The Port’s changing plans

Back in 2013, the Port released an Environment Impact Statement (EIS) on the Port of Townsville expansion plans.

townsville port expansion plan
The planned expansion in the 2013 EIS

It summarised the project as:

  • A new harbour (the outer harbour) enclosed within a new breakwater (north-eastern breakwater) and new reclamation area to the north-east of the existing port area.
  • Deepening of the existing channels, together with minor widening near the harbour entrance and extension at the seaward end of the existing Sea Channel by approximately 2.7 km.

Submissions from 435 organisations and individuals were received in response to the EIS by the cut-off dates for responses in May 2013.

And then there was silence.

Specifically, there was silence about the fact that, in April 2016, the Port made a request to the Federal government under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC), to vary the 2013 proposal. This was not mentioned by the Port (which claims ‘transparency’ in its dealings with its stakeholders), despite numerous requests over many months by NQCC staff to the responsible Port officer on the progress of the supplementary EIS.

In its letter requesting permission to vary the proposal, the Port stated no less than three times that the revised plan would result in ‘smaller direct footprint and reduced overall impact’. (Source: Statement of Reasons for decision to accept the Port’s variation to its original proposal, obtained by NQCC, December 2016.) The accompanying material provided by the Port referred to an increase in the duration of dredging and the widening of channel width, but gave no mention of the enormous extent to which both had been increased.

The Port’s request was accepted by the Federal Department of the Environment. In making this decision it appears to have taken into consideration only the material supplied by the Port in its request.

In November 2016 the AEIS was released for public comment. The new proposal was very different. In brief, the new design involved increasing:

  • capital (new) dredging from 9.9 to 11.4 million cubic metres
  • the dredging footprint, by 38 hectares
  • the reclaimed land for the Port from 100 to 152 hectares
  • the width of the access channels from 92 to between 120 and 180 metres
  • the duration of capital dredging from four to over TEN YEARS
  • annual maintenance dredging from an already massive 400,000 cubic metres to 450,000 cubic metres a year – forever.

The proposed extension of the channel was cut by 1.7 km – presumably after a whisper from someone that a 1.7 km incursion into the GBR Marine Park was not going to get a guernsey. However, decreasing the length meant that the proposed extent of deepening – always seen as a primary requirement – was not possible.

Key outcomes of the AEIS design refinement process. Source: AEIS.

So significant deepening was abandoned in favour of huge widening…

This was a complete reversal of comments in the EIS 1EIS, Section A, page 70:

“There is no apparent economic driver to use ships larger than Panamax size on any trade through the port in the foreseeable future, and it is proposed that the PEP be designed to accommodate the regular operation of large Panamax sized ships up to 70,000 to 85,000 DWT. The existing channels already handle ships of Panamax width, but will need to be deepened to accommodate the larger capacity (and therefore deeper draft) Panamax ships proposed for the new bulk trades. There is therefore no economic driver to widen until a particular trade (which cannot be forecast at present) is proposed that has a strong economic argument to use wider ships.”

One other major change was that, as a result of the ban on sea-dumping of capital dredge spoil, all the (increased amount of) capital dredge spoil was to be used to create port land. New port land reclaimed from the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area rose from 100 to 152 hectares.

This new design was presented in the AEIS as the new preferred option despite the AEIS (AEIS Section 29.2) noting that the earlier (EIS) plan “was found to provide the best balance of environmental impacts, economic efficiency and safety”.

References   [ + ]

1. EIS, Section A, page 70