The problems that besieged Splendor in the Grass were foreseeable, avoidable and dangerous to the environment, according to local government representatives.
Some have been challenging the festival’s “unsustainable” use of the Byron shire parklands venue for more than a decade – but say their concerns have fallen on deaf ears.
Tens of thousands of festivalgoers were left bogged, stranded and out of pocket at the weekend, with Splendor in the Grass organizers blaming freak weather and ill drivers for seven-hour bus delays to and from the site; a flooded, quagmire-like venue; and a canceled first day of programming.
On Monday Splendor’s co-chief executives, Jessica Ducrou and Paul Piticco, apologized on social media but said they “did everything we could considering the circumstances”.
“We apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced at our 20th Splendor,” the post said. “It certainly wasn’t our easiest show but even with the trials and tribulations we are so happy to be back … we really did try to provide the best experience possible under some extremely tricky conditions.”
They said Moshtix would be in touch with ticket holders to discuss “proportionate refunds” for concerts and other events that were canceled on Friday, and for buses that failed to show. “We also acknowledge all the first-time festival goers and those who hadn’t experienced a rain effected [sic] event before, we understand it was a lot for you.”
‘What happened was quite foreseeable’
Ultimately, the festival blamed the weather for the chaos: “We got the information quite late about the weather conditions,” Ducrou told ABC radio’s Hack program on Triple J on Monday.
But just 60mm 80mm of rain fell at the weekend on the North Byron Parklands site – which was well and truly waterlogged months before. Local government spokespeople from Byron and Tweed shire councils told Guardian Australia the festival should have never been permitted to proceed.
“The site has been flooding since Cyclone Debbie [in 2017],” the independent Byron shire councilor Cate Coorey told Guardian Australia.
“It fills up with water pretty fast and police have said that basically the site can’t be evacuated in under eight hours – so that’s just plain dangerous when you’ve got 50,000 people on site.”
Coorey said there were also community concerns about whether human effluent could contaminate surrounding wetlands.
“But there’s no monitoring being done, we don’t know [what the environmental] damage is, unless someone goes in there and takes some coliform samples for the waterways, and that’s not happening.”
Splendor in the Grass organizers did not respond to Guardian Australia’s request for comment.
Basil Cameron, who sat on Byron shire council for 13 years until the last local government elections, said it was common knowledge the site flooded regularly.
“To say that a flood or rain had impacted the site and that was somehow unprecedented, well, I did a double take, because there are systems in place monitoring the creek, monitoring the rainfall and that should have told them that what happened last weekend was quite foreseeable.
“We all know it’s been a very, very wet year here. You know the characteristics of the site, you know, how much water is sitting just below the surface. They should have seen this a number of days beforehand … they really should have canceled the event then instead of just soldiering on and getting into the mess that they got into.”
In a TikTok video posted by Triple J on Monday, the ABC gardening expert Costa Georgiadis, who was at the festival, explained why the earth beneath the feet of 50,000 festivalgoers was like a “wobbly creme brulée” due to the long-term effects of the La Niña climate phenomenon that has hit Australia over the past year.
“It has dropped rain on ground that was already wet… so there’s no oxygen left, and because there’s no oxygen left, the water can’t go anywhere,” he said.
‘North Byron Parklands was never an appropriate venue’
Sue Higginson, the Greens’ upper house representative for the northern rivers area, used to be a public interest lawyer. She represented the community in a successful 2009 challenge in the land and environment court to prevent Splendor relocating to the North Byron Parklands site from its existing site of Belongil – 25km farther south.
This ruling was subsequently made defunct when the parkland’s owners applied for a development application, which was granted by the New South Wales Department of Planning. Splendor relocated to the North Byron Parklands in 2013.
Since then, the site – which also hosts the NSW leg of the annual Falls festival – has been granted permission through the Independent Planning Commission to more than double the number of events it hosts, from fewer than 10 days a year in 2012 to 20 in 2019. In less than 10 years, Splendor’s cap on capacity has grown from 35,000 to 50,000 patrons a day, and the Falls festival from 25,000 to 35,000 a day.
“North Byron Parklands was never an appropriate venue for Splendor in the Grass,” Higginson told Guardian Australia.
Coorey said she expected the issue of Splendor’s continued use of the parklands would come under serious review when the council next meets on 11 August. But she wasn’t full of hope: the council is only able to make recommendations to the NSW state government’s planning authorities through a regulatory working group of local councillors, SES personnel, police and other local stakeholders. These recommendations are then fed back to the private owners.
“I expect we will have to make a business case to show the use of the parkland has become unsustainable, but I think this is now doable because so many people have been negatively impacted … and there’s a public health and safety case for it as well .”
Tweed shire’s mayor, Chris Cherry, who has also sat on the regulatory working group, said she believed the weekend’s events would have had a serious negative impact on the surrounding wetlands.
“All the locals tried to tell them how fast it floods, and it doesn’t take a lot of rain to do it,” she said.
An online petition that has attracted more than 1,000 signatures since Monday is calling on Live Performance Australia to ensure Splendor organizers and all related commercial entities hold all ticket proceeds in trust and not release them until satisfactory refunds have been handed out to punters.
Ducrou told the ABC financial considerations had not played a part in the decision to push ahead with the festival on Saturday and Sunday.
“We have insurance, we could have canceled the entire event,” she said. “So it wasn’t a financial decision for us to go forward, which I think it’s really important to share with everybody.
“It was more about considering how long it had been since Splendor had happened, the fact that so many people have come into the area for it… it was a mixed bag for sure, it wasn’t what we’d hoped it would be . But there were some great moments.”