Port Spencer development proposal threatens wildlife of Lipson Cove and Lipson Island

When the Port Spencer project was first brokered to the public, it took the name of Sheep Hill- and for years, media releases and interviews carefully avoided mentioning the true location of the proposed facility- adjacent to Lipson Cove. Since then, apparent efforts by the company to keep costs down, confuse Eyre Peninsula locals and minimize opposition to the chosen location have abounded. Prior to this, Centrex already upset locals in Port Lincoln by launching plans to export from their waterfront, resulting in significant public protests and outcry.

In various news articles in the Eyre Tribune and Port Lincoln Times, dating from 2008 and 2009 the future Port Spencer location was referred to in a variety of ambiguous ways, including ‘near Port Neill’, ‘north of Tumby Bay’, ‘south of Cowley’s Beach’ and ‘near Cape Hardy’. The company was obviously being careful not to mention the project site’s 1km proximity to Lipson Island Conservation Park, or its position between the cherished public beaches of Lipson Cove and Rogers Beach. The proposed jetty spur is 1.4 kilometres from the island, which was established as a conservation park in 1967, and is an IUCN Category III ‘natural monument’. Lipson Cove will also feature in a new book Australia’s 101 Best Beaches due for release in November of 2012. It is referred to in Conserving Marine Biodiversity in South Australia – Part 2 – Identification of areas of high conservation value in South Australia as a biodiversity hotspot (Dyane, 1999). Excerpt below:

Lipson Cove & Lipson Island Conservation Park

Lipson Cove & Lipson Island Conservation Park

AREAS OF HIGH CONSERVATION VALUE IN THE DUTTON BIOUNIT
Lipson Cove-Lipson Island
Prime IUCN Conservation Values: rare and endangered species/habitats, biodiversity (IUCN Category IA).

IUCN categorization criteria:

  • naturalness (not subjected to human-induced change)
  • biogeography (representative marine habitats),
  • ecological (diversity of marine habitats, breeding sites for seabirds- Little Penguins, Black-faced Cormorants, Silver Gulls, Crested Terns and the ‘vulnerable’ Fairy Tern),
  • economic (marine scale fish fisheries, tourism),
  • social (recreation),
  • national (Register of the National Estate- Lipson Island Conservation Park),
  • practicality (insulation, compatibility- adjacent to Lipson Island Conservation Park).

It is apparent that a provisional Marine Park boundary (Brian Marsh, submissions to Port Spencer PER) was likely to include Lipson Island within the Sir Joseph Banks Group park, which had this boundary been committed to, would have honoured the above listed and long established values. Instead, the boundary was shifted southward. Centrex’s port plan was accommodated by the State to such an extent that this referral to the EPBC Act was only made after we identified the unreasonable degree of risk presented to EPBC Act listed species recorded by Centrex in their commissioned biological surveys. Despite recommendations from the State’s Departments of Planning and Environment, the company elected not to refer the project at the appropriate time- before the State determined the appropriate level of assessment. I maintain that had this occurred prior to March, the project would have been directed to an EIS, requiring appropriate rigor and depth of study prior to receiving approval.

Surveys are seasonally biased & data deficient

To date Centrex Metals have shown themselves to be at best indifferent to the conservation value of this area, producing seasonally biased and inadequate survey data, particularly of Lipson Island and surrounding waters. Surveys of Lipson Island were conducted over two consecutive days in late May 2011 (PER Appendix J), despite contractor Golder Associates being engaged by the company at least as early as at least 2008. It is therefore unreasonable that no Summer biological surveys have been conducted, and similarly, no intertidal or subtidal surveys at the Lipson Island biodiversity hotspot. Summer surveys would capture a much clearer picture of the area’s value, as it is utilized by a range of migratory bird species. It would also reveal any potential populations of reptiles and bats on Lipson Island which were previously speculated upon but not observed (Appendix J, Port Spencer PER).

