Top End’s Mysterious Port Melville Escapes Environmental Assessment, Again

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Port Melville has been under a cloud since May, when it emerged it had been built under the Federal government’s nose with no consideration of how it’ll impact the pristine Tiwi Islands. Thom Mitchell reports.

Conservation groups have slammed Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s decision to green-light a controversial Top End development known as Port Melville, which sparked scandal this May when it emerged it had escaped all the usual environmental assessment and approval processes.

Signed off on by a senior bureaucrat on October 26, environmental groups said the decision leaves the door open to ecological disaster on the pristine Tiwi Islands, around 80 kilometres north of Darwin.

The area is prone to cyclones — a small forestry wharf at the site was destroyed by one in 2007 — and the port has already recorded one minor oil spill since construction on its dramatic expansion began in October 2014.

As New Matilda has previously revealed, the Department of Environment bungled a series of investigations into the $130 million development, and when it emerged it had already been built by the time Port Melville hit the headlines in May, the government investigated criminal allegations against its developers.

Minister Hunt vowed at the time that “if further action needs to be taken, we will take it without fear or favour, no matter where the blame lies”. But after the government demanded documents outlining the scope and nature of the project, it was decided this week that a full environmental assessment is not necessary.

Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt.
Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt.

As a result, Port Melville’s impact on 38 species listed as threatened under Top End or Commonwealth law will never be fully considered and the manner in which the port will operate is less tightly stipulated.

The port is equipped to store 30 million litres of fuel, boasts a 150-person accommodation village, and will receive scores of 200 metre-long ships via the narrow Apsley strait, which runs between Bathurst and Melville Islands.

The Acting Director of the Northern Territory Environment Centre, Anna Boustead said both Northern Territory and Federal authorities “have left the door wide open to create the perfect storm for a major oil spill”.

“This is a disgraceful decision which makes a mockery of the Territory and Australia’s environmental laws,” she said.

“We have no confidence that the conditions the Northern Territory EPA and now Minister Hunt have included will address the risk to turtles, dugongs or seabirds.”

The Principle Lawyer at the Northern Territory Environmental Defender’s Office, David Morris, has similar reservations. The public interest litigator said that Port Melville has been “a big failure that highlights a need for law reform”.

“I don’t feel like the process followed was in the spirit and intent of environmental impact assessment generally, and what they’re supposed to do,” Morris said.

“They’re supposed to allow people to have a check and balance on projects before a shovel goes in the ground.

“You look at all the impacts and you’re supposed to think very broadly about that from the beginning. In this case that’s meant there’s not been a consideration of whether those [fuel]tanks are appropriately sited, for example.

A screencap from ABC TV of Port Melville under construction.
A screencap from ABC TV of Port Melville under construction.

“This is a really large scale project and it seems to me that Hunt’s decision didn’t really describe how he came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t have a major impact on matters of national environmental significance.”

The decision giving Port Melville the go ahead does contain some conditions regulating how the port should operate, including that only 40 ships can visit it each month, and only 20 of them can be more than 50 metres in length.

Morris said while there are requirements around how the port must operate, many of them are vague and it’s unclear what compliance work will be undertaken by the government.

“I suppose the good thing about the decision was they did say that it has to be undertaken in a particular manner, and it’s an offence if they fail to undertake the action in that manner, so it has created offence provisions the government could use.”

In a statement to the Singapore stock exchange Captain Larry Johnson, who has overseen two Singaporean companies’ efforts to develop the gas and oil supply hub at Port Melville, said the developers “look forward to commencing planned operations”.

It may not be all smooth sailing, though. New Matilda understands the Australian Marine Conservation Society is receiving advice on a possible legal challenge to force a full environmental impact assessment.

Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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