By Kirra Grimes

AS LOCAL and state authorities investigate the removal of dozens of ancient grass trees at a Grantville sand extraction site, the quarry’s operators have rejected claims made against them by “radical environmentalists” regarding the destruction of native vegetation.

Sand Supplies Pty Ltd, which has operated a quarry next to the Grantville Nature Conservation Reserve for the past 18 years, responded to the community outcry over the grass trees yesterday, with company director Robbie Viglietti telling the Sentinel-Times they were entitled to remove trees within their designated extractive area, and that most of them had already been replanted within the same 40-hectare property.

Mr Viglietti, a resident of Grantville who manages three quarry sites, said his company had spent over $60,000 employing specialist contractors to ensure the trees were removed, stored (if necessary) and replanted on site in a manner that would maximise their chances of survival.

He acknowledged it might be “confronting” for some members of the community to see the ancient trees removed from where they’d lived for hundreds of years, but he was confident most of them would survive the translocation process.

Images supplied by Sand Supplies Pty Ltd show bulk backfilling of larger trees preceding shovel filling and watering.

It was still too early to tell exactly how many, however, and it was “inevitable [they were] going to get some die back over the coming months,” he said, probably among the smallest specimens that were “literally the size of tufts of grass” and had sprung up since the 2019 Grantville bushfires caused a major flowering event.

Mr Viglietti said the number of mature trees removed had been overestimated by outsiders, and was closer to 100 than 250, but it had been the largest translocation undertaken at that site to date.

They’d been unable to complete the process earlier in the year, when the weather was cooler, he said, because “the ground was simply too wet” after “one of the wettest years on record”.

Mr Viglietti was eager to put into perspective that the Sand Supplies site represented about seven per cent of the vast Grantville Nature Conservation Reserve, and that there were “thousands upon thousands” of grass trees in the reserve that would “never be touched” by sand quarrying.

Placement of grass trees into a prepared area at the quarry site.

He was also keen to assure the community that the company’s “constant” efforts to revegetate the site, as required under its work authority, would “leave the land in better shape than [they] found it” when sand quarrying in the region came to an end.

He said the company had already planted over 12,000 trees in the Grantville area, and would be planting another thousand this coming autumn, with help from local Landcare among other groups.

“We’re operating under very strict guidelines and we’re constantly held to account, with inspections by the Earth Resources Regulator and a community group known as the Environment Review Committee,” he said.

“We have to replace vegetation by law, but we don’t just replace, we do it many times over – our replanting is about 20 to 1.

“And we don’t just do it because it’s what we have to do, we actually believe it’s the right thing to do.

Translocated grass trees at the quarry site.

“No one’s more aware of climate change impacts than we are – the people working the land and dealing with these issues on a daily basis.

“Within a few years of when we leave the site, no one will even know we were there – there will actually be more vegetation than when we started – that’s the intent and that’s the standard.”

Mr Viglietti suspected the unprecedented outcry over the latest translocation was linked to the wider issue of increasing sand quarrying activity in the Grantville area, where there’s at least one large new extraction site in the planning, and several existing sites currently expanding or seeking permission to expand, such as the Dandy Premix site opposite Deep Creek Street, whose operators recently submitted a $6.5m planning permit amendment application to council, which has since been ‘called in’ for the state planning minister to decide.

With seven to eight million tonnes of sand extracted from the Waterline region this year, Mr Viglietti said people had to accept the reality that the region had long been earmarked as a major supplier of sand for Melbourne and was now entering a “boom time” thanks to Victoria’s Big Build.

He said there was simply not enough availability of sand substitutes or recycled concrete to meet the demand over the next 50 years, and moving the quarrying industry from the Waterline region to the Latrobe Valley, where there are known sand deposits, would be worse for the environment as freight would have further to travel.

New growth on a translocated grass tree.

“Some people just don’t want sand quarrying here and there’s nothing we can do or say that’s going to appease them,” he said.

“Nothing will ever be done well enough for them because they simply don’t want us to exist.

“But sand has to come from somewhere. And sand that came out of Grantville is what built the bridge to San Remo; it’s what built parts of Newhaven College, and the Wonthaggi Hospital and the new Cowes medical centre and the Western Port sewerage treatment plant and the new roundabouts on Phillip Island.

“The frustration for the industry is there’s a huge disconnect between what people think we do and where this material ends up.”