Port Phillip Dredging – Corporate Welfare and Environmental Vandalism

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Dredging ship, the Queen of the Netherlands. Photo from www.bluewedges.org

Melbourne has an asset that many of the world’s great cities must envy. It’s Port Phillip Bay, a 2000 square kilometre inlet teeming with marine life, despite 170 years of urban pollution. Fishing, tourism and recreation mean that the bay is one of Australia’s most economically productive bodies of water. Directly and indirectly, it generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year, including a $376 million marine tourism industry.  Other regions also depend on the waterway. For example, it is the sole winter feeding ground of the famous Phillip Island fairy penguin colonies, which themselves generate $96 million in tourist revenue. The 260 km coastline hosts several internationally protected sanctuaries for migrating birds.

But the bottom line for most residents of Melbourne and its sister city, Geelong, is that the bay provides clean, safe beaches, and cooling sea breezes on those characteristically scorching summer days.  Almost every single resident of the region will go boating, fishing or strolling along its beaches at least once every year.

All this is jeopardised by an expensive, stupid plan to transfer billions of dollars from taxpayers to the shareholders of the shipping and stevedoring duopoly. That is, of course, unless the growing public outrage can convince the pro-business government of Steve Bracks that the people of Port Phillip prefer their urban environment to the despatch of a few hundred more shipping containers each year. Because that’s all the proposed dredging of the main shipping channels will achieve. The benefits flow to a couple of big corporations. The deeper channels will benefit perhaps one or two “super-sized” ships per year. We, of course, are meant to cover the costs and live with the consequences. Dr Larry Cromwell, a marine engineering consultant sympathetic to the shipping industry puts it succinctly: “Nobody wants to end up with a second-rate port, but you don’t want to end up with a third-rate city because you killed the bay. You won’t be the world’s most liveable city ever again.”

Not worth it. Stripped of government spin, the dredging project is about digging up more than 40 million tonnes of sand, silt and rock from the bay and the Yarra River. Some of this material is highly toxic, laden with industrial waste from the heavy industries of the inner western suburbs. The first phase of the project will subject hundreds of thousands of bayside residents to industrial noise 24 hours a day, for at least two years. Removal of the underlying rock at the bay’s entrance — apart from the damage to the ecology — will involve even louder audible pollution. The official budget, which increases almost daily, is $577 million, but even pro-dredging economists concede it will cost more than twice that. In fact, the project will likely soar above $2 billion.

So what are the economic benefits of all this disruption? Testifying under oath at a panel investigating the project’s highly suspect Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), an economic expert hired by the Port of Melbourne Corporation (PoMC) admitted that it is “immeasurably minor.” He’s right. Over 25 years the dredging project will result in cost savings of $1.4 billion — all of which goes to the corporate sector. But even at today’s figures, trade through the Port of Melbourne is $60 billion each year. The arithmetic is easy. The saving per annum is less than $6 million. Without the deepening, Melbourne’s container throughput is predicted to quadruple over the next quarter century anyway. Leaving aside the ecological effects, this alone would mean that any responsible government would dismiss the project out of hand. It is a total waste of money.

Muddying the waters. In February 2005, a panel of independent experts released their findings about the EIS. According to the panel, “the environmental risk analysis in the EIS is not methodologically sound, lacks integration and requires further development.” Which is the closest thing you’ll read in a bureaucratic report to “the thing is shonky.” The project for which the EIS was commissioned is one of the largest exercises in environmental vandalism seen in Victoria since most of its forests were cleared in the first decades after white settlement. Yet despite the fact that the dredging risks similar devastation to the bay’s unique ecosystems, the state government is determined that the scheme will go ahead regardless.

The EIS panel found that the PoMC can’t tell us how long the waste will take to settle nor, more importantly, where the currents may carry it. What this means is that there is no guarantee that the seagrass beds, which form the foundation of the bay’s ecosystems, will not be effectively smothered through deprivation of sunlight. Kill the seagrass and you kill the bay. And this is not just in the sense of destroying its wildlife. Without the stabilising effect of the seagrass, coastal erosion would increase. Many of the beaches themselves would disappear.

