Centrex Metals Port Spencer development puts Lipson Island’s Little Blue Penguins at risk

For those of you who’ve been following our website or Facebook pages for a while, you’ll have heard of the South Australian export port development known as Port Spencer. While it lies to the south of Cuttlefish Country, the decision making processes around this development have much in common with the case history of the Lowly Peninsula. In this case, the hapless victims of future collateral damage aren’t cephalopods (as far as we know) but rather a variety of roosting birds which call Lipson Island and the adjacent beaches home. What follows below is an analysis of the Port Spencer development, drawing attention to the proponent and State governments’ apparent moves to limit the protection afforded to the island and its inhabitants by Federal Australian law. We say ‘that’s not good enough’ and urge you to sign our petition to Ministers Tony Burke (Federal Environment Minister) and Paul Caica (South Australian Environment Minister). We need your help to insist that the project is referred to the EPBC Act for appropriate assessment and protection of the region’s conservation values. We mentioned this project in a previous post, which gave a summary of the proliferation of sub-optimal iron ore export expansions and development proposals popping up around Spencer Gulf. Now let’s hold Port Spencer under the microscope from a conservation perspective.

Port Spencer – Ore & Grain exports from Eyre Peninsula… but at what cost?

At its current 1st stage proposal, Port Spencer presents a new single berth configuration jetty and ship loader suitable for exporting up to 20 million tonnes of ore and grain per annum. It has been suggested to us that this facility may at stage 2 extend the cross-member at the end of the jetty to accommodate an additional berth, which will in turn increase its export capacity, related activity and associated shipping-related risks. Stage two of the project also introduces a 50 GL per year desalination plant, along with a magnetite processing plant at the project site. In the project’s Public Environment Report (PER) Executive Summary, Centrex admits that the project is part of a much larger action:

‘The project’s viability directly relates to the feasibility of Centrex’s magnetite mines on Eyre Peninsula, and would only commence construction upon receipt of development approval from the government for both stages 1 and 2 and determination of the viability of developing a magnetite mine. Centrex’s current proposed program is for Port Stage 1 construction to start in Q3 2012, with operations commencing in Q4 2014.’

If this is Centrex’s plan, then we recommend that both State and Federal approvals integrate Stages 1 and 2 of the development into a single proposal in the very least. If the viability of the magnetite mine is also a prerequisite, we further recommend that the relevant mines, transport corridors and port development should be referred to the EPBC Act in combination with Port Spencer stages 1 & 2 in a single application.

Little Blue Penguin in burrow on Lipson Island

Little Blue Penguin in burrow on Lipson Island

Lipson Cove – A rotten location for a port if you’re a breeding seabird

It is important to note the misleading data Centrex Metals has consistently presented regarding the proximity of Lipson Island Conservation Park to the project site. While Centrex refer to the ‘port’ as being 1.5 kilometres from the island, it is in actuality 1 kilometre from the terrestrial project site, and 1.4 kilometres from the proposed jetty spur. The island has been excluded from Centrex’s self-nominated area of impact, but would need to be included in any referral to the EPBC Act. We are concerned that Centrex is attempting to limit their liability in the event of future declines of listed species on Lipson Island. This concern is amplified by the data deficiency of their survey results (detailed later).

‘Lipson Island is a significant rookery and roost for bird species including those listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and relevant state legislation. The marine intertidal environment, although not diverse, is free of invasive species.’ – Centrex Metals

Also in their PER, which was released for public comment in March 2012, Centrex states that ‘the site was selected based on a range of considerations including access to deep water close to shore, potential environmental and social sensitivity, proximity to potential mineral resources, availability of land and economic viability. Point Gibbon was also considered, however the Port Spencer site was considered to be a better option in all of the considerations listed previously.’ Interestingly, Centrex’s PER neglects to mention Cape Hardy, an alternative site they allegedly also considered, which afforded improved (deeper) water access, and if selected, would avoid the social and environmental impacts Lipson Island and Cove are to be subjected to. Lipson Cove is also a popular camping spot, with no permanent light or sound pollution.

Could it be that Centrex Metals realised that Cape Hardy was a more suitable location for this development, and avoided listing it under its project alternatives for this very reason?

Location Alternatives for Port Spencer

Location Alternatives for Port Spencer

EPBC Act listed species are here, but where is the protection?

