By Anne Heath Mennell
I have lived in the Bass Coast shire for almost twenty years and hope to live out my life here. I objected to the proposal when it was being considered by Council and I am involved in this Panel process as an individual who is concerned about the ongoing destruction of native vegetation and the resulting loss of biodiversity and habitat for wildlife and the loss of amenity and beauty for human communities.
I live about three kilometres from Grantville, as the crow flies, but did not receive one of the letters distributed in the community by the proponent. I mention this as it demonstrates a view that the area likely to bear the impact of the proposal is limited to the immediate vicinity, in Grantville. This view ignores the fact that the proposal would adversely affect a much wider area, including the Western Port ecosystem.
I first became aware of the proposal when I saw a notice in the South Gippsland Sentinel Times, inviting submissions, with a closing date two weeks later. No community meetings could be held due to the pandemic so discussions and information sharing had to take place online. It is indicative of community concern that 72 objections were received by Council before the deadline. These have been made available to the Panel and hope that the community concerns will be considered by Panel members in their deliberations.
The matter was on the agenda for discussion at the February meeting of Council. The Report by council officers was available online four days before the meeting. It unexpectedly recommended that the proposal be accepted by Council. The community had four days, including a weekend, to lobby Council before the meeting. A couple of councillors worked tirelessly to produce a detailed motion to guide Council’s response. This motion was passed unanimously. And then we were advised that the Minister had called in the proposal, on 22 November 2020 (before all the objections had been received) at the request of the proponent and the process was no longer in the hands of Council.
At this point I knew we were in trouble. Neither Council nor the community has the power, influence, expertise or resources to match a developer with deep pockets to fund expensive legal advice and hire a raft of experts, paid to spruik their case, regardless of local interests. Council and the community are also powerless against government departments, authorities and instrumentalities such as Melbourne Water, Southern Water and VicRoads which had already approved aspects of the proposal, with relatively minor conditions.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to assist the Panel in their deliberations. If this proposal had been made after the SERA provisions had been endorsed, neither Council nor the community would have had any awareness of these plans and there would have been no requirement for any kind of consultation or consideration of community concerns. The proponent could have legally gone ahead, regardless.
All over our country, people are working hard to protect and try to restore landscapes and habitats, to defend trees, other plants and wildlife and to ensure diversity and survival of all lifeforms. At the same time, other people are doing their best to destroy the same things.
In South Australia, indigenous people are trying to protect vital mound springs, which are at risk from large-scale water extraction from the Great Artesian Basin by the Olympic Dam copper, gold and uranium mine near Roxby Downs.
Here in Victoria, people are fighting to preserve from rampant development the last 1% of critically endangered remnant grasslands west of Melbourne. These native grasslands are home to several critically endangered animals and plants and were meant to be protected by a series of reserves, which have yet to be established by the state government.
In Drouin, on the Princes highway development corridor, people are fighting hard to protect mature trees from extensive development. Trees which are listed on Protection Registers continue to be felled, when small changes in design could have reduced or prevented their destruction. Local authorities appear unable to offer any protection for the remaining trees.
On the Mornington Peninsula, people are opposing the opening of a new quarry on 38 hectares of the Peninsula’s last remnant, old growth bushland, which provides habitat and a critical wildlife corridor. They are calling for ‘environmental stewardship’ so that the area can be a legacy for future generations and argue that ‘there are better places for Victoria to source granite that will not necessitate the destruction of bushland.’
Despite their area being declared a DAL, residents near Torquay are currently fighting inappropriate development which would have a negative impact on a local creek.
There are many other examples. They may not seem relevant to the work of this Panel (although the situation on the Mornington Peninsula is very similar.) I mention them because it gives some context to our efforts to protect our local area. Such efforts are necessary because so much of our native landscape is under pressure and the current planning regime is not protecting our environment effectively. Politics and profit seem to win every time over the environment with the result that our precious remnant landscapes are disappearing rapidly – the archetypal death by a thousand cuts. The proposal before the Panel may seem a relatively minor issue but, if allowed to go ahead, it will destroy a bio-link which is impossible to replace and will adversely affect the vulnerable lifeforms currently surviving there.
Recently, the Legislative Council’s Environment and Planning Committee has held two Inquiries. The first looked into the decline of Victoria’s ecosystems and measures to restore habitats and populations of threatened and endangered species. The other looked at the environmental infrastructure needed as Victoria grows and considered community access to parks and open space, sporting fields, forest and bushland, wildlife corridors and waterways. (My emphases) I made submissions to both Inquiries and listened in to the public hearings. It was quite clear that, post-pandemic, the community needs better access to more green spaces. It was also clear that eco-systems are declining because of continued land clearing for development of various kinds.
