PARK WATCH September 2020 |

No one wants Western Port Bay to be turned into an artificial swimming pool, explains campaigner Shannon Hurley.

Our beautiful and beloved Western Port Bay likely brings memorable nature experiences for many of us – visiting the penguin parade at Phillip Island, a ferry trip to French Island National or Marine National Park, or watching thousands of waterbirds bask in the rich wetlands.

Western Port Bay makes for a perfect wildlife wonderland for many birds, fish, mammals, and sponge gardens due to its diversity of habitats of mudflats, seagrass meadows, mangroves, saltmarshes and rocky reefs.

This is why we have been working to highlight the huge risks energy giant AGL’s plans for a gas import terminal poses for the bay. Their plan involves a permanently moored industrial-sized 300-metre-long gas storage ship off Crib Point’s shore (south of Hastings), and a pipeline (proposed by APA, an energy infrastructure business), all the way to Pakenham. Each year there would be up to 40 additional large carrier ships entering the bay.

A giant floating gas-filled ship is a terrible idea for an internationally protected Ramsar wetland and environmentally significant marine area. The potential irreversible damage to this highly-connected and sensitive ecosystem must not be risked.

VNPA has been collaborating with Environment Victoria, Environmental Justice Australia, Save Westernport and other local groups, and are extremely concerned about the impacts this project could have on marine and terrestrial wildlife and habitats. Not to mention the social impacts on the local community who live there, and to the tourism from people who travel from far and wide to bird watch, snorkel, fish, kayak or camp.

AGL’s environmental impact reports were on exhibition from 2 July to 26 August through the state environmental assessment process, known as the Environmental Effects Statement (EES), in which public comments were invited.

Between our collective groups and experts, much of the 11,000 pages of reports were read and an analysis done of AGL’s assessment of the project impacts. VNPA focussed on the impacts on marine biodiversity and engaged expert marine consultant and scientists to help digest AGL’s analysis.

A project of this scale and risk should have the highest level of environmental assessment. Yet AGL’s environmental impact reports are shockingly bad. Through our analysis, the EES documents show that AGL has failed to thoroughly assess many of the environmental impacts arising from the project.

AGL’s documents did not adequately address the following potentially significant impacts on marine biodiversity:

  • Impacts of catastrophic incidents – ship collisions, oil spills and potential gas explosions.
  • Impacts from chlorine discharge and release of toxicants as part of AGL’s processing of the Liquefied Natural Gas are unacceptable – we can’t have Westernport Bay turned into an artificial swimming pool!
  • Impacts on the internationally protected Ramsar wetlands and migratory waterbirds.
  • Impacts on listed threatened marine species and communities under Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (FFG Act) and national Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), and other sensitive species and communities.
  • The entire project has the potential to cause severe biological and ecological harm over large areas, which may be irreversible.

Ultimately, AGL’s documents as they relate to impacts on marine biodiversity are not to the standard that a comprehensive, science-based environmental assessment should be. The structure and implementation of the EES is not considered reliable for environmental decisions and management, being largely opinion-based and without supporting evidence.

In addition, the pipeline component of the project would result in the direct removal of 15 hectares of native vegetation – almost half of which is endangered vegetation types. The existence and ongoing maintenance of the pipeline is a serious threat to the survival of the nationally-endangered Southern Brown Bandicoot (listed under the FFG and EPBC Acts). The project will directly result in the removal of vegetation from sites of likely habitat of the Southern Brown Bandicoot. This could result in local extinctions of this species.

These are just some of the concerns VNPA highlighted in our submission to the Inquiry and Advisory Committee (IAC), appointed to consider the public consultation on the EES process, draft Planning Scheme Amendments and the Works Approval Application. IAC will advise the Victorian Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, who has ultimate responsibility for the final decision – if the project will go ahead, or not, at the state level.

With the coronavirus pandemic making it exceptionally challenging for many in the community to actively participate in the EES process (which coincided with Stage 3, and then Stage 4 restrictions), our collective groups wrote in to the Minister Wynne in April, July and August with a request to suspend the EES until restrictions eased. Unfortunately, the Minister refused our request.

Our request to extend the time of the public consultation from 30 to 40 days was granted, and we were grateful for the Minister allowing some flexibility.

Opportunities to highlight the failure of AGL’s environmental impact assessments to address the potential long-term, irreversible and ecosystem-wide damage to marine wildlife and wetland habitats is not yet over.

IAC will now be processing submissions, and from 12 October onwards will coordinate public hearings (a similar process to a VCAT process). VNPA and other groups will be putting forward our expert marine consultants to speak to the potential impacts on Westernport Bay’s important marine ecological values.

On conclusion of the public hearings, which can take up to ten weeks, IAC will deliver their report to Minister Wynne, and he will then make his assessment and final decision. There will be opportunities to share your voice with the Minister over the coming months, so stay tuned on how you can help preserve our precious Western Port Bay.

For now, it is worth celebrating the over 10,000 people – just between Environment Victoria, VNPA, Save Westernport and other local conservation groups alone – that responded to the EES and put in submissions. This reflects the strong opposition the Victorian community has to this project. Heartfelt thanks to everyone who voiced your concerns.


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