The Centrex Metals Port Spencer Public Environment Report (PER) frequently refers to the presence and likely presence of a variety of EPBC Act listed species, which include breeding populations detailed at length in PER Appendix J. The company thus contradicts itself, suggesting on the one hand the identification of ‘site-specific impacts that require specific monitoring, management or further investigation. These include but are not necessarily limited to the development of: Little Penguin monitoring plan and seabird and shorebird (including migratory waders) rookery and roosting monitoring plan.’

Meanwhile, the document’s Executive Summary declares that:

‘The Project was not referred to the Commonwealth Government under the EPBC Act 1999 as it is considered the Port does not have the potential to negatively impact matters of National Environmental Significance.’

If no impact is to be expected, why would the following statement later appear:

‘The prime ecological aspects of Lipson Island are the bird rookery and roosts, and biodiversity integrity of the intertidal zone. It is these aspects that mitigation, monitoring and management plans aim to protect.’

The EPBC Act is also later referred to as ‘the most pertinent environmental legislation’ applicable to the proposed development. The case for EPBC Act referral is obvious when Appendix J is considered, as prepared by DES and commissioned by Centrex Metals. The majority of quoted text in this letter is derived from the PER’s Appendix J, with the remainder of quotes cited from the Executive Summary.

Centrex Metals’ initial biological study determined ‘A total of 27 EPBC listed species were identified as being potentially present in the desktop survey area comprising one shark, three marine reptiles, 16 bird species, three marine mammal species and four plant species.’

Centrex Metals states that previously ‘formal biological surveys have not been undertaken at Lipson Island Conservation Park’ and after conducting their desktop study, terrestrial and intertidal surveys were taken on the 29th & 30th of May, 2011. By the company’s own admission, ‘data obtained from this study period is seasonally biased’.

Irrespective of this data deficiency, Centrex states in Appendix J:

‘The species of conservation significance for Lipson Island are (see also Appendix F): Australian Sea Lion, Little Penguin, Hooded Plover, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Sanderling, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Eastern Osprey, Fairy Tern, Green Turtle, Loggerhead Turtle and Leatherback Turtle.’

Biological data deficiency is unacceptable

Due to the limited effort Centrex Metals applied to field surveys at Lipson Island and its adjacent beaches, we consider the current PER to be unacceptably data deficient. Below is a series of quotes from Appendix J of the Port Spencer PER which clearly evidence this.

Pied & Black-faced Cormorants on Lipson Island

Pied & Black-faced Cormorants on Lipson Island


Marine birds

‘Based on desktop review and field survey undertaken for this PER, Lipson Island is a nesting site for the little penguin (Eudyptula minor) and other burrow-nesting seabirds (a listed marine species under the EPBC Act). Other breeding colonies on Lipson Island include the black-faced cormorant (Phalacrocorax fuscescens), silver gull (Larus novaehollandiae) and crested tern (sterna bergii) which are listed as marine species under the EPBC Act.’

‘During summer months Fairy Tern and the migratory waders (all listed under the EPBC Act and associated treaties), namely Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover and Sanderling, although not observed (because of the timing of the field surveys) or recorded in desktop surveys, are likely to roost on the island. The number that will roost on the island is not known. On rare occasions White-bellied Sea-eagle and Eastern Osprey (both EPBC Act listed as endangered under NPWS Act) would feed on birds that breed and roost on Lipson Island.’

‘Little is known of the species that were observed on the island over the two day period regarding population density and current population trends. We cannot ascertain if the local populations are increasing or decreasing over a period of time or even quantify what the population size of the local resident wildlife is.’

‘No breeding rookeries of these species that breed on Lipson Island exist to the north.’ This last statement suggests that considering alternative locations to the north, including Cape Hardy, would eliminate the specific conservation concerns related to the Lipson Island breeding colonies.

The Little Penguin

During the May 29 and 30 survey, every burrow on Lipson Island was counted, totalling 87 with ‘no inactive burrows were recorded’. However ‘no birds were handled and disturbances were kept to a minimum. This resulted in most occupants of the burrows being unrecorded… observations of scats and tracks around burrow entrances would indicate that the Little Penguin would be the most likely occupants. This was further supported by audio recordings with little penguin being vocal and active at night.’ From this data, a count of the total population of Little Penguins on Lipson Island was not derived. Regardless of this, this alarmingly crude assumption was made:

‘This species is in significant decline in South Australia, although no longer empirical study exists in the state. The prime causes of decline are currently unknown. The species on Lipson Island is also likely in decline.’