It was very clear from the hearings that the ‘offset’ system of planting some vegetation somewhere to ‘replace’ vegetation destroyed somewhere else has been unsuccessful. Mr Organ’s report, suggesting that ‘the proposed removal of native vegetation can be adequately offset’ (my emphasis) must be viewed cautiously, along with his assertion that ‘salvage and relocation’ of species is a feasible option. I suggest that these statements may not prove successful if implemented, especially as the main rehabilitation efforts will only take place when the quarry is exhausted, in 30+ years from now. I’m not clear what the existing flora and fauna are meant to do in the meantime. The offset system may work for governments and developers but it does not work to the benefit of the environment. It was also very clear that the balance of decision-making and planning by government needs to change if what remains of our natural environment is to be conserved.
DELWP recently requested community submissions to a strategic planning process for Melbourne’s green wedges, agricultural land and peri-urban areas. Feedback was sought on:
‘options to reform the planning system to deliver lasting protection of Melbourne’s agricultural land and guide decision making in our green wedges’.
Bass Coast is now a peri-urban area as well as being mainly agricultural land. As you have already heard, it has also been declared a Distinctive Area Landscape, which we hoped would provide an extra level of protection for our distinctive environment. Unfortunately, the DAL specifically excludes protection from sand-mining, so we are left to hope that the planning system will be reformed in the very near future to deliver the ‘lasting protection’ we need to prevent further extensive destruction from future sand-mines and inappropriate development in our area.
Helping Victoria to Grow- The Extractive Resources Strategy 2018
This strategy was developed to ensure that high quality extractive resources continue to be available at a competitive price to support Victoria’s growth.
Two of the objectives of this Strategy are to,
‘Encourage and support innovation in exploration, extraction and the end use of landforms after quarrying.’ And to,
‘Encourage leading-practice approaches to sustainability, environmental management and community engagement.’
In terms of this proposal, and particularly in respect to the bio-link, I do not consider that it demonstrates ‘leading practice’. I hope the Panel will ‘encourage’ the proponent to ‘innovate’ and improve its plans.
The Strategy sets out priority actions to implement, through the following six themes:
• Resource and land use planning
• Transport and local infrastructure planning
• Efficient regulation
• Environmental sustainability
• Innovative sector
As a member of the community I do not feel confident about the implementation of the Strategy, especially in terms of environmental sustainability.
As part of implementing the priority actions in the Strategy, the Joint Ministerial Statement- Extractive Resources - Rock Solid Foundations for Victoria’s Growth, was released in 2018.
It implements six priority actions of the Extractive Resources Strategy by committing to the following:
1. Streamline approval processes to expand production – which means eliminating consultation.
2. Protect the continuity of supply - by expanding and opening new sites.
3. Apply the agent of change principle to quarries – meaning?
4. Provide better guidance to industry and local government – by reducing local government’s role.
5. Identify and protect extractive resources of strategic importance – lock them up.
6. Reduce the environmental impact of quarrying and deliver landscapes for the community.
In terms of Point 6, I cannot see how this proposed expansion ‘reduces the environmental impact of quarrying’. I’m not sure what ‘landscapes for the community means’ but I suspect it means that, after 30+ years of quarrying, the enormous hole will be filled with water for human use and bike tracks constructed for human use etc. As a current member of the community I would prefer that at least some of the landscape, especially the bio-link, be retained in its current state for the continued use of the existing diverse flora and fauna to use as habitat and green space which humans can share.
Strategic Extractive Resources Areas (SERA) Pilot Project 2020.
The Victorian Government Overview of this pilot project describes its aims as being,
‘ to ensure quarries can supply raw materials well into the future while avoiding land use conflicts. The project will trial the establishment of SERAs that will define the locations of strategic state resources while considering other existing land uses, environmental assets and community interests’. (My emphasis).
The project elevates the importance of extractive resources at the expense of the natural environment, landholders such as farmers and traditional custodians, activities such as tourism and other key planning considerations. Areas with high biodiversity value have been included within the proposed SERA boundaries in Southern Gippsland.
There will no longer be any requirement for public notification and participation so local communities will be excluded from the planning process. Local Government input would be severely restricted. Coverage of the proposed overlay would not only apply to existing resource sites, but also to future expansion and buffer zones. This prioritises planning for extraction sites above all other potential uses and weakens existing planning processes which provide some protection for sensitive sites.
