About Point Lowly Peninsula
The Point Lowly Peninsula is the chosen destination for hundreds of thousands of Giant Australian Cuttlefish (Sepia apama), which gather there each winter to mate, lay their eggs and die. They favour the ocean’s rocky bottom from Black Point through to Backy Point, where geology has provided perfect structures for the animals to attach their eggs beneath. The water chemistry is critical to the success of the hatchlings, and despite significant scientific studies since the late 1990s, little is known about the animals’ migration movement to or from the breeding ground.
In the late 1990s the population was estimated at around 250,000 animals and fell gradually to an historic low of 13,492 in 2013.
Access to the breeding zone is limited by the public exclusion zone surrounding the existing Santos Gas Fractionation facility- the only operating industrial facility on the peninsula. As of 2015, a fuel distribution hub is under construction. A much larger portion of the peninsula was zoned ‘Special Industry – Hydrocarbons’ back in the early 1980’s, and until now, has remained undeveloped. The State now has plans to concentrate industry around the upper Spencer Gulf and massively increase shipping activity to the region while at the same time declaring sanctuary zones in the upper Spencer Gulf marine park to protect its environmental value.
Something has to give.
BHP Billiton and the Olympic Dam mine expansion
The primary driver behind proposed further industrialisation near Point Lowly is the expansion of BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam super-mine. The mine has an estimated working life of 100 years in total, and will allegedly extract 1 trillion dollars worth of minerals during that time. It will also leave a gaping hole one kilometre deep and 3 kilometres wide. Extracting copper, uranium, gold and silver from the site in the South Australian desert is thirsty work, and further expansion will require more water than ever. At the time of the expansion proposal, the mine was extracting 35 megalitres of water from the finite Great Artesian Basin every day, and prior to the Indenture Act amendments of late 2011, did not pay a cent to the State for it. This has contributed in the drying of natural mound springs, and the suffering of indigenous heritage sites and ecological systems which depend on this water reaching the surface. The Great Artesian Basin is a national water resource, and water withdrawn from Olympic Dam has lowered the water table over 100 metres to date. BHP Billiton plans to increase the mine’s groundwater consumption to 42 megalitres (that’s 42 million litres) of GAB water daily, complementing it with water extracted from the Spencer Gulf, processed by a desalination plant on the Point Lowly Peninsula. The proposed desalination was capable of producing a further 280 megalitres of water per day.
The economic offerings of this super-mine’s spoils need to be considered in check with the value of upper Spencer Gulf fish stocks. Unlike mineral deposits, fish populations are renewable if duly managed and protected and currently support lucrative commercial fisheries and growing ecotourism.
Life in the Upper Spencer Gulf
The health of the upper Spencer Gulf’s waters is depended upon by a diverse and wonderful range of marine organisms, which in turn support coastal communities, wild fisheries and aquaculture operations. Its coast features mangroves, mudflats, rocky reefs, extensive seagrass meadows and delicate deep water sponge gardens. Cuttlefish breed there annually, as do snapper, prawns, sharks and countless other under-researched species. Dolphins feed and frolic past Point Lowly daily, and sightings for visitors are almost guaranteed. Southern right and humpback whales make seasonal visits, and can be watched from the shore, sometimes only hundreds of metres out. Occasionally, visiting Australian sea lions, New Zealand fur seals and even marine turtles surprise and delight fishermen and tourists alike.
The Environmental Risks
- Prior to 2012, the most immediate risk to the environment in the Upper Spencer Gulf was the construction and operation of a 280 megalitre seawater desalination plant. The risks associated with desalination plant operation include the intake of micro-organisms, the disposal of high-salinity brine, and the concentration of chemicals. You can find out more in our videos from oceanographer Jochen Kaempf.
- The additional industrial proposals (a new port and a diesel distrbution hub) represent new pollution sources. They are likely to create further exclusion zones for the purpose of public safety, and thereby also restricting opportunities for scientific, tourist and residential activity in the area. Both proposed facilities will increase shipping to the area with maritime safety and ecological implications, given the size of the vessels and limited deep water.
- The increase in proposed industrial activity on the peninsula has prompted a government plan to expand Port Bonython’s shipping facilities, and increase volumes of road and rail-based freight. An environmental impact study has been published, but as of 2015, approval to proceed with construction has not been granted. Independent experts and local knowledge have identified the location as sub-optimal due to the limited access to deep water.
- If plans proceed, the approach to Port Bonython may need to be deepened by sea-floor dredging, which would mobilise sediment contaminated by heavy industry into the water column. The sediment contains heavy metal contamination from lead and iron smelters on both sides of the gulf, deposited on the sea floor by industry for over a century. Shipping would increase the region’s underwater noise pollution which has potential to harm squid, octopus, cuttlefish, whales and dolphins and influence their behavior.
