Mixed response to Cockburn outer harbour plan

A proposed new outer harbour in Cockburn Sound will address high unemployment, according to the City of Kwinana, but there are concerns about environmental impacts.

Kwinana mayor Carol Adams said the $3.2 billion project, which would be constructed along Challenger Beach connecting the Kwinana industrial area with the Australian Marine Complex, was a “once in a lifetime opportunity to get this right for the state”.

“I am a mayor of a city which has generational unemployment at figures which are twice the state average,” she said.

“For our council not to do something, I think is negligent, so that is why we [the council] really need to come out and advocate … the need for an economic driver.”

Ms Adams said the nearby areas with high levels of unemployment would benefit from more than 40,000 jobs created by the project during its construction.

Earlier this month, a Senate inquiry into the controversial Perth Freight Link recommended the State Government withdraw its funding from the project.

The members of the inquiry unanimously supported Kwinana council’s outer harbour proposal as an alternative.

Kwinana Industrial Council president Chris Oughton said an outer harbour would raise WA’s competitiveness in the international marketplace.

“There is good transport infrastructure [in Kwinana] which is crucially important, that is the arteries to and from the port,” he said.

“Those arteries are clogged in Fremantle, hence the discussions about the Perth Freight Link.”

The City of Kwinana proposal estimates the port would generate $42 billion annually, and would be expected to be completed by 2035.

If the project is approved and funded by government, it would then have to pass Environmental Protection Authority assessments.

Ms Adams said Cockburn Sound was a beautiful and pristine piece of coastline that she would not like to see polluted.

“The EPA would just have to make sure that all the conditions are really quite strict,” she said.

Industries along Challenger Beach

Industries along Challenger Beach. Photo: Jonathon Daly.

WA Conservation Council director Piers Verstegen said the outer harbour was the preferred option for the environment, as opposed to the freight link which would cause “permanent destruction of our beautiful wetlands at Beeliar”.

But he expressed concerned about the reliability of the EPA to make assessments on future projects, after the Supreme Court challenged the EPA assessment of the Perth Freight Link in December last year.

“The Environment Minister has effectively stacked the EPA with a range of industry people who actually don’t have environmental credentials,” Mr Verstegen said.

“That needs to be fixed as soon as possible, so that people can have confidence again that our environmental regulator is actually protecting the environment.”

WA Environment Minister Albert Jacob said he had full confidence in the EPA Board.

“Attacks on the integrity of the highly skilled and professional board members are unjustified,” he said.

“The recent legal and governance review of the EPA’s policies and guidelines provides the community and industry with confidence that the Western Australian Government is committed to maintaining the highest standards of environmental impact assessment.”

A Department of Environmental Regulation spokesman said water quality in Cockburn Sound had improved over the past 30 years due to changes in industry practice and regulation, and there was no evidence to suggest industrial activity was having negative impacts.

But a 2014 report by the Cockburn Sound Management Council showed a significant downward trend in seagrass growth in the Sound.

Marine Biologist: Dr Mike Van Keulen

Marine biologist Dr Mike Van Keulen. Photo: Jonathon Daly.

Murdoch University marine biology lecturer Mike Van Keulen said the reason for this trend was not certain.

“There is evidence of Phytoplankton accumulation,” Dr Van Keulen said.

“That would suggest there are problems with nutrients coming into the Sound.

“It is incredibly unlikely to be a natural phenomenon.”

Phytoplankton are microscopic algae that multiply rapidly with excess nutrients causing algal blooms, and preventing light from reaching plants on the seafloor.

Dr Van Keulen said other contributing factors could include increased temperature, and residual nutrients released from the seafloor.

Mr Verstegen said the planned outer harbour would put more stress on the sensitive ecosystem of the Sound, already under pressure from a long history of industrial activity.

In November last year, 700 dead fish washed up on the beaches of the Sound, this was attributed to an algal bloom and high levels of Chaetoceros, a form of phytoplankton harmful to fish.

“Obviously we have got a changing global weather pattern and we have got higher temperatures, so that is conducive to algal blooms,” Mr Verstegen said.

“But you can’t have algal blooms without high levels of nutrients, and there are high levels of nutrients going into Cockburn Sound still, from industry, but also sewerage treatment and other nutrient inputs.

“This government has reduced resources for monitoring of Cockburn Sound, so we don’t have the monitoring systems in place to really understand how the system is working.”