Federal Court to hear dredging protest bid

February 1, 2008

The campaign to stop the dredging of a new shipping channel in Port Phillip Bay had a partial victory on January 30 when a Federal Court judge ruled that the Blue Wedges environmental cCoalition must be given at least 24 hours' notice of any plan to begin work on the $969 million project.

Justice Tony North set February 20 to hear the environmental group's claim that federal environment minister Peter Garrett had failed to comply with the law or improperly exercised his powers in approving the project on December 20.

An similar attempt by Blue Wedges two weeks' earlier to have Garrett's approval of the project ruled invalid was rejected by a different Federal Court judge.

Victorian Labor Premier John Brumby's government plans to have
23 million cubic metres dredged so that larger container ships can dock in Port Melbourne. The dredging operation would involve the digging up of toxic sediment and its release into the bay's waters.

Lawyers for Blue Wedges submitted an affidavit to Justice North arguing that the project will have an effect on sea levels, which means that federal climate change minister Penny Wong should have been involved in the approval process.
It also argued that Garrett could not possibly have absorbed the 50,000 pages of material submitted to him on the project's environmental impact in two days and couldn't have given it proper consideration. He had "predetermined" his decision, the affidavit stated.

Dredging was diu to commence on February 1, following Garrett's expected signing of the project's environmental management plan. However, Australian Associated Press reported on January 31 that Garret had only received the EMP that afternoon.

Garrett's office told AAP that he could only approve the EMP if he was satisfied that all of the 16 environmental conditions he set down set in December will be met.

These latest developments have occurred in the context of mounting public pressure on the Brumby government to abandon the dredging project.

An organising meeting of 60 people was held in St Kilda on January 22. Protests against the project were held in Elwood and Mount Martha on January 26. Hundreds of protesters met the major dredging ship, the Queen of Netherlands, as it arrived in the bay on January 29.

Pressure on Brumby has also come from some business executives, including billionaire trucking magnate Lindsay Fox, who told the January 20 Melbourne Age that dredging project was "stupid". Fox said that using rail from Western Port Bay would be a better long-term option than massively increasing truck traffic from a port so close to Melbourne's CBD.

Environmentalists are particularly concerned about the effect dredging will have on Port Phillip Bay's diverse ecosystem and wildlife. Ninety per cent of the marine species the bay occur nowhere else in the world and many have never been fully studied.

Blue Wedges' lawyer Michael Morehead told the Federal Court on January 10 the original report on the dredging project, presented to the federal government in 2002, had made no reference to the disposal of toxic sediment in the bay or a plume that would extend 8.33 kilometres into Bass Strait and a national marine park.

The latest assessment report, made last year, had outlined plans to create huge new spoil grounds within the bay, with up to 3 million tonnes of contaminated sediment being moved from the Yarra River bed, some of which will be highly toxic. Morehead referred to an analysis by Monash University ecologist Simon Roberts, who compared the two reports and concluded the dredging project in its current form was "significantly larger in area, volume, depth and its likely impact" than the original proposed in 2002.

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