Tuesday 3/09/13 Keith Platt, Western Port News
THE new federal government will be pressured to undertake an environmental assessment of Western Port before any expansion of the Port of Hastings. The Victorian National Parks Association says new research has shown Western Port’s globally significant marine and coastal wetlands face huge damage from oil spills.
The Environment Defenders Office says environmental risks and international obligations need to be assessed before more money is spent on the estimated $11 billion port project.
However, the state government sees the Port of Hastings taking pressure off the Port of Melbourne by the mid-2020s with a freeway-standard road and rail transport corridor connecting Hastings to Dandenong.
Flinders MP Greg Hunt, who favours port expansion, is likely to be environment minister if the Coalition wins next Saturday’s election.
Legal experts say that the government needs to assess the risks before money is wasted on plans that cannot legally go ahead, said Felicity Millner principal lawyer at the Environment Defenders Office.
Given what we have been told about the government’s plans to further develop the expansion, and potential damage from oil spills and port development to the environment, we think there is a serious legal question about whether the federal environment minister could approve a significantly expanded port.
It makes sense to do an assessment as soon as possible. If the damage to the wetlands will be too significant for the port expansion to proceed, then it is inappropriate for the state government to spend funds on progressing plans for the port expansion.
Damage to the environment will come from dredging of shipping channel, clearing mangroves to fill in parts Western Port and road and rail transport corridors through Gippsland, the Mornington Peninsula and suburban Melbourne.
The changes will also threaten migratory birds protected under an international agreement, the bay’s ecology and even waves for surfers.
The state government’s Victoria –The Freight State report includes the Western Port Highway being upgraded to full freeway standard.
When fully operational, the Port of Hastings is being designed to handle nine million standard-sized containers a year.
The port is also being designated for bulk and general cargo.
The release of Victoria- The Freight State last month coincided with the Port of Hastings Development Authority seeking consultants to conduct site investigations in preparation for expansion of the port.
Hastings Development Authority chief executive Mike Lean said Hastings had been earmarked as the site for a major port and industrial development for more than 40 years.
Hastings has more than 3000 hectares of land zoned for port-related use, he said.
We are looking forward to finally realising this vision and to creating a world-class facility to help secure Victoria’s economic future.
Greg Hunt told The News that Western Port is of huge environmental significance and we have a duty to ensure that any development is carried out sensitively.
I believe the port expansion will be an important boost to Hastings and Western Port in terms of jobs and investment, but it must be carried out under strict environmental conditions.
A consideration of Australia’s international obligations under the Ramsar Convention would be included in the environmental impact studies carried out before any work on the expansion began.
The planned expansion of the Port of Hastings would have to undergo rigorous environmental assessment at both state and federal levels before any sort of construction work could begin. Both levels of government would have to be satisfied that all potential environmental impacts could be minimised or negated.
Victorian National Parks Association spokesman Simon Branigan said Western Port could be damaged by an oil spill.
The new research found that even relatively small amounts of oil spilled from shipping traffic in Western Port could reach shorelines within minutes and high conservation areas in less than six hours, he said.
“We aren’t talking about oil tankers, but rather heavy fuel oil and diesel spills from container ships and port support vessels.
The research modelled six oil spill scenarios based on 27 oil spill accidents in Australia waters since 1970.
Computer modelling tracked the spills over a two-week period from two locations within Western Port.
The modelling shows Phillip Island Nature Park is vulnerable to oil spill contamination, and French Island Marine National Park is also at high risk of exposure. It also highlighted the fact that once oil is in the water, it will be hard to stop, Mr Branigan said.
Both these parks and many other parts of Western Port are home to key roosting, feeding and breeding habitats for waterbirds including annual migrants that breed in Russia, China, Japan and Alaska, and spend the summer months feeding in Western Port.
The report was commissioned in response to the state government’s proposal to expand the Port of Hastings into an international container port, increasing shipping traffic from under 100 ships a year to more than 3000.
All of Western Port is listed under the international Ramsar Convention. It is home to 32 species of migratory birds protected by international agreements, making its waters and shorelines subject to national environmental laws.
Expanding the Port of Hastings poses unacceptable danger to Western Port’s unique environmental, social and recreational values, Mr Branigan said.
Any proper assessment must consider environmental impacts, all risks and alternative port locations with links to national transport planning.
Chris Chandler of the Westernport and Peninsula Protection Council said Western Port was a unique tidal bay and wetland of international importance.
We are very concerned that the state government’s plans to turn Western Port into an international container port will expose the bay to a spill dis aster, threatening the area’s rich biodiversity including its beautiful beaches, seagrass meadows, and native wildlife such as little penguins and black swans as well as highly prized recreational fishing species King George whiting and snapper.