Channel Deepening Threat Intensifies

By David King

July – Victoria, Australia.

The State Government has welcomed an Environmental Effects Statement (EES) listing 129 ‘extreme’ or ‘serious’ threats to the environment and marine ecosystem if the proposed $500 million-plus channel deepening project goes ahead in Port Phillip Bay.

A further 54 ‘moderate’ threats to the environment and ecosystem were also identified in the statement.

The State Government indicated to various media sources it believes this is an acceptable margin within which to commence the operation.

The Channel Deepening Project involves dredging about 32 million cubic metres of sand, silt and rock (down from a previous estimate of 40 million cubic metres) from the seabed around the heads of Port Phillip Bay.

With reefs, wrecks, kelp forests, sponge gardens, seagrass beds, and a huge variety of marine life, the area is regarded as a temperate water equivalent to anything offered by the Great Barrier Reef.

The Dive Industry of Victoria Association (DIVA) expressed deep concern over the channel deepening project, declaring it would have a negative impact on the dive and marine eco-tourism industries and the marine life on which they depend.

Reporting on an earlier draft of the EES, CSIRO Fellow Dr Graham Harris wrote that dredging could disturb microbes living in the bay floor which process thousands of tonnes of nitrogen dumped in the bay each year. This nitrogen comes from stormwater, urban pollution, and half of Melbourne’s treated sewage.

If the microbes were disturbed by dredging and unable to de-nitrify the nitrogen loads, the bay could become a toxic dump. The CSIRO therefore recommended that activities such as dredging be kept to an absolute minimum.

Frank Hart, retired Harbour Master of Western Port and Hastings, also compared large ships entering Port Phillip Bay to ‘the camel and the eye of the needle’ and warned of the increased risk of ships running aground in foul; weather or poor visibility.

Members of the Blue Wedge Coalition have been holding public meetings and contacting local newspapers to make the community more aware of the issue.

David Bryant, underwater photographer and owner-operator of Seapics, was also believed to be striving to get Victorian premier Steve Bracks underwater so he could see for himself the diversity of marine life which would be threatened by the Channel Deepening Project.

Jenny Warfe, Blue Wedge Coalition coordinator said the Project was ‘a 19th Century answer to a 21st Century problem’ and called on the State Government to let large container ships to go to existing deep water ports in Darwin or Brisbane and to upgrade rail links between these cities and Melbourne rather than digging a bigger hole.

But the Victorian Government has let it be known they are in strong favour of the Channel Deepening Project and appears to believe the latest EES shows it can be done in an environmentally acceptable way.

It is now up to the public to have their say on the Environmental Effects Statement. However, Melissa Fyfe reported in The Age, that this could be difficult for the document is couched in the terminolgy of risk assessment and is not easily understandable to the average person.

But if 129 ‘extreme’ and ‘serious” threats to the environment and marine ecosystem are considered acceptable by the State Government, there appears to be little hope for the pristine underwater wilderness divers have known and loved until now.

© Copyright 2004

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