean it up. In the 1920s the Cooks River Improvement League fought to improve the health of the river. More recently, organisations such as the Mudcrabs and the Cook's River Valley Association have taken up the torch. They have planted trees, picked weeds, cleared garbage from the mangroves and toiled to bring the river back to life. They have generally been supported by all three levels of government.

Over the years, millions of dollars have been invested in rain gardens, naturalisation projects and revegetating the river's banks. We have not always succeeded in working together as best we could or should.

When the president of the Mudcrabs showed me the tagged trees along the river, he pointed out that the Inner West Council had planted some new saplings right on the path of the pipelines where trees are to be removed. If these tagged trees teach us anything it is that we must work together and take a more coordinated approach.

As a first step, we need transparency about these pipelines. How deep are they, what state are they in, what risks do they pose for the river and what risk, if any, is there to the community?

Secondly, an independent arborist must be engaged by the Government to determine accurately how many trees may need to be removed.

The community is rightly concerned that arborists engaged and paid for by the oil companies amount to letting the fox into the henhouse. The community does not want a single tree removed but, in the instance that some trees may go, we must keep those facing the chop to the absolute minimum and we must have absolute transparency around that process.

We must have a rock-solid guarantee that for every tree we lose, at least four are planted in return. That is the policy of the council and it should be the case here.

Most importantly, we must do everything in our power to make sure this does not happen again. That includes doing a full assessment of the pipelines and properly planning for their future. And it means creating a community forum to properly plan for the river.

Like the Sydney Airport Community Forum, the Cook's River Forum would bring together the three levels of government, stakeholders including Sydney Water, community groups and residents to plot the path to bring the river back to health. It would effectively replace the Cooks River Alliance, a coalition of local councils along the river, which has been decimated by this Government's reckless council amalgamations.

The Baird Government promised that no services would be lost, but we have seen councils along the river pull funding from the alliance and the resignation of the Alliance Manager in recent months.

The Cook's River is in peril.

And unsurprisingly, we have had nothing but secrecy and silence from this Government. It is clear that our natural and urban heritage means absolutely nothing to this Premier. Unless the Premier acts now, this is just another example of him putting private interests ahead of community interests.