Thursday, 13 August 2009

Blue Wedges on watch - 1

Governments have a hard time weaniing their cities away from ports which have become more of a nuisance than a boon to their inhabitants. Botany Bay, the icon of white settlement, is polluted and ravished by a busy port. In Melbourne, we have the not-quite-landlocked Port Phillip Bay which many business people agree is not well situated. Blue Wedges soldiers on. When dredging was discussed for PPB that put up a valiant battle...but how can communities win against governments, even in a court of law.

So Blue Wedges continues to watch, to inform and to protest. Here is an update...

1. Not many ships, but plenty of dredges!

Bayside residents down south are getting mightily sick of the sight, noise and smell of two massive dredges and their support vessels grinding away day and night. The Bay is constantly buzzing with the jumbo-ised Queen of the Netherlands, the Cornelis Zanen and now a strange looking barge with crane has turned up, often being towed around by a Tug boat. Regular beach goers have noted they are now being subjected to lungs full of exhaust fumes, not fresh air on their morning walk on the beach – not surprising as the dredges are only two or three kilometres off shore.

It’s bad news for us 3 million people who live around the coastline of the Bay that recent overseas studies have shown that health risks of shipping pollution have been grossly underestimated. One study estimates that one giant container ship can emit almost the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as 50 million cars[1].

US academic research has shown that pollution from the world's 90,000 cargo ships leads to 60,000 deaths a year in the US alone and costs up to $330 billion per year in health costs from lung and heart diseases. Consequently, in April, the US government introduced a strict 230-mile buffer zone along the entire US coast. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates the buffer zone will save more than 8,000 lives a year with new air quality standards cutting sulphur in fuel by 98%, particulate matter by 85% and nitrogen oxide emissions by 80%.

A new Danish study adds to this picture. It suggests that shipping emissions cost the Danish health service almost £5 billion a year, mainly treating cancers and heart problems. A previous study estimated that 1,000 Danish people die prematurely each year because of shipping pollution.

You’ve got to be worried what our exposure to shipping pollution is, given shipping lanes are very close to the coastline in both the south and north of the Bay. Having two dredges working 24 hours a day so close to our shoreline only adds to the alarming health risk already posed by the shipping industry.

There’s plenty of talk too about the noise from the dredges, especially at night when the eerie sounds of the dredges hydraulics have been likened to the loading bay of a space ship being lowered and raised at close range. Certainly not conducive to a good nights sleep! Indeed, we’ve heard of one person who has had to move her bed to the rear of the house and take sleeping pills to get to sleep above the noise of the dredges.

Anyway, the ceaseless movement, noise and pollution from the dredges is about the only shipping activity being seen on the Bay since the “global financial crisis” hit….. We were pretty sure that less and less container ships are coming and going, and our observations were confirmed in a recent Age article, reporting that in order to save their jobs, Port of Melbourne wharfies have agreed to take extended leave in the face of falling container throughput at the port. But hang on - It’s not that long since the PoMC was telling us all, including the wharfies, that it was channel deepening that would save everybody’s jobs! See:

Now it seems channel deepening has become an unnecessary and bloody expensive side show. Surely there were more important things for government to spend $1billion on….A hospital or two? Schools? Improved public transport, preparing our coastline for climate change?

Amazing isn’t it that the PoMC and Mr. Brumby are getting away with talking rubbish with hardly a peep from the workers, or any of us for that matter? Maybe it’s all those $millions spent on advertising the “benefits” of channel deepening with the Brumby government’s favourite PR firm?

So….Mr. Brumby, what exactly was the great rush to do channel deepening?

2. Beaches on the slide

Because dredging has enlarged the Entrance, we now have more water flowing in and out of the Bay on every tide, and according to the PoMC, a 1 cm increase in tide heights. We guess PoMC is hoping the populace will think that 1 cm is nothing, and they have certainly been careful to avoid talking about the reality that 1 cm increase in water level means a lot more inundation on low lying land, where 1 cm increase in height can mean up to 1 metre inundation on flat land. (Bruun Rule). Along with mounting evidence that global warming is happening faster than predicted, there’s plenty of evidence that coastal erosion might be speeding up too …..and that it might have been sped up even more by the deliberate and swift increase in water levels inside the Bay imposed on us by Mr. Brumby’s channel deepening.

We have heard that since dredging the Entrance, the beacon at the surf break nearby took on a lean, and a couple of months back completely toppled over into the sea. And, beachgoers from Portsea to St. Kilda and around to Queenscliff are noticing significant changes in beach profiles, and what appears to be even more erosion than usual for this time of year

3. Dolphins in the Yarra and fish in the Bay?

The Age excitedly reported that dolphins had recently arrived in the Yarra to feast on bream. See:

Contrary to what one dolphin researcher claims in the Age article, other dolphin experts have told us dolphins in the Yarra might be cause for concern- not elation. River systems aren’t a healthy option for dolphins, and the fact that dolphins ventured into the Yarra indicates they were searching for food that would normally have been abundant in the Bay, but no longer is we are told.

It’s of note that Bream, taken as part of the channel deepening project’s requirement to test for contamination, were significantly smaller than average and the mullet also targeted for sampling, were simply missing from the system despite employing the best fishermen to locate and catch these fish.

Whilst some pockets of Port Phillip are still producing good fishing, it is not true for the entire system, and we are told that some fishing charter operators are currently selling their operations due to the downturn in fish stocks in the areas reasonably available to them

Reports, released by DPI Fisheries Victoria show a definite decline in the biomass of snapper within the bay since the trial dredging program which was conducted early in the 2005/2006 spawning season. Other species which rely heavily on the seagrass areas for shelter and food for their early life are also showing a decline whilst some fish higher in the food chain are showing a slight increase. We also know that the Anchovy first year age class has gone missing. Anchovy are a vital food source for many Bay species, including penguins and many larger fish.

The toxic dump we had to have?

There’s no escaping the fact that the toxic dump in the Bay is something which could never have been built on land. It is unregulated and unlicensed – whereas any toxic facility on land is strictly regulated. Queries about the integrity of the toxic dump and its bund walls have been met with bland assurances from the PoMC, Mr. Garrett and Office of Environmental Monitor that all is well.

But - to have us believe that material excavated by backhoe, trundled for miles on an old barge, and then discharged through an open 15 metre water column would arrive on the seabed still in a compacted stable state beggars belief. Common sense would say that the material excavated by bucket is still substantially disturbed once it hits the seabed.

In the construction industry; mechanically compacted material is not considered suitable for load bearing, so foundations must always be taken through to natural ground…... And that’s on dry land. We are however expected to believe that mechanically relocated wet material, dumped from a great height through the water, is considered to be immediately stable and suitable to withstand any disturbance.

All these news items beg the question:

Has it been worth the toxic dump

we now have FOREVER in the Bay?

[1] The Guardian UK. Thursday 9 April 2009


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