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VIC

Sep 11, 2009

Measuring the fallout from the Port Phillip Bay dredging project

We are only just starting to see the fall out from the Port Phillip Bay Channel Deepening Project, writes Lionel Elmore.

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Last month the Victorian Government announced that the Port Phillip Bay Channel Deepening Project was ‘set for completion’ as the Queen of the Netherlands dredge sailed out of the bay.

Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun claimed that the project had gone through without a hitch and that the costs of the Environment Effects Statement and the two separate panel hearings into it were a result of unnecessary opposition to the project.

In reality the project is not over — and neither are its costs to taxpayers. There are at least two more years of dredging toxic Yarra River sediment to be dumped in the bay — spun as maintenance dredging.

The Port of Melbourne Corporation (PoMC) spent over $100 million on an Environment Effects Statement (EES) to overwhelm any opposition, subcontracting government scientists and consultants with generous consultancy fees that all but bought approval.

The first panel hearing took months simply due to the size of the EES — groups like the Blue Wedges Coalition and many dozens of individuals gave up hundreds of hours of their own time at their own cost to be heard.

The PoMC stuffed it up. The consultants were so sycophantic that when scrutinised by the Panel many of their paper thin assessments fell apart. This resulted in 137 recommendations to the government to ensure that this project did not wreck the Bay.

The PoMC had already pre-empted the hearings with the so-called ‘Trail Dredging’ starting before the recommendations were acted on or the second hearing began. The Blue Wedges Coalition took them to court over this — but were asked to put up a $35 million surety before the case could be heard — ending the challenge.

Having sacked the first panel and changed the rules to further nobble any critical assessment by the second appointed Panel, the project was approved with few conditions.

The Blue Wedges Coalition then took the Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett to court over his shoddy approval. His office claimed to have got through dozens of reports and millions of words in days. He even initially approved the project for the wrong bay! They lost again and the federal government is still suing Blue Wedges Coalition for costs.

Already there is record coastal erosion but only time will tell how unusual it is. Here are some pics of erosion from Port Arlington:

According to commercial fishermen if the impact of dredging is similar to that of the Geelong Arm, the fisheries may collapse when the dredging which attracts the fish to the myriad of invertebrates it kills ends — in another two years. Already the vast schools of anchovy that provided winter feeding for Phillip Island Penguins have all but disappeared, as Crikey reported earlier this year.

The worst feared impacts of Channel Deepening on the Phillip Island Penguin colony may be coming to pass. In January this year there was a 50% decline in penguin chicks hatched. Now the penguins are also raising smaller chicks — but the food shortage they are suffering from is attributed to “changing weather conditions caused by climate change.” There is no known testing for toxic chemicals in fish that people are catching and eating, or on the beaches they will be lying on.

There is now a Channel Deepening levy taxing all the goods coming in and out of the bay, mostly paid for by companies and consumers that could never have benefited from the project.

Worse still, the project looks like a bloody great economic white elephant according to Robert Gottliebsen writing for the Business Spectator in early August:

Melbourne spent close to a billion dollars deepening Port Phillip Bay to allow large ships in…there was a move to try and force Patrick off its long-term car terminal lease with the objective of putting in another container berth for a third operator.

The game is all set for many years of battle in the courts and so Melbourne will have wasted its money, because the number of large ships that the births can handle will be limited until those battles are concluded.

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