Sydney third runway — built on sand

Wednesday, November 20, 1991

By David Jagger

SYDNEY — The planned third runway at Kingsford Smith Airport rests on wet sand. Sand for reclamation is the main building material for the type of runway proposed. It is essential too in concrete for the airport expansion that will follow.

As early as November 1988, the NSW government approved sand exploration licences just outside the mouth of Botany Bay and south, off the coast of the Royal National Park. The explorer is Metromix Pty Ltd, jointly owned by Pioneer Concrete and CSR Ltd.

If their 40 million cubic metres of sand is scooped from the ocean, the two licence areas will be the first offshore sand mining in NSW, itself a cause of concern for environmentalist.

"They're very lucky aren't they, very fortunate", says Second Sydney Airport Coalition spokesperson Jane Weder. She can't think of a construction materials company better placed than Metromix to take advantage of major airport developments if the offshore sand mining goes ahead.

Margaret Barry of the Inner City Regional Council for Social Development says, "I wouldn't say it was sand that was driving the whole [third runway] thing, but along the way anyone that's looking to plan that operation needs to line up the resources to come on stream at the appropriate time".

John Dale of Residents Opposed to Runway Three says the coincidence of airport development and offshore sand mining plans "smacks of collusion".

John Dale sums up the mood: "I am concerned that here again we've got some sort of scurrilous behind the scenes operations going on. In the spirit of an EIS, this is just not consistent."

"The governments are on the coat-tails of certain parts of the private sector, and they're wrapping it up just as nicely as they can to enhance those other operations", says Margaret Barry.

Metromix denies that its offshore project is part of a fast-tracking to free sand to sell as runway fill. Marine studies manager John Hann says an EIS for the offshore leases will be ready in late 1992 — when the runway would be filled — but he expects mining would be delayed by a commission of inquiry. In any case, concrete, not fill, is the main reason for the Metromix offshore proposal, he said.

Both the Federal Airports Corporation and the state government want all sand for reclamation to come from within Botany Bay. The runway EIS supports this and says that enough sand can be dredged without damaging the bay foreshores.

SSAC's Jane Weder disagrees. "That's when you'll see Towra Point and Lady Robinsons Beach actually collapse into the Bay", she says. If large-scale damage looks imminent or there is a shortage of sand from the bay, the EIS suggests fill could be topped up by demolition

waste. This would be six times more expensive than offshore sand.

Total fill requirements conjure up images of a bottomless pit. A third runway would swallow 14.3 million cubic metres of sand. Sydney uses only 3.5 million cubic metres a year, mostly for construction, though at this rate the city's sand sources are rapidly diminishing.

SSAC believes runway fill estimates fail to take in to account two important safety considerations, says Jane Weder.

The first is outlined in Civil Aviation Authority submissions to cabinet in early 1989 and later to the EIS. The CAA recommended the calm waters that would be created by two runways protruding into the bay should be filled to discourage the bird life that is already a hazard to aircraft.

Weder says the advice was not fully presented to cabinet and the hazard not taken seriously by the EIS. "The CAA regarded it as being of such magnitude that they would not approve of the third runway proposal without filling in between the two runways and without filling towards Foreshore Road", she says. This would mean a further 10.7 million cubic metres of fill.

At least part of this must eventually go into the bay, says Weder, because there is not enough land at the airport for buildings to cater for increased passenger numbers.

FAC wants to shorten the airport's only east-west runway to release land. SSAC claims the full east-west runway is essential when strong winds across the north-south runway(s) prevent most aircraft from landing or taking off. This is a common problem for airports close to the sea.

Says Weder, " I don't believe FAC have come clean on what their ultimate proposal is for Sydney Airport. I think there is going to be massive expansion down there and it will include filling between the runways and relocation of terminals to the new land."

Passenger numbers are expected to jump from 16 million annually to 30 million by 2010, following a third runway.

Total concrete needs are difficult to estimate in this building bonanza. But the runway alone would use 25,000 cubic metres of concrete to help keep the sea at bay and to pave the landing strip.

Outside the airport, hotels, freight warehouses and road works are expected to proliferate in an area already splitting at the seams.

Metromix agrees the third runway would be an "extreme high", "a major injection of demand into the construction industry". Metromix sand may not be used as fill, but it may be used here. The company says, however, it is no better placed than other concreters to reap the benefits, just because it has identified close offshore sand sources. Yet unless it can mine these sources, Metromix may not be in the race at all. Its present major sand source at Kurnell, which supplies just under a third of Sydney's sand needs, runs out in mid-1993, just as airport developments are likely to be gearing up across the bay.

The Metromix offshore sites were identified by a state government survey of sources to replace Kurnell which culminated in 1986. After exploration approval in 1988, Metromix approached the NSW Maritime Services Board for a terminal to offload its marine sand.

Last year, MSB called tenders for a terminal site immediately east of the third runway site across the water. Metromix was a tenderer. But business development manager Graeme Varcoe now says the exact positioning is on hold, though it will be in Port Botany, in the north-east sector of the bay.

Metromix and MSB say a terminal in Port Botany is sensible because it would reduce Metromix transport costs, and hence cost to the consumers. MSB expects all ports to eventually be relocated to Botany Bay.

A marine sand terminal does not include a concrete plant, says John Hann, so Metromix sand would have to be blended with other ingredients elsewhere to make concrete. It would then lose any positional advantage, he says. Yet he agrees a concrete plant could be brought on site, as could the other ingredients by boat or rail to Port Botany.

Graeme Varcoe says, "Just because there's some concrete needed at the runway, doesn't mean we therefore have to take sand out of the sea and have a terminal there".

But if the third runway is built using Sydney's dwindling sand supply, it may be that simple.

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