The panel made it clear, in 21 pages of recommendations, that very basic aspects of the project had not been analysed. There was no attempt to document even the effect upon businesses which take water from the bay, in particular Newport power station. There was no thorough evaluation of the effects on the bay’s dolphin, seal and penguin populations. There was no study of the Yarra native fish populations, nor any consideration of the fact that the dredging itself may alter shipping channels in unpredictable ways.

In other words, the dredging could actually harm the shipping industry. Finally, the panel notes: “The viability of dredging The Heads provides the key to the viability of the project overall. Plans should be made to prove the concepts and technologies necessary to achieve this objective as a first step.” The technology to widen the bay entrance is untried, yet the whole project turns on broadening it. The dredging boils down to a costly, dangerous experiment. It must not be permitted to go ahead.

Dr Cromwell again: “In several instances, potentially catastrophic consequences had been labelled residual risks by the Port of Melbourne. That is an admission that those risks are not being managed…This is not good enough for a project of this size, complexity and vulnerability.”

On the bandwagon. One of the most annoying aspects of the dredging debate is the short-sighted support for the dredging by the shipping and transport unions. This is despite the fact that their members are footing the bill for the project and therefore lining the pockets of the likes of union buster Chris Corrigan, of Patrick Corporation. Otherwise militant leaders of the maritime and rail unions have publicly “got on board.” They’ve bought the government line that the Port of Melbourne and the state’s economy are in dire straits if the channels aren’t deepened. Well, respectfully, comrades, you’re wrong, and you risk tying the union movement to an environmental nightmare. The shipping industry is capital intensive — lots of big machines and relatively few workers. There’s no evidence that one more truck, train or crane driver will be employed if the project proceeds above the rate at which the port is estimated to expand with future demand. There is evidence, however, that thousands of workers in tourism could end up out of work, and millions of us could lose the priceless amenity of the bay itself. If the Forestry Division of the CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union), which infamously backed John Howard, is wrong in its false claim that preserving forests costs jobs, how is this any different? We are not going to win members by ignoring their urban environment, nor by standing by while their natural environment is decimated.

There are many alternatives. There is off-the-shelf navigational software which would allow 100% of the ships currently entering the bay to do so fully laden. According to the company which produces the program, it would take 14 weeks to install and cost $200,000 per year to maintain. That’s $2 billion saved for projects which benefit the welfare of workers, not bosses. Although there are constraints at both of Victoria’s deep water ports, Portland and Hastings, both could be upgraded to cater for the handful of very large ships that, by 2030, may visit Victoria each year. The advantage would be creation of jobs in disadvantaged regions, the upgrading of public transport, in the case of outer suburban Hastings, and zero threat to the bay.

However let’s tell the truth. Local union support for this project comes down to that most ridiculous offshoot of economic nationalism: regional parochialism. Australia already has natural deep water ports at Fremantle, Brisbane, Darwin and Sydney. The money proposed to be spent, most dubiously on dredging, could be put into a pool to modernise and extend the national rail network. It may just create a few jobs in other places. Meanwhile, the Port of Melbourne will still grow, jobs will be added and we will still be able to pull the odd fish out of the bay, to swim with the dolphins and simply enjoy living on the shores of one of the world’s most beautiful marine waterways.

The only world we have. When we have begun to build socialism in this country, ridiculous adventures such as this will be taken off the drawing board as soon as they’re proposed. Managing the economy means managing the environment. Besides, as the late astronomer Carl Sagan put it: “Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water.” Which is why saving the bay is a current issue for socialists and unionists in general. As Sagan continues: “Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.”

No dredging in Port Phillip Bay!

The best argument for unionists to be environmentalists may be that good planets are hard to find. Actually, come to think of it, that’s also the best argument for becoming a revolutionary socialist!

For more info, and to get involved in the campaign, visit the Blue Wedges Coalition: www.bluewedges.org If you’re a member of a transport, storage or manufacturing union, raise it with your State Secretary or at your next local meeting.

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