Tea Gardens canal

The water supply of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest could have been impacted by 16 kilometres of allegedly unauthorised drainage works dug around a 2400-hectare property owned by a wealthy Sydney developer, MidCoast Council and Port Stephens MP Kate Washington have alleged.

In a briefing note obtained by the Fairfax Media, the council says work at the property potentially impacts on the drinking water aquifer. 

It refers to a decade of alleged and proven offences on land in the area owned by companies associated with Phillip Dong Fang Lee and his wife, Xiaobei Shi.

Fairfax Media was unable to contact Mr Lee but Tea Gardens property agent Rick Wraight – who had sold Mr Lee property – said his critics were wrong.

He said Mr Lee had dug the channels to drain surface water from his land, which he was able to do “as a primary producer, without getting permission”.

Mr Wraight said there had been quite a bit of talk in Tea Gardens/Hawks Nest about what was happening on “The Pines”, but he said a lot of it was uninformed.

Ms Washington said that as far as she knew, Mr Lee had bought the property with an eye to developing it, as he was intending to do with another property he owned at Fame Cove.

The property under the spotlight now, called Australian Pine Products, or :The Pines”, was near another residential development, The Shearwater Estate.

Ms Washington said she would raise the issue in parliament.

“Despite a number of complaints to authorities there’s been a wall of silence around this issue,” Ms Washington said. 

“If the town water supply is threatened, the community deserves to know.”

Both Ms Washington and the council described Mr Lee as “a frequent environmental offender”. 

Ms Washington said fines imposed on Mr Lee and his companies over Fame Cove had “done little”. 

 The council said the 17 kilometres of “drainage channels and earth mound/road construction . . . potentially impacts on the drinking water aquifer”.

According to MidCoast Council: “The unlawful development has had a direct impact on identified coastal wetlands and there is potential for significant environmental harm to a nearby SEPP14 wetland in the longer term.”

“It is also anticipated there may be significant environmental harm due to the acid sulphate contaminated water leaving the site and entering Monkey Jacket Creek, potentially causing harm to the Myall Lakes Marine Park.”

The Tea Gardens/Hawks Nest water supply is pumped from the aquifer in the area, with two gravity tanks on Viney Creek Road, which runs past the property.

Mr Wraight acknowledged this but said the aquifer did not start until three metres below the surface “and this is surface water”.

Having sold Mr Lee his Fame Cove property, Mr Wraight said “The Pines” had been bought as nearly mature forest, due for harvest from 2020.

He knew of no plans to develop it.

“The challenge with any pine plantation is surface water,” Mr Wraight said. 

“Surface water drained to the east into the Myall River but on the western side there was nowhere for it to go, it ponded.

“You had a story in the (Newcastle) Herald about ‘blackwater’ recently, well this was blackwater.

“He is a farmer removing surface water.”

MidCoast Council planning and natural systems director, Lisa Schiff, said the council – which was not the lead agency – was working with State agencies to investigate a “complex” matter. 

It said water tests at the site in late February returned a low [acidic] pH of 4.02, which could have an impact on Monkey Jacket Creek and marine life downstream.