Little Blue Penguin in burrow on Lipson Island

Little Blue Penguin in burrow on Lipson Island

Little Penguin population misrepresented

The most alarming aspect to Centrex’s biological survey was in their decision to initially not count the penguins, and yet to falsely assume that the population was in decline (based on the State’s overall trend). This is not believed to be the case, and the colony was known to be stable in 2006 (Wiebken, 2011). Nevertheless, 87 active burrows were counted, in which 26 penguins and four eggs were found. 8 other burrows contained Silver Gulls or Rock Doves. Centrex and Golder Associates’ contractor DES states of the remaining 53 burrows that ‘observations of scats and tracks around burrow entrances suggest that the Little Penguin would be the most likely occupants.’ If this judgement is accepted, using standard practice estimation technique (confirmed by John Ayliffe of Kingscote Aquarium, Kangaroo Island) 2 birds per burrow are assumed. This presents a potential total population of approximately 152 birds, 52% greater than the 1991 and 2006 estimates (Wiebken, 2011). I was shocked to read that in this referral document, Centrex state the observed number of penguins on the island to have been 31… a number which bears no obvious correlation to their previous (and only) penguin survey work from May of 2011. This is extremely misleading considering active burrow counts are not mentioned. Weather conditions can greatly affect the number of penguins to be found in burrows at any given time (Ayliffe, 2012) and DEWNR has been previously critical of Centrex’s knack for ‘downplaying’ the area’s conservation values (Correspondence obtained by FoI). I believe this to be a deliberate misrepresentation of the truth, designed to diminish the perceived conservation value of Lipson Island to breeding sea birds. I reach this conclusion after also being flatly lied to in person by a representative of Centrex Metals at a public information stand at Cleve Field Days (where I was told there were 23 penguins in total). I was also denied permission to record a public meeting in Tumby Bay in April by a Centrex representative who told me that there were no sensitive ‘environmental issues’ related to Port Spencer.

Lies aside, this colony is the northernmost in Spencer Gulf, and therefore at the limits of the animal’s range. If this colony is actually counted and shown to be stable or even growing, its conservation value only stands to increase, and with it the justification for relocating this project. It is important to note that the Little Penguin was recently recommended for reclassification as Vulnerable in South Australia (Wiebken, 2011).

Seagrass habitat loss & impact on prey species

I’m concerned about the potential impact of seagrass loss on the availability of food for EPBC listed species. Causes for this potential future loss include sedimentation and turbidity increases during construction, and shading from the wharf and moored vessels once operational. It is important to note that whilst it is not an EPBC Act listed species, the seagrass Posidonia sinuosa (shown to occur at the port site) is IUCN listed as ‘Vulnerable’ and should perhaps be considered for future EPBC nomination. Seagrass provides habitat for prey species for marine birds.

Desalination uncertainty & impacts on marine biota

At a public meeting in Tumby Bay in April I recall asking a representative of Centrex about the size of the future desalination plant proposed for Port Spencer. I was told 50 Gigalitres per annum, but I now read that a 5 GL plant is proposed, expandable to approximately 20 GL. I am concerned about the possibility of the word ‘approximately’ to allow Centrex to scale up their proposed plant at a later date, and believe Centrex should specify a maximum output capacity for the plant. I would also like to see oceanographic studies produced by Golder in 2008 (and referenced here in this referral) which can substantiate a case for having the brine outflow located just 515 metres out from shore. Desalination plants have the potential to create brine plumes if the return stream is not adequately mixed. This can also result in the creation of deoxygenated zones, which could have heavy localised impacts on sessile and benthic organisms, particularly during dodge tides (period of little tidal flow) (Kaempf 2009, 2011). This uncertainty is linked to the uncertainty of not knowing explicitly which species exist around Lipson Island. I am also concerned about the potential for fish larvae to be killed or harmed by low levels of available oxygen, or plumes of elevated salinity, or entrapment or entrainment in the desalination plant’s intake mechanism (yet to be specified). I am particularly concerned about the weak swimming EPBC listed Sygnathids (seadragons) which may be susceptible to this. Another species of conservation concern (though not EPBC listed) known to the area is the Crested Threefin, which is endemic to SA waters, only found here, and known to reside at the port site. I am also concerned that prey species for EPBC listed Little Penguin and Fairy Tern may be harmed or killed in any of these ways, reducing the amount of available food for them in close proximity to their breeding site at Lipson Island.

