A helicopter operator that spent thousands of hours battling the Black Summer bushfires is being ‘trampled on’ by the NSW government, its owner says.
The NSW government says a helicopter company that helped fight the Black Summer bushfires should get less than $400,000 in compensation after it forced the operation to move to make way for the Sydney Metro.
That’s only a tiny fraction of the $23.8m Sydney Helicopters claims in a court filing it will cost to relocate its operation from the Parramatta area to Penrith.
The helicopter operator, which did more than 4200 hours of firefighting in the 2019-2020 fire season, told the Land and Environment Court the cost of relocating their facility alone was $20.9m.
It also claimed it was owed compensation for temporarily storing aircraft, loss of profits, legal costs, valuation costs and the market value of the land that was taken.
But in a response filed with the court, Sydney Metro said it would only agree to pay $20,000 for the land’s market value.
It also said in the document Sydney Helicopters was entitled to a sum of just over $361,000 to pay for professional services.
Sydney Metro said in the court filing the costs of legal and valuation expenses would be confirmed once more evidence had been provided, and that in its view, those costs may end up being included in the professional services cost.
As to the rest of the claims, Sydney Metro said it hadn’t been provided with enough information to form a view.
Sydney Helicopters owner Mark Harrold, who leased the land near Parramatta until the acquisition last year, told NCA NewsWire that Sydney Metro’s position felt like a slap in the face, especially in light of the services his helicopter fleet provided during the deadly bushfire season.
“I’m disgusted, I’m fed up entirely,” he said.
“They trample on people. We just get treated like cannon fodder and our interests are completely ignored by the government.”
But Sydney Metro said it had provided the company with “ongoing support” throughout the acquisition process.
“This included finding a possible alternative site after engagement with aviation specialists and key stakeholders,” a spokeswoman said.
“At all times, Sydney Metro followed the acquisition process as set out by the Just Terms Act.”
The spokeswoman also said the site in Clyde, outside Parramatta, was on land owned by the state government and it would be used for a stabling and maintenance facility.
In a submission to an ongoing parliamentary inquiry on the state government’s acquisitions of land for transport projects, Sydney Helicopters said it made money from charter flights and film work, but also assists in firefighting when needed.
The submission also said the company was offered $2.1m in 2020 to relocate to Bankstown Airport, however the operator claimed that site wasn’t suitable for the business.
According to Mr Harrold, Sydney Helicopters was tasked by the Rural Fire Service to respond to 75 major blazes during the Black Summer fires, dropping a combined 42 million litres of water on the flames.
Mr Harrold said he worried the move to Penrith would put him out of business and that the state’s firefighting capacity could suffer as a consequence.
However, the Sydney Metro spokeswoman said the NSW Rural Fire Service had several other contractors it could hire to help fight future fires.
“The community may be assured that Sydney Metro has consulted with the NSW Rural Fire Service who advised that Sydney Helicopters is one of a number of contractors who can be called upon to provide external aerial support when needed,” she said.
Mr Harrold said he hoped the state’s new Transport Minister David Elliott, who was Emergency Services Minister during the Black Summer, would be sympathetic to his situation.
“He knows what we did for the state. He knows we’ve been involved with provision of emergency and essential services for decades,” Mr Harrold said.
Mr Elliott declined to comment because the case is before the court.
Opposition emergency services spokesman Jihad Dib said the government’s treatment of Sydney Helicopters was “shameful and disrespectful”.
“They were there for us when we needed them and they deserve to be fairly compensated,” Mr Dib said.
“It shouldn’t end up in court … the government should sit down with them and come to a fair agreement.”
The Sydney Metro West project will connect Parramatta to Sydney’s CBD via a 20-minute driverless underground train.