Concerned citizens, professionals and scientists need to band together and call for the Precautionary Principle to be enacted. The complexities of Upper Spencer Gulf’s water chemistry and ecology are only understood in a very limited capacity, and the population decline between 1999 and 2013 suggested that local extinction was possible as early as 2016 if the trend were to continue. Pending developments proposed for the region must be suspended, until sufficient research has demonstrated that the impacts of these infrastructure projects will not harm this and other ailing fish populations. This action alone will prevent new pressures from impacting on the marine environment and associated industries.
There a number of ways you can help protect this region, and you can find them on our Take Action! page.
The first immediate problem we explore in our documentary film (expected to be completed in 2016) is BHP Billiton’s need for water at their Olympic Dam mine site. If this matter can be addressed with a more environmentally sensitive approach, we can stop the debate over Point Lowly’s industrialization and look at a range of alternative solutions. The West Coast of Eyre Peninsula has been identified as a rich and plentiful source of renewable energy (wind, hydro-electric and solar) and the coast affords access to fast moving currents in open ocean for the dilution of brine (unlike the Spencer Gulf’s closed system). If a desalination plant is required for the Olympic Dam expansion, then the west coast of Eyre Peninsula may represent a lower risk to the marine environment compared to the chosen location in the upper Spencer Gulf. A facility near Elliston could actually be powered entirely on renewable energy, according to independent experts. To date, BHP Billiton have devoted little energy and effort to reasonable consideration of alternatives.
Similarly there are alternative locations for export shipping facilities south of Whyalla and the whole precint would be better positioned away from one of South Australia’s environmental jewels. Port Bonython Fuels could be positioned closer to the Licoln Highway, to reduce trucking activity on the Port Bonython road. Whyalla locals from the Alternative Ports Working Party have advocated for a site at Mullaquana, south of Whyalla to host both facilities.
As of 2015, Port Bonython Fuels is under construction, and would be unaffected by a moratorium on future developments on the peninsula, if one were to be implimented.
More ports and desalination plants
In mid 2012, shockwaves rang through the country, as BHP Billiton announced that it would not immediately proceed with the promised mine expansion. The decision appeared to be purely economic, and for those interested in the health of Spencer Gulf, the news provided a welcome reprieve. The ‘China slowdown’ and a downturn in the iron ore market has also put pressure on the region’s smaller, emerging miners whose development was previously eclipsed by Olympic Dam’s overwhelming size- representing an estimated 30 billion dollars worth of investment.
Many of these smaller miners have plans (and in some cases, development approvals) to construct ports of their own or expand existing ones on both sides of Spencer Gulf, to the south of Cuttlefish Country. Threats remain of multiple port constructions, expansions and desalination plants even with BHP Billiton stepping back and out of the spotlight. Each chosen location has its own set of obvious environmental compromises, many of which are questionable.
At Lipson Cove, one of the State’s few Little Penguin colonies known to be stable is threatened by Centrex Metals’ Port Spencer project, while the sleepy fishing village of Lucky Bay’s name has new-found irony as Ironclad Mining advances towards exports by road-freight and barge through the Franklin Harbor marine park.
We live in a democratic society in Australia and our gulfs and water resources belong to the South Australian people. Preventing species loss is a long disclosed sustainability target for the SA Government, but in the case of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish, the lack of intervention is unacceptable. Our Governments should be making decisions based on compromise, not outright sacrifice. The Rann-Weatherill South Australian Government has demonstrated a prevailing practise of ‘announce and defend’ in regional development decision-making.
Government today listens closely to the corporate sector, eager to respond to the promise of economic growth. Meanwhile, it pays little attention to the concerns of independent experts, critics and others who often volunteer checks, balances and offer alternative suggestions. South Australian citizens need to inform all levels of government of their concerns and demand better representation. The future of the marine and coastal environments of Spencer Gulf are not to be messed with.
The road ahead
State and Federal environmental approvals were granted to the Olympic Dam mine expansion in October of 2011. Since then, public concern and demands for further research and scrutiny have persisted, including several direct legal challenges of the approvals themselves. Smaller mines have advanced in the approvals process, and each designed its own export pathway. The State has declared its pro-mining position, but the economics have slowed the rush for new developments. Now is the time to urge political representatives to consider the mining boom as part of a diverse mix of South Australian interests. Premier Rann’s successor, Jay Weatherill and his Cabinet must realise that a better deal for the whole of Spencer Gulf is required – for the sake of our fisheries, coastal economies, regional centres and of course, the Giant Australian Cuttlefish!