Planning controls should be robust, comprehensive, consultative and transparent. The extractive industry should be planning ahead to allow time for necessary resources to come on line after thorough consideration of each proposal for development or expansion. Where proposals are in competition with other uses there should be a process of careful assessment which could result in re-negotiation or compromise to resolve or minimise conflict.
The implications of the SERA plans for the project under consideration are clear. This Panel hearing would not be taking place and people with legitimate concerns would not be heard.
Council is trying to do its job of managing its jurisdiction and supporting community wishes but without the resources to do so effectively. If Council had monitored and ensured compliance and if the applicant had undertaken the required re-vegetation as agreed, then we might not be in this situation. Vegetation could be well established and provide a possible alternative to the last remaining bio-link on the site, which will be completely destroyed. If Councils do not have the resources to monitor and effectively regulate planning within their jurisdictions then people know they can ignore or evade conditions, with little chance of sanctions or consequences. Given the applicant’s track record at this site, this should be a major concern. Instead of sanctions, they will be rewarded with the removal of existing conditions and expansion of their business and, presumably, profits.
Council’s attempts to protect the local environment are demonstrated in its policies and resolutions, including the Biodiversity Bio-links Strategy 2018, Climate Change Action Plan, 2020, Marine & Coastal Plan, and the two motions that spell out multiple community concerns around the expansion of quarrying between Lang Lang and Grantville, unanimously supported in December, 2020. None of these strategies and plans is, as yet, included in the local Planning Scheme and therefore will not be considered in this process. Councils are required to comply with laws and regulations but this is a technicality, ignoring the intentions of Council. If these strategies had already been incorporated it could have strengthened Council’s case, although it might still not have ensured a good outcome. This situation demonstrates major flaws in the current legalistic approval processes which are weighted against Councils and community interests. Councils should have the powers and the resources to manage their particular area effectively.
Council’s submissions to the Panel originate from a motion passed unanimously at a Council meeting. The submissions recognise the reality that council’s powers are limited and confined to requiring various conditions to be applied before approval is granted. If the application is approved, I would support Council’s conditions and its reservations expressed at the end of its Part B submission, but with the proviso that the agreements and conditions are regularly and rigorously monitored, with meaningful milestones. The responsible bodies should have the resources needed to ensure compliance. There should be no loopholes, no ‘misunderstandings’, no evasion, no delays. There should be strong penalties, for non-compliance.
I also support Council’s call for a Community Benefit scheme to be established. This area has already been plundered for the benefit of Melbourne. In the 19th century, the hills were denuded and the timber shipped across Western Port to build the city. In the 20th century, the seagrass in Western Port was harvested almost to extinction for use in the city. In this century, it is sand and gravel, taken from under the remnant woodland and productive agricultural land. Very little benefit seems to accrue from these activities which, in reality, reduce the amenity and attractiveness of the area to residents and visitors. In Bass Coast Shire our environment is the local economy. If this proposal is approved, some form of compensation must be provided to help mitigate some of adverse impacts.
I understand that the State Government wants to secure sand and gravel supplies to assist in the post-covid economic recovery of Melbourne. Considering that rampant development, infrastructure projects and extraction are among the major causes of environmental, landscape, eco-system and habitat destruction, I hope that the government is also exploring other ways to improve our economic situation, given the economy seems to be recovering better than expected.
I also hope that the government is urgently investigating new construction methods and researching the use of new and recycled materials other than concrete to reduce demand for the finite earth resources and the damaging emissions involved in its production.
In Mr Manning’s report he indicated that, if the proposal was rejected, demand would be diverted to South Gippsland and Cardinia. This suggests that alternative supplies are nearby at sites which are actually closer to Melbourne than Grantville, presumably reducing costs.
I have a number of concerns about various aspects of this proposal, especially the plan to mine under the water table, but I do not have the detailed knowledge to be able to comment on them so I am focusing on the bio-link.
This relatively small area will be completely destroyed to open a new pit in order to access the coarse sand directly underneath the existing vegetation. This is to replace supplies which are currently being ‘purchased and imported from external sources’. Mr Organ, in his evidence, was candid that the area could not be replicated after extraction has occurred and that any revegetation could take a century or more, for trees especially, to provide habitat. Sections of land like this are complex ecosystems in their own right and cannot be ‘offset’ in any other location. Once disturbed, re-vegetation might be possible but can never replace the original eco-system which has evolved naturally over time. Information provided by Bass Coast Landcare Network illustrates the difficulties involved in replanting and reseeding efforts, the time taken to achieve and sustain growth in disturbed areas and the financial costs involved. It may prove more cost effective to retain the biolink and source coarse sand elsewhere. BCLN also noted ‘a high number of wallabies in the surrounding bush’ which were browsing on the revegetation sites, presumably because their existing habitat is already under pressure.