Port Spencer harbour and shipping approach plan

Port Spencer harbour and shipping approach plan

Light, sound and disturbance to breeding birds

I have ongoing concerns about the introduction of a ’15 mile light’ into an environment which currently features no permanent light pollution in the vicinity. I am also concerned about noise generated at the site (potentially 24 hours), and the increase in human activity in the area accompanying the port’s operation. If evaporating ponds and human waste are managed poorly on site (ie. not contained) this will lead to an increase in scavenger species, who will in turn compete for breeding sites on Lipson Island (where a small number of rock pigeons and silver gulls currently reside). I am also concerned about the introduction of grain spillage from cartage to the area, which presumably will arrive by road. This has the potential to dramatically increase populations of species who thrive on grain (pigeons, doves, galahs etc) etc) which represents a major new destabilizing force on the present ecology. Increases in pigeon and dove populations may compete with Little Penguins for burrows on Lipson Island, threatening their future breeding success. Grain spill must be kept to a minimum to mitigate this risk.

Galahs swarm rail cars and track at Port Lincoln grain wharf

Galahs swarm rail cars and track at Port Lincoln grain wharf

As for the Hooded Plovers and migratory birds who favour the mainland beaches, they are likely to have to contend with increased visitation by humans and dogs as construction and port workers spend increasing amounts of time in the vicinity. This may in turn lead to increased volumes of human garbage and fishing debris entering the water and proving an entanglement or ingestion hazard for marine mammals (dolphins and sealions) and feeding seabirds like the Fairy Tern and Little Penguin.

Hooded Plovers roost on Rogers Beach, immediately to the north of the proposed port site

Hooded Plovers roost on Rogers Beach, immediately to the north of the proposed port site

There are alternative locations

In choosing the location at Lipson Cove, Centrex Metals states in this referral that bathymetry between the chosen Lipson Cove site and Cape Hardy was comprehensively surveyed. This begs the question as to why Port Gibbon (which lies outside this surveyed area) is the only potential port development site listed by Centrex as a valid project alternative. I believe Cape Hardy has been consciously omitted for fear of a genuine and reasonable recommendation being made from a Federal level to relocate the project. It is my belief that the project should indeed be relocated, either further to the north (Cape Hardy) to alleviate unnecessary pressure on the breeding success of birds roosting and residing on Lipson Island, or due west to Point Drummond, for the same effect. Relocating to Point Drummond could also provide Centrex with access to 40m deep water, a shorter path to market, and remove the unnecessary shipping risks associated with passage by sea through Spencer Gulf and around the Southern tip of Eyre Peninsula.

Port Spencer & key potential alternative locations

Port Spencer & key potential alternative locations

PER, EPBC… Next stop, EIS?

Since the Port Spencer project (previously Sheep Hill) received major project status in January of 2011, its scope has fluctuated in size. At the drafting of ‘Guidelines for a PER’ the port proposal featured a desalination plant and slurry pipeline for the transport of ore. When the PER was released, these elements were conspicuously absent. At the same time, the company admitted that no construction would occur until stages 1 and 2 were approved. Why not then treat the project as a whole, and see that an EIS is prepared? It would appear by the stucture of this EPBC referral that Centrex are now effectively seeking approval for all development (stages 1-4) at the Lipson Cove site.

I was pleased to see that this EPBC referral was made, after the company’s admission of numerous EPBC Act listed species being present in the area. I was disappointed to learn that despite DENR and DPTI recommending the project be referred to the EPBC, the State was unwilling to make the referral on behalf of the Company. It is my concern that the State has a pronounced conflict of interest in this project as a future beneficiary of its royalties and taxes, and that unreasonable environmental sacrifices stand to be made for the sake of fast-tracked revenue. I see this as an increasing problem in light of the Federal push to shift EPBC Act obligations and responsibilities back into the hands of the State Governments of Australia… but that’s a story for another submission.

Rare and Near Threatened birds of Lipson Cove & Lipson Island

More Rare and Near Threatened species

Looking beyond currently listed species known to occur within 5km of the project site, it is important to consider the following records of rare and near-threatened species (SA), listed on the Atlas of Living Australia. Some of these may appear as EPBC listed species in the future. Unfortunately, the Atlas of Living Australia is also data deficient on the marine environment at Lipson Cove. These species will also face issues of displacement, disturbance and increased competition if the proposed port development is approved.

