08 December, 2007

ARTICLE: The bay plan's all dollars, no sense

Tracee Hutchison
The Age, December 8, 2007

For some time in Victoria it's been considered a given that on matters environmental the Government treats its citizens as idiots.

We host the fuel-burning Grand Prix. We nurse bucket-backs every summer, hauling grey water to our gardens while logging in water catchments continues. We prefer an energy-guzzling desalination plant on a pristine Gippsland coastline to water tanks and rebated grey water systems. And gouging a whopping crevice through a marine national park is considered a tremendously inspired idea.

But this week — as opponents of the dredging of Port Phillip Bay won the right to challenge the Government's channel deepening project in the Federal Court — took the enviro-cake. Environment Minister Gavin Jennings must have thought no one was listening when he said, apparently with a straight face, at the launch of the Two Bays environmental research into the health of Port Phillip and Western Port bays that water purity in the bay was being challenged by stormwater run-off and by increased salinity as the drought lessened the flow of fresh water in the bay.

This is the same state minister who recently signed off on the $763 million plan to dredge 22.9 million cubic metres of sediment from the bay's floor, stir up toxic sludge from the Yarra mouth, create 18 hectares of rock falls at the Heads, spawn algal blooms, damage crucial seagrasses and reduce fish stocks.

Could someone whisper to Minister Jennings that a little bit of stormwater and increased salinity won't be a patch on what his Government has in store for the bay if dredging goes ahead?

It is apparent the Government and the Port of Melbourne Corporation think they are dealing with a populace suffering collective amnesia. What else could explain the poker-face commentary surrounding Justice Mark Weinberg's decision to allow the Blue Wedges Coalition to fight them in the Federal Court?

The Dredges-R-Us mob shrieked about the $430,000 weekly fine (or $1.7 million if the fleet is already mobilised), they will face if dredging doesn't start on the date they decided on before the project was approved. Yes. That's right. The corporation began spending taxpayers' money contracting its dredging fleet before the Government approved it. And the Government, presumably, did nothing.

Why on earth does the corporation think it can hold the bay to ransom because of its arrogant assumption it would get its way?

As the chairman of the panel assessing the project, Dr Allan Hawke, said during the hearing, the corporation's decision to engage tenders in the unapproved project was done at its own commercial risk.

This should ring alarm bells for federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett in whom the ultimate fate of the bay is trusted and who must front the Federal Court in January to hear the Blue Wedges Coalition argue its case.

But this week the Yesterday's Men who have not caught on that the planet is buckling under the weight of nonsensical environmental destruction in the name of progress screamed It Wasn't Fair. The Blue Wedges Coalition was called "spoilers" by a chap in the Chamber of Commerce who didn't think clearly enough about his turbid choice of words. And the great mystery as to why there is such a rush to get this project moving continued to deepen.

Why, at a time the Port of Melbourne announces record container trade numbers through the port, is the corporation trying to persuade us that the port is at risk of becoming obsolete unless the shipping channel is deepened immediately?

Why, when the port has just comfortably docked the 77,000-tonne cruise ship Sun Princess, the biggest cruise ship ever based in Australia, do the Heads needs to be blown apart and channel deepened to bring in even bigger ships?

Why do the projected economic benefits — a paltry $2 billion to the national economy over 30 years — look increasingly flimsy? And why does it all keep pointing to the building of warships at Williamstown with Chinese steel?

What will it take for responsible custodianship of the planet to prevail? Dead penguins, starved of their anchovy feed, washed up on St Kilda beach? Dead fish rotting at Williamstown? A dead bottle-nosed dolphin beached off Sorrento?

This is precisely what we are talking about if the bay dredging goes ahead, and Garrett must ask for more time to consider the environmental implications of this idiotic project. It cannot go ahead.

Tracee Hutchison is a writer and broadcaster and Mornington Peninsula resident.

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