There has been some discussion in Panel hearings of ‘significant’ or ‘trigger’ fauna and flora and whether there is evidence that they exist in the area and would use the bio-link. I cannot say whether there are significant species such as koalas or bandicoots but I am sure that there would be a huge number and variety of other mammals, marsupials, birds, bats, invertebrates, amphibians, insects, fungi, lichen, plants, bacteria, mycorrhiza – all of which have their part to play in a healthy eco-system. Remove even one and the balance will be disturbed, usually not for the better. We still have little understanding of the complexities of these relationships so have little hope of being able to ‘restore’ them. If this bio-link is destroyed, it will basically stay destroyed and will destroy or damage all the other life-forms which depend on what currently exists.
Many people think that birds can survive in such situations but that is not always the case. Some bird species in the Gurdies Reserve are never seen in Tenby Point because they are unwilling to fly across open water and paddocks, finding it safer in wooded areas. Other species trying to cross open country would also be at greater danger of predation. There are those who think that it doesn’t really matter if a small stand of trees is felled, or roadside vegetation removed, for a road-widening scheme. However, this is happening all the time, all over the state. The loss of even a small area of remnant vegetation can and does have significant consequences for species survival, whether plant or animal.
So, the area of the bio-link may be relatively small but it is vitally important, both now and in the future. There are plans to protect and consolidate the increasingly rare coastal woodland pockets which survive along the eastern shore of Western Port from Lang Lang/Nyora to the south of Grantville. Coastal woodlands were badly damaged by the firestorms in East Gippsland in 2019/20. Bass Coast has very little of this landscape left. The long-term dream is for a national park or something similar which would protect and showcase our endangered landscape. The survival of this small biolink corridor is vital to this dream.
Given the value of the link, would the proponent consider not opening the coarse sand pit? Given that it is already ‘purchasing and importing coarse sand from external sources’, could this not continue? Would the government be willing to compensate the proponent for leaving the coarse sand in the ground? Alternatively, would the State Government consider acquiring the resources from elsewhere, even if it costs more, in other words be willing to pay the true cost of this resource?
If neither is willing to compromise, would they consider delaying the opening of the pit for 10-20 years, given that the current site is due to be active for 30 years? If there is already a supply pipeline in place, there should be no urgency to destroy the bio-link immediately. A deferment would allow some form of re-vegetation to be undertaken and to establish successfully and mature to a useful state before the existing link is destroyed. So much land in the local area is already being mined or marked out for mining in the future, surely it is possible, with some goodwill on the part of the proponent and government, to leave the biolink intact.
The State Government has identified sand and gravel as strategic resources. Legislation, regulation and strategic plans and schemes support the extractive industry at the expense of the natural environment. The applicant wishes to take advantage of this situation to expand and increase profits. This should not be at the expense of the Bass Coast area, devastating the landscape which draws visitors from around the country and internationally. Bass Coast, soon to be formally declared a Distinctive Area Landscape, should not be ‘distinctive’ because it has become a moonscape of enormous, deep holes, as graphically shown in the map of existing leases and areas of interest.
In this David and Goliath scenario, Council and the community are reduced to having to beg for this proposaI to be refused or even amended. If it is not possible for the Panel to find grounds to reject the proposal, I implore Panel members to work with the proponent to find ways to reduce the impacts on the natural vegetation, particularly the area of the bio-link. I urge the proponent to work with the Panel in a spirit of generosity and goodwill to reduce the impacts for the benefit of the community and the natural world on which we all depend.
The whole issue of sand mining in this area should be investigated and involve a comprehensive impact assessment which considers cumulative impacts on the environment. These proposals should not be judged in isolation. Some sand mining is inevitable but the long term impacts, sequencing and restoration obligations should ensure that short term impacts are minimised and future prospects for the natural landscape are enriched.
I hope solutions can be found and will form part of the Panel’s recommendations to the Minister. I also hope that the Minister will exercise environmental stewardship by considering the big picture, applying precautionary principles and being willing to make a difficult decision.
The future is in your hands.
Thank you for taking the time to read this supplementary submission.