Without knowing the current or past populations of Little Penguins on Lipson Island, making this assumption is irresponsible.

It is particularly laughable when the report states, also in Appendix J, that ‘monitoring Little Penguin and seabird trends on Lipson Island would be a reasonably straightforward task’. Since the site of Port Spencer has been considered by Centrex Metals from as early as 2008, in our opinion, Centrex Metals has had more than enough time to monitor this population, and generate adequate baseline data to be able to appropriately measure their future impacts.

Caspian Tern and Red-capped Plover (a migratory species) on Lipson Cove Beach

Caspian Tern and Red-capped Plover (a migratory species) on Lipson Cove Beach

Marine & Migratory Birds

‘The importance of the roost to migratory waders (that is, numbers) is not known.’

‘It is highly probable that the Short-tailed Shearwater would use the same active burrows that little penguins use in the summer months for nesting and breeding. This increases the total significance of Lipson Island Conservation Park.’

Reptiles

‘Due to the timing of the survey, late in autumn, the weather was deemed too cold for reptiles to be opportunistically observed. The habitat of rocky substrate would indicate that some reptiles are likely to be active and observable in warmer months on Lipson Island.’

Bats

Bat detectors did not detect any bat calls. Due to the limited time frame (two nights) it is not reasonable to speculate that bat populations do not frequent the air space on and above Lipson Island. It is expected that bats would be active above bird breeding colonies and guano patches (that attract insects) during the warmer months of the year. Echolocation surveys during the warmer months would be more representative of bat activity of the island.

Marine Biota

‘The marine biota list is also limited due to the time constraints and seasonality of the data collected. While the major groups have been documented, a more complete listing would have benefited from appropriate organism handling and representative voucher specimens for lodgement at the South Australian Museum. There is no doubt that a similar survey in summer and for a lengthier period would harvest a more abundant diversity of marine biota.’

‘Sygnathids, which are listed under the EPBC Act 1999, Tiger Pipefish and Leafy Seadragon may be expected to occur locally in subtidal habitats, along with other marine fishes and invertebrates of state conservation concern.’

Mammals

‘The opportunistic observation of the female Australian Sea Lion similarly reveals that we can conclude that they do exist in the vicinity however there is no data to establish if there is a local population, breeding or non-breeding of this species, which is listed as vulnerable under the EPBC Act.’

It is also noted that the occurrence of the Southern Right Whale is recorded in the survey report, but this EPBC Act listed species is not discussed outside of published results tables.

Crested Terns on Lipson Island

Crested Terns on Lipson Island

Uncertainties & Impacts

‘The lack of adequate data does however introduce some uncertainty into the impact assessment process as threatened species have been identified on and adjacent to Lipson Island. A greater level of knowledge of these would be desirable and consistent with the precautionary principle incorporated into the relevant standard (risk assessment guide).’

Appendix J describes light and sound pollution impacts on bird rookeries, as well as impacts of introduced species translocated by ships and many other potential impacts. It also points out deficiencies in detail likely to contribute to these impacts:

‘The development application issued by Centrex Metals has provided insufficient details on the following: quantity and wattage of lights to be used and hours of operation, intended shipping lanes in and out of the Gulf (eg. distance from the island), time and ballast management; and expected noise levels and frequency.’

The surveyed intertidal zone is described as ‘a healthy ecosystem with zero recordings of any introduced species’ while ‘the environmental and economic impacts of a marine pest introduction via ships’ ballast water have been recognised and can be significant. High incidences of a wide range of introduced organisms are known from most major ports and some smaller harbours/marinas in Southern Australia.’

Regardless of all of this uncertainty and admission of listed species and requirements for future management, mitigation and monitoring, Centrex Metals maintains ‘there is no recognised requirement to refer this proposed development to the EPBC Act or the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.’

We whole-heartedly disagree.

If you do too, please sign our petition and encourage others to do the same.

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Dan Monceaux is a South Australian documentary filmmaker and the director of Cuttlefish Country.

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