That rumble you can hear in the background? That’s the sounds of the Queen of the Netherlands dredging up the floor of Port Phillip Bay. Or is it the sound of the vault door closing as the Port of Melbourne Corporation stops hemorrhaging money to the contractor in fines for the delayed start to the project?

Either way, in the Federal Court on Wednesday Justice North forced the Blue Wedges Coalition to accept “some dredging” as a “legal compromise”.

Yet at an earlier hearing, Justice North agreed with the Blue Wedges Coalition that Minister Garrett had a case to answer regarding the challenge to his approval of the project. Blue Wedges claimed that Garrett’s decision was unsafe, after taking only three days, from 17 to 20 December 2007, to consider 50,000 pages of information before he approved the project.

Garrett approved the Management Plan on Tuesday (5/2), but left it to the PoMC as to whether they would release it. The Blue Wedges Coalition headed to the Federal Court and Justice North ordered the Federal Environment Minister, the PoMC and the Blue Wedges Coalition into mediation. This gave the Blue Wedges lawyers the distinct impression that he would look upon their case “less favourably” if they did not reach a compromise.

It should be remembered that it was the PoMC that contracted the dredge before it had final approval for a project and has used this cost to the taxpayer to add pressure to commence dredging.

The Blue Wedges Coalition surprised everyone and negotiated a very hard deal, limiting the PoMC to little more than maintenance dredging. The PoMC gave an undertaking to the court that it would not commence work dredging the toxic sediment at the mouth of the Yarra River and constructing the 500 hectare toxic waste dump in the bay and the rest of the project as planned before the hearing.

Tactically, if Blue Wedges had stonewalled as it was expected to, the case would effectively be brought forward with the court hearing as a matter for an injunction. By agreeing to a compromise Blue Wedges has given itself and the court time to properly consider that matter.

Whether or not there are further delays to the project, the actual start of dredging work today is a key moment in the life of this project, both practically and symbolically. And not least because it means the PoMC can stop shelling out $250,000 a day in fines to the dredging contractor, Boskalis.

It should also be remembered that over the Easter holiday season there are hundreds of thousands of visitors to the south end of the Bay. They will see the impact of dredging first hand, but who will be monitoring the dredging? The limited dredging now underway off the popular Peninsula swimming beaches will surely generate further opposition.

When the political obituaries for Peter Garrett and John Brumby are finally written, it will be fascinating to see how prominently this project features.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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