  • Common Sandpiper
  • Australasian Shoveler
  • Musk Duck
  • Sooty Oystercatcher
  • Pied Oystercatcher
  • Blue billed duck
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Pacific Golden Plover
  • Rock Parrot

Impacts to Commonwealth Waters

Transit of vessels through the Great Australian Bight Marine Park whilst enroute to China presents risks to the conservation values of this park, particularly to cetaceans via potential boat strike incidents, or accidents resulting in oil spill. Such a spill would impact a wide variety of species exposed to floating slicks, as well as the ingestion of toxins present in dispersant chemicals used during an ensuing clean-up.

Southern Right Whales - SA Whale Centre

Southern Right Whales – photo from SA Whale Centre sighting log 2012

Impacts to EPBC Act Listed Species

Impact pile-driving and pile driving for jetty construction will have an impact on marine biota, but to an unknown extent. There is potential for injury or death of fish, cephalopods and marine mammals within 500m range, and realistically, only marine mammals are likely to be observed by the construction team, while impacts to subtidal organisms will be much harder to control. Animals which could be affected include EPBC protected sygnathids (thought to possibly occur in the area, PER Appendix J), Indian Ocean Bottlenose Dolphins, Southern Right Whales and Australian Sealions. Cuttlefish, octopus and squid are also highly sensitive to submarine noise pollution, though none are listed under the EPBC Act at this time.

Leafy and Weedy Sea Dragons - Sygnathids potentially occurring in the area

Leafy and Weedy Sea Dragons – Sygnathids potentially occurring in the area

Introduction of invasive species

I’m also concerned about invasive species entering what are presently pest-free waters on the hulls of or in ballast water from inbound Chinese vessels. Like the birds above the water, marine organisms compete for food and habitat, and once established are extremely difficult to completely remove. This lends weight to the argument for establishing a shipping terminus somewhere like Point Drummond, where multiple spurs could be developed, and shipping concentrated. Centrex admit that there is no evidence of any subtidal or intertidal pest species at this time at Lipson Cove, and I’d like it to stay that way. Foreign vessels will inevitably impact the integrity of this environment to the detriment of native species.

Oiled penguins are treated during the Rena spill cleanup, New Zealand 2011

Oiled Little Penguins are treated during the Rena spill cleanup, New Zealand October 2011

Unreasonable oil spill risk

The proposed jetty is also very short (515m) so an accident resulting in an oil spill could be devastating for the adjacent beaches and island. A precedent for this was set back in 1992 in Northern Spencer Gulf at Port Bonython, when a ship’s hull was pierced by a tug boat. This resulted in 300 tonnes of bunker fuel oil spilling into the gulf, ultimately killing birds and other organisms as the oil traveled into the mangroves south of Port Pirie. No recovery attempt was made to clean up the landed oil on that occasion, other than bombarding the slick initially with dispersants- even in shallow water. This of course merely sinks the oil, introducing new toxic contaminants to the area which persist in ‘capsules’ beneath the waves. I was haunted by images of oiled birds after last year’s Bay of Plenty spill, where the Rena ran aground in New Zealand. To place such a risk right next door to this important colony is so obviously irresponsible. Relocation away from this site is the only way to limit the potential for unnecessary harm to the adjoining Rogers and Lipson Cove Beaches and to Lipson Island’s breeding EPBC listed marine birds, including the Fairy Tern, Hooded Plover, Little Penguin, Black-faced cormorants, Sooty Terns, Sooty Oystercatchers, Pied Oystercatchers and visiting migratory species.

It is my sincere opinion that Centrex have done little to earn the community’s trust by withholding (the port’s initial location) and manipulating (penguin count) information. They have conducted inadequate biological surveys and belligerently pushed ahead with their preferred location, scrubbing out evidence of potentially viable alternatives. I am confident that this development can find a better home for itself elsewhere in South Australian waters, however, there’s only one Lipson Island and this ‘biodiversity hotspot’ can’t be moved. Lipson Island Conservation Park and its wildlife deserves better.

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

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