Port Melville approval overturned by Federal Court

Issue 
Melville Island — safe for now.

The Federal Court has overturned the federal government’s decision to allow a $180 million deep sea port on Melville Island near Darwin without an environmental assessment.

Approval of the Port Melville oil and gas marine supply base on the banks of the near pristine Apsley Strait was reversed on October 21 after legal action by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) on behalf of Environment Centre NT (ECNT).

The decision means the operation of the base at Port Melville now has no Commonwealth approval and all operations must cease.  

EDO’s principal lawyer David Morris said: “For our client it means an enormous victory in their attempts to protect the threatened species of the Tiwi Islands but also to ensure correct environment assessment processes are followed in the NT.”

The port is located 120 kilometres north of Darwin, on a deep sea channel between Melville and Bathurst Islands in an environmentally sensitive area. It started operating last year without any formal environmental approvals from either the NT or federal government.

Former federal environment minister Greg Hunt subsequently investigated the environmental impact of the port and concluded it could function without an assessment if it met 12 environmental conditions set by the Department for the Environment.

“The court decision shows that [Hunt's] decision was an invalid and unlawful decision,” Morris said.

ECNT convener Drew English said: “The ECNT could not be happier. This type of large scale development is exactly why we have environmental assessment processes, particularly when you consider the location of this supply base.

“Our hope is that today’s ruling serves as notice not just to this developer, but to government and other developers. The NT community expects companies to apply both the spirit and intent of environmental assessment laws from the very beginning.”

This important victory for the environment comes during National Bird Week. The Tiwi Islands are home to numerous threatened and migratory species, including dugongs, critically endangered shorebirds and threatened turtle species.

English was critical of the previous process under the Commonwealth laws. “The orders today make it clear that what was done was inadequate, and the NT community, and our environment, expect and deserve better.  

“These islands, like much of the NT, are important habitat for many species. They remain that way because the NT has avoided much of the damaging approach to development that has occurred down south. We’re not saying don’t develop, we are saying follow proper process.”

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