Environmental & Natural Resources Committee,
East Melbourne. VIC 3002
In responding to the invitation to make a submission to the Inquiry into the Environmental Effects Statement process in Victoria it is proposed to use as an example of a successful inquiry of an Environment Effects Statement – the Port Phillip Bay Channel Deepening Environmental Effects Statement 2004. The rigorous six weeks inquiry was conducted by an expert panel consisting of a skilled chairman and three members with years of scientific backgrounds and experience in marine and coastal management.
Vigorous questioning by the panel revealed that insufficient time had been allowed by the State Government’s Terms of Reference to enable the Port of Melbourne’s expert witnesses to complete their research into the complex dynamics of Port Phillip Bay. Although in one case tests and sampling of toxic material in the Yarra River had not been undertaken as required and some samples of toxic material had been lost. Finally the Panel Report contained 128 recommendations necessitating a Supplementary Environmental Effects Statement to ensure that issues not addressed or completed could be finalised.
In answer then to (a) any weaknesses in the current system including poor environmental outcomes, excessive costs and unnecessary delays encountered through the process and its mechanisms, in this instance the lengthy Panel Hearing 2004, despite considerable time and cost involved, resulted in a valuable research document into Bay Dynamics and marine life. Unfortunately the Supplementary EES was a very different format with a competent chairman but two panel members without a scientific or technical background. The Terms of Reference were designed to prevent any questioning of POMC expert witnesses. For example large rocks dislodged by the trial dredge at the Heads will continue to erode the floor of the shipping channel for the next thirty years thus increasing the depth of the channel and allowing greater volumes of water to enter the Bay. This large file of significant information and a similar file containing detailed information about toxic material from the Yarra River was delivered to the panel on the last day of the hearing leaving no time to hear the expert witnesses deliver his findings.
(b) Community and industry consultation under the Act.
The 2004 EES was remarkable in that community submitters were permitted to question expert witnesses. On occasions community members were able to provide panel members (and POMC) with relevant local knowledge e.g. fishermen, divers, local residents. On the final day of the 2004 EES panel hearing two of the panel members approached community submitters and expressed appreciation (and possibly surprise) at the information provided by these submitters. The community then has a valuable role to play and must not be excluded from an EES into major projects likely to impact on their environment and health.
(c) The independence of environmental effects examination when the government is the proponent.
This is a bone of contention when a proponent such as Port of Melbourne Authority (POMC) can afford to hire a Queen’s Councel at ($??) a day as in the case in many major government projects such as the Supplementary EES into channel dredging. Here the POMC’s Queen’s Counsel and legal team of 11 or 12 people sat silently for thirty days at considerable cost to the taxpayer. The community submitters were fortunate if pro-bono assistance was offered. When the government is the proponent then independence is indeed questionable.
The POMC QC, Jeremy Gobbo states in Submission in Reply for the Port of Melbourne Corporation p. 102 Expert Evidence 495.
“It must be obvious that an expert with an interest in the outcome is not independent.”
Perhaps being paid by the proponent may have something to do with the expert’s “interest”. And at Expert Evidence 497 the QC states,
“In stark contrast most of those put forward for opposing submitters were anything but independent. They appeared to be implacably opposed to the channel deepening project. Their evidence must therefore carry less weight.”
In the 2004 EES into channel deepening one independent expert witness was formerly with the CSIRO and director of the authoritative Port Phillip Bay Environmental Study 1996. The other was an expert in phytoplankton spatial distribution from Monash University. Both of these experts were critical aspects of the channel deepening project. It should come as no surprise that the public lacks confidence in the “independence” of environmental effects examination when the government is both the proponent of major projects and the paymaster of expert witnesses.
(d) How better environment outcomes can be achieved more quickly and predictably with a reduction in unnecessary costs.
Given the experience described above of the 2004 EES into channel dredging it is obvious that better environmental outcomes for a project of that magnitude could not be achieved more quickly and with reduced costs unless later governments are prepared to bear the cost of rectifying environmental damage arising form less rigorous research at the outset.
Assuming the “costs” referred to mean undemocratically removing community involvement and reduced opportunity for scrutiny by qualified individuals, expert in their field of research, quicker outcomes could results in incidents such as Brooklands Green Housing Estate in Cranbourne where EPA’s assessment of the landfill’s original works approval was inefficiently processed. Or the Lyndhurst hazardous waste dump where deformities in babies and cancer in a teenager are causing concern after residents have for years complains about leachates flowing from the tip (The Age, 25-3-2010)
During the EES panel hearing 2004 the Port Phillip Sea Pilots were highly indignant and greatly affronted when queried about their ability to pilot larger container vessels through the notoriously dangerous shipping channel at the Heads during high or gale in the Bay, December 13 2008 when the undersea ethane pipeline to Altona was ruptured leading to economic loss to the chemical company and million dollar costs to the shipping company – and perhaps a deflated ego for the pilots.
It is false economy to consider cutting costs and rushing a project without at times a lengthy environmental effects study. After all who will benefit from a rush to approve a project if not the developer? The community and their local councils will bitterly resent being undemocratically removed from the EES process which will be to the detriment of the environment and the health of the community.