Dredging up a toxic threat to Sydney

Volumes could be written about the environmental consequences of the Berejiklian government’s proposed Yarra Bay mega cruise ship terminal. The proposal is an environmental stinker of the first order.

In this post, guest contributor Cameron Rogers focuses on just one aspect of one of the big issues – dredging of contaminated seabed sediment.

The dredging required for a mega cruise ship terminal in Botany Bay poses a significant environmental threat to all coastal residents of Sydney; and if the Royal Caribbean cruise line, the Port Authority of NSW and the NSW Liberal Government were to get their way, by 2023 many of Sydney’s most iconic ocean beaches would be suffering from significant environmental contamination.

A mega cruise ship terminal in Botany Bay would require the dredging of millions of tonnes of seabed sediment (spoil) to create a shipping channel, swing basin and berth boxes for two 350 metre mega cruise ships.

Some of the sediment would be used for reclamation of land side terminal space, the rest would be towed out of Botany Bay in barges and dumped at sea – as close to Sydney’s coastline as the NSW government could get away with.

As a guide, to what might happen, the dredged spoil from the Port Botany expansion, highly contaminated with Tributyltin (TBT), was dumped off the coast of Sydney out to sea from Clovelly / Gordons Bay, only to wash back into shore around Coogee.

Why would it be any different this time? Allowing this development would see contaminants entering the marine food chain and being deposited in beach sands up and down the Sydney shoreline for years to come.

The spoil from dredging in Yarra Bay would contain legacy substances:

  • from many years of unregulated industry:
    • in Matraville
    • in the old industrial suburbs south of the Sydney CBD (Alexandria, Rosebery, Mascot etc)
    • in suburbs adjacent to the Cooks river and its tributaries
  • and from shipping in Botany Bay and aviation at Mascot.

The NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warnings in place to not disturb the sediment in many of the rivers, estuaries, channels and canals that drain into Botany Bay. This is because years of industry and shipping have deposited toxic substances deep within the now stable sediment of the bay. Products such as:

  • polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) and heavy metals such as mercury and lead from the years of operation of the Bunnerong coal fired power station
  • organochlorine pesticides (Chlordane, DDT, and Dieldrin)
  • Tributyltin (TBT) an anti-fouling agent, and banned product that “is one of the most poisonous substances to be released to the aquatic environment today”.

Of equal concern are highly toxic Per and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) from Sydney Airport and other locations where firefighters have trained. The EPA already has warnings in place regarding the consumption of fish caught in the bay area, mostly due to PFAS (see EPA PFAS Warning Botany Bay area).

Fishing in Botany Bay would be most unwise after the dredging, with our recreational fishers having to wait for years until the remaining contaminants were again fixed in a re-settled sea bed.

Lest anyone think that everything would settle down once the dredging for the new cruise ship terminal was complete, keep in mind that maintenance dredging would be required regularly to remove sediments transported by currents from nearby areas and accumulating in the artificially deepened channels and berths. This maintenance dredging would ensure that every 5-10 years, more contamination would be unlocked, dispersed and dumped at sea.

You may ask how the NSW government would get around the extreme environmental concerns related to dredging. Don’t they have a responsibility to the local population? Aren’t there environmental laws in place to stop this outrage?

Probably not. The NSW government would be expected to classify the project a State Significant Development, so it would not require any of the normal environmental permission processes that a commercial proposal needs to work through. Many laws and regulations could then be bypassed, with the only protection left being the need to inform a minister of what was about to be done.

For example, Section 201 of the Fisheries Management Act provides that a permit is required before carrying out any dredging or reclamation works. However, under the provisions of section 199 of the Act, the Ports Authority of NSW, being a public authority, is exempted from the need to obtain approval for dredging and reclamation, but must provide written notice to the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries. That’s it – one minister says it is OK, and the project proponent does whatever they want!

Surely you would think that this kind of development could be challenged via the Land and Environment Court? No, I am sorry, the NSW government have thought of this too!

There would be no right of appeal to the Land and Environment Court under section 97 or section 98 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, once the project was declared a State Significant Development.

An environmental disaster is poised to unfold before our eyes. Please tell your friends and whoever else will listen that the Berejiklian government’s mega cruise ship proposal for Yarra Bay must be stopped before it is too late!

No consultation without information

As expected, yesterday’s consultations with the Port Authority of NSW project team broke down.

The Port Authority’s powerless public servants and consultants had no information to provide – the Berejiklian government has stamped everything pertaining to the project Cabinet-in-confidence or commercial-in-confidence.

The Port Authority project team just wanted to outline their consultation process going forward (which we already knew about from the very lightweight brochure they letter-boxed in neighbourhoods near Yarra Bay). It was an exercise in government subterfuge, a meeting to do nothing and reveal nothing and a complete waste of everyone’s time.

For over a year, the NSW government has ignored community requests for information that could lead to engagement. Meanwhile, they have forged ahead with detailed talks with their cruise ship industry clients. For example we know that they have shared information about the preliminary strategic business case with the cruise industry as part of a market sounding process.

Now, Port Authority staff have been delegated to ask for a community response – but are unwilling to accept that it is impossible for us to respond when they won’t outline what they are planning and are deliberately keeping us in the dark. The process is unfair, totally lacking in transparency and is rejected by the communities we represent.

Port Authority staff kept saying “We want to start a relationship with you.” We left them with this message:

“We don’t want a relationship. We want to stop this by showing you what a ridiculous, dangerous, environmentally and socially destructive proposal it is. We have no interest in a partnership with you that helps you to confuse and placate an angry community so you can get away with building your terminal.”

We brought the meeting to an end by stating our position:

“We cannot meet again until you release the information we have requested: your preliminary studies, the strategic business case and your plans for the terminal. Those documents will enable us to sit down with our committee of scientists, engineers and other experts to prepare an evidence-based response. For consultation to occur, you must treat us with the same respect you have accorded the foreign-owned cruise industry.”

The only glimmer of hope we took out of the meeting was the Port Authority senior manager’s admission that if the business case is not positive, it is possible the project will not proceed. WE WILL HOLD HIM TO THAT.

At the meeting, the community was represented by Maria Poulos, Peter Fagan, Cheryl Rennie, Derek Zilich (Save the Bay Coalition), Trevor Walker (Indigenous Representative), Stan Konstantaras (President, Recreational Fishing Alliance of NSW), Barry Wallace (President, Yarra Bay Sailing Club). And we say thank you to many others for your contributions beforehand and your ongoing support.