port-looms-as-key-election-issueA lone rusty tanker visible from Cowes jetty acts as an ominous sign to Port of Hastings opponents, who fear many more ships will spoil the coastal view if the container expansion across the bay becomes a reality. Photo: Lisa Schonberg.

WITH just over a month until Victorians go to the polls, the hottest issue in the Bass electorate isn’t roads, health or education – it’s the looming shadow of the Port of Hastings, a project many fear spells doom for Western Port as we know it.
With the project officially declared under the Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act back in May, the Port of Hastings Development Authority (PHDA) continues to move full steam ahead with its own marine and land-based environmental studies, promising a detailed business case in three or more years.
The Coalition Government invested $110 million in the project in 2012, identifying Hastings as the preferred site for what will be Victoria’s second container port.
Labor, on the other hand, is touting a Bay West option (between Geelong and Werribee).
While both major parties argue over locations, the two other election candidates for Bass, independent Clare Le Serve and Greens candidate Ross Fairhurst, are both against a proposed expansion at Hastings, citing environmental impacts as their main concerns.
At times, the local community has appeared disinterested in the issue, with less than a dozen people attending a PHDA information session at Grantville recently, and only between 20 and 25 people at a similar gathering in Cowes.
Any sense of apathy from the community has been offset, though, by attendance at events organised by Preserve Western Port (PWP) Action Group – the campaign collective formed last March.
Around 130 concerned locals ventured to a church hall in Cowes just this past Saturday night to hear talks from experts not only on the potential environmental impact the expansion at Hastings could have on the entirety of Western Port, but also how the logistics don’t add up.
Asked why people may be opting to avoid information sessions conducted by the PHDA – the authority that, essentially, can provide the most detailed technical information – PWP chairman, Jeff Nottle, says locals are looking for better answers.
“I like to think people don’t want to go listen to the spin and the marketing,” he said.
“PWP feels we have empowered people to have a more informed discussion on the subject, and we’ve had a lot of praise from various quarters.
“People who have been involved in campaigns like this before have told us we’re doing a professional job with a very well researched discussion paper.”
Impacts on the environment, fishing and tourism industry are just a few of the concerns on PWP’s lengthy list, and then, of course, there’s the dreaded ‘d’ word.
While Minister for Ports, David Hodgett, has referred to Hastings as a “natural deep water port”, port opponents say the amount of dredging required could have a devastating impact throughout Western Port’s eastern shorelines, creating, as one campaigner has noted, a ‘fire hose effect’, resulting in higher tides and increased erosion from Tooradin right through to San Remo.

Idea from the 60s

Bass Coast Shire Council remained quiet on the issue for most of 2012 and 2013, but finally released its ‘Position Paper’ two months ago, requesting the State Government fund both an independent environmental, economic and social impact study on Bass Coast and a peer review of documentation the PHDA compiles.
It was a fairly safe request from the council, but a few councillors have much to say on the matter.
Cr Phil Wright, for example, believes the idea that the Port of Hastings is the best way to import containers into Victoria is one “left over from the 1960s when there was a simple solution for everything and bigger is better”.
“The State Government claims that the expansion of the Port of Hastings is necessary to take over the ever expanding container traffic into Melbourne beyond 2025 when the Port of Melbourne is predicted to reach capacity,” he said.
“It is based on a never ending expansion in consumer demand resulting in nine million containers a year.
“The starting point in discussions is to identify what is the likely long-term demand.
“The main issue is to identify what happens to the local economy if there are too many imports.
“When does the number of containers negatively impact our economy?
“This has never been discussed by either major party.”
Cr Wright said the logistical issue of transferring freight imports from Hastings has also been ignored.
“The major demand for the containers is west of Melbourne.
“To move the freight west from Hastings would clog both railway lines and freeways.
“The environmental risks have been well documented and it is good to see the fishing/boating lobby is getting involved.
“The Port of Hasting currently handles about 100 medium-sized ships per year. If the expansion was ever completed, that number increases to 3000 container ships per year.
“This will require increased fishing and boating exclusion zones.
“The view from Cowes and all along the east coast will be ships at anchor waiting to enter the Port.
“This will impact on the nature-based tourism industry and result in a loss of jobs.
“Hopefully, the entire state is involved in the decision making at the coming election.
“The solution is likely to be limited expansion of Port of Melbourne and then successive growth in all existing ports from Portland to Welshpool.”

Authority updates

A PHDA spokesperson said the authority continues to keep the local community informed, with a new publication, ‘Port Progress’, replacing the ‘Development Update’ newsletter.
“Port Progress aims to keep the community informed on the latest developments in the port expansion project,” the spokesperson said.
“As the port progresses we will be providing more information on various elements of this highly complex major project, including information updates on major marine, environmental, historical, engineering and planning studies taking place around Western Port and profiles of key authority staff members.”
And there will, as expected, be more information sessions in the future.
“The authority found during the information sessions at Grantville and Cowes that people asked questions associated with ways in which the development project may affect the local environment,” the PHDA spokesperson continued.
“These issues included dredging and visual amenity as well as on possible effects concerning recreational fishing and tourism.
“These sessions are part of the authority’s commitment to ensuring that the project involves opportunities for local communities to not only gain greater insight into how this major project takes shape, but ensures that they are able to provide input into issues they wish to see addressed during the development process.”