Environmental approval of the proposed development of a marina at Point Grey and the vociferous community opposition to the plan is a useful reminder of the risk developers face when the social licence to operate (SLO) is absent. The controversy might also expose some weaknesses of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) approvals process.
The Point Grey Marina Proposal
Tian An Australia was granted approval by the EPA for the proposed construction of an onshore marina (and associated boating infrastructure) and 3000 residential lots on the western side of the Point Grey peninsula. A key part of the proposed works is for the construction of a 2.5 km navigation channel across the Harvey Estuary from the proposed marina to the Dawesville Channel (http://www.epa.wa.gov.au/proposals/point-grey-marina). It is the dredging of this channel and the extent of the disturbance that is of primary concern to those in opposition of the proposal.
Ramsar Listed Wetland Development
Ramsar wetlands (named after the city in Iran where the convention was signed) are internationally recognised, representative, rare or unique wetlands, important for conserving biological diversity. The purpose of the Ramsar listing is to stop the worldwide loss of wetlands and to conserve those that remain through wise use and management.
The proposed Point Grey development is within the Ramsar listed Peel-Yalgorup Wetland System. This wetland system covers an area of 26,677 hectares and includes the Peel Inlet, Harvey Estuary, Lake McLarty System, Lake Mealup, a number of conservation reserves and Yalgorup National Park, incorporating ten lakes, including Lakes Clifton and Preston. This system is one of 66 designated Ramsar listed Wetlands of International Importance in Australia.
The EPA Ministerial Statement No. 906 published 1 August 2012, granted Tian An approval to proceed subject to particular conditions (https://www.epa.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/Ministerial_Statement/000906.pdf). Ministerial Statement No. 906 specifies that the channel is to disturb no more than 15.8 hectares. It requires Tian An to prepare and submit a Channel and Marina Management Monitoring Plan for estuary water and sediment quality prior to beginning construction. Dredging of the navigation and entrance channel is not permitted between 1 November and 30 April in any year, when the majority of migratory birds are present. A management plan to treat and dispose of sulfidic sediments dredged from the access channel was also a condition, along with land revegetation and rehabilitation as part of an environmental offset strategy.
According to Tian An’s website, their projects ‘…must incorporate the principles of sustainability.’ With the aim of ‘…ensuring we minimise the environmental impact of our developments…’.
Clearly, they and the EPA both feel that they stand behind their (website’s) words. Tian An’s proposal was re-examined by the EPA in 2018 at the request of Minister for Environment Hon. Stephen Dawson. The media release stated that the EPA were “… satisfied that the existing implementation conditions would continue to manage and mitigate impacts of the proposal.” (http://www.epa.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/MEDIA_STATEMENTS/PointGreyMS06082018.pdf)
There has since been increasingly vociferous opposition to the proposal from a number of prominent Peel stakeholders. Pretty much everyone who is anyone in the Peel region is against the proposal. They include:
- Peel-Harvey Catchment Council CEO Jane O’Malley
- Federal Canning MP Andrew Hastie
- State Labor MPs David Templeman and Robyn Clarke
- Liberal member for Dawesville Zak Kirkup
- Mandurah Mayor Rhys Williams
- City of Mandurah
- Shire of Murray
- Aboriginal Elders
Those opposed are primarily concerned with the dredging of the 2.5 km channel and the associated disturbance of sulfuric acid sediments on the estuary floor. Opponents claim that the disturbance of these sediments can potentially decimate that area of the estuary and have negative impacts throughout the Peel – Yalgorup System.
These claims are not unwarranted. It is well-known and well-established science. While undisturbed and under low oxygen conditions, acid sulfate sediments generally pose no risk to the environment. If disturbed however, in this case by excavation, iron sulphides (if present) will oxidise, likely releasing sulfuric acid that can trigger a myriad of impacts on the estuarine and surrounding environments such as acidification, excessive black ooze formation, increased fish and crustacean kills, increased mosquito breeding, proliferation of particular aquatic weeds, and odours. It can potentially make the area unusable and unlivable. However, according to the EPA, adverse water quality impacts from acid sulphate sediments are not expected based sediment analysis of the area.
The EPA specifies that Tian An must ensure that the proposal does not cause an unacceptable decline in estuary water and sediment quality. Sediment analysis aside, there does not seem to be any conditions in Ministerial Statement No. 906 for Tian An to mitigate the risk attributable to the disturbance of sulfidic sediments from the dredging activity itself. The monitoring condition imposed by the EPA is all well and good, but this is after the fact – a reactive approach. By the time the trigger levels are found to be exceeded and acidification in the inlet begins, it may be already too late.
Ms. O’Malley of the Peel-Harvey Catchment Council believes that the estuary is in poor health and that the development could further diminish it. She calls the development the “…single biggest threat to the estuary”; while Mandurah Mayor Rhys Williams called the area “…one of our most important environmental, social and economic assets in this region”.
Absence of Tian An’s Social Licence to Operate
Social licence to operate (SLO) is a term that describes how much community support a project, company or industry has in a region. The community acceptance of a project hinges on whether people think a project will bring about more environment and societal advantages than disadvantages. A company therefore needs to show authenticity and credibility for standing by their word and addressing community concerns with open dialogue and transparent communication. Stakeholder engagement is fundamental, and the earlier you start the better. It is unclear how Tian An valued their SLO, what steps to communicate with their stakeholders were undertaken and how the EPA would have directed them in this regard.
Weaknesses of Legislative Power and Process
This situation begs some questions:
- Did the EPA consider the Ramsar treaty for the ‘wise use and management of the wetland in their assessment and allow for any special precautionary treatment of the Ramsar listed Peel-Yalgorup ecological system?
- Were the views of the Peel Harvey Catchment Council and those of other stakeholders considered prior to the EPA making their assessment?
- How will (and can) the proposed dredging be sufficiently managed to reduce the likelihood of releasing sulfate sediments?
- Did the EPBC advise the proponent on their stakeholder obligations and were these properly evaluated in their assessment?
- Is the EPBC Act and the EPA failing in its mandate?
Answering these questions will require a lot more information. Possibly obtained via the application of a small amount of truth serum, coupled with some in-depth investigative journalism; neither of which I have any experience using.
The situation brings to mind a few articles in the June 2019 edition of the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) Bulletin June 2019 (https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/publications/bulletin2 ). These articles advocate for a comprehensive revamp of the EPBC Act. Some Deakin University academics have even called for the EPBC Act to be replaced completely and the creation of an independent National Environmental Commission to monitor effectiveness of environmental legislation and propose improvements. The EPBC Act is due for a 20 year review this month and it is clear that some changes are required to create more enforceable, apolitical and agile legislation.
Mandurah is nothing without a healthy and robust Peel – Yalgorup System; and the EPA is nothing without a healthy independence and robust scientific credibility.
The importance of a social licence to operate and its fundamental relationship to the environmental approvals process will be discussed in our upcoming Environmental Essentials Training to be held in November 7 & 8.