The Age decided to do an analysis of the fight between Port of Hastings and Bay West: Here is the article that appeared in the Age on 10th April 2014:
Melbourne, 2050: population 6.4 million. The number of daily truck trips has risen to 650,000 – more than double the number there were in 2014. The city’s roads heave with heavy vehicles moving the lion’s share of the nation’s imports and exports around the state and the country.
A freight truck hits the road somewhere in Melbourne 450 times a minute on average, day and night, but increasingly at night when people are at home and the city’s stressed road network is mostly empty of commuters.
Perhaps no road has more trucks on it than the Monash Freeway, for decades Melbourne’s busiest arterial and now the most crucial link between the swelling city and its main container port at Hastings, some 75 kilometres south-east of Melbourne on the muddy shores of Western Port.
Once a sleepy fishing town with only a small working port, Hastings is now home to the busiest port in Australia, a massive shipping hub handling 9 million containers a year, almost double what the Port of Melbourne was handling when it hit the limits of its capacity in the mid-2020s.
Goods are shipped into Western Port on colossal vessels built to carry more than 8000 containers, loaded onto the backs of B-double trucks and dispersed to factories and freight terminals all over Melbourne, but especially to the city’s three big industrial zones in the south-east, west and north.
About 15 to 20 per cent is moved by rail, along a new freight line between Hastings and the sprawling Dynon rail terminal west of the CBD, called the South Eastern Rail Link. Trains up to 1.5 kilometres snake through the south-eastern suburbs along a third track recently built next to the Dandenong railway line at a cost of more than $3 billion. In the dead of night they thunder past the backyards of homes in Caulfield, Malvern, Armadale and Toorak.
That is, if all goes according to the Napthine government’s grand plan.
This speculative snapshot of Melbourne’s mid-21st-century future is envisioned in a long-term freight and logistics plan the government released in August. The plan, Victoria – The Freight State, says a vastly expanded road and rail network must be built to cope with a projected tripling of freight by 2050.
At the heart of the plan is the Port of Hastings. Denis Napthine, who was ports minister before he was Premier, is determined to preserve Melbourne’s status as Australia’s first port of call for shipping, and is convinced that expanding the Port of Hastings is the only way to do so.
The Port of Melbourne handled 37 per cent of Australia’s container trade last financial year, about 2.5 million containers in all. According to Victoria – The Freight State, ”the freight and logistics sector contributed between $19 billion and $23 billion to Victoria’s gross state product in 2011, representing up to 8 per cent of the Victorian economy”.
In an interview with Fairfax Media, Napthine says business done through the Port of Melbourne gives Victoria an economic advantage it cannot afford to lose, but easily could in years to come if the state makes the wrong moves.
”It’s quite extraordinary when you think of the geography of Australia that the port that is at the bottom of Australia is the biggest import-export port for containers,” he says.
But the Port of Melbourne is due to reach its capacity near the middle of next decade, despite a $1.6 billion expansion project that is under way. If that happens, some ships will head to other ports and Victoria risks losing valuable container trade to competing states.
The other reason Victoria risks losing port trade is because container vessels are on course to outgrow the Port Phillip Bay shipping channel, Napthine says.
A recent briefing by the Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure to Ports Minister David Hodgett backs up the Premier on this point, noting that Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide ”are already developing the capacity and facilities to accommodate this class of vessel”.
While many of the ships that visit Melbourne now are built to carry between 4000 and 6000 containers, the department predicts ships built to transport more than 8000 containers will come here and says the port must be able to accommodate them or risk being bypassed.
It is for this reason above all others that the Napthine government is looking to Hastings, because Western Port has deeper water than Port Phillip Bay. It has been estimated expanding Hastings will cost between $10 billion and $12 billion.
”We’re either going to have to aim to be Australia’s port or else we’re out of the race, and we can only be in the race if we have the capacity for those larger ships that will come,” Napthine says.
But there is a second option, favoured by Labor and some influential voices in the transport industry, including Paul Little, the former head of transport firm Toll Group, who say a port located somewhere between Avalon and Werribee West, dubbed Bay West, would have excellent transport links and be closer to Melbourne’s industrial heartland.
Department planners saw enough merit in Bay West to investigate it as a potential alternative to Hastings. Bay West, they advised Napthine in 2011, had ”significant potential advantages … including ample availability of suitable back-up land, almost unlimited potential berth capacity and close proximity to Avalon Airport and key road and rail connections”.
The case for Bay West has proved compelling enough for the Labor opposition to abandon the pro-Hastings policy it had while in government. ”We won’t be investing in a container port expansion at the Port of Hastings, full stop,” says shadow ports minister Natalie Hutchins.
She says if Labor wins the next election the $110 million the Napthine government has allocated over four years to plan the expansion of Hastings would be ”clawed back” as much as possible and redirected towards developing Bay West.
For Hutchins, Hastings is simply too remote from Melbourne’s industry and from the national freight rail network, unless several billion dollars are spent on new road and rail projects.
And unlike Bay West with its ”almost unlimited” berthing capacity, the department has assessed that Hastings might run out of space by about 2050.
Predictions of super-sized vessels too big for Port Phillip Bay to handle are also overblown, Hutchins says, an assessment backed by freight expert Dr Hermione Parsons, director of the Institute for Supply Chain and Logistics at Victoria University.
”The government suggests we need to have a deeper water port for the larger shipping vessels to come to Melbourne and if we don’t then we wouldn’t have a port,” Parsons says. ”We would argue very strongly this is not correct.”
She says Port Phillip Bay can take vessels that can carry 8000 to 10,000 containers, as could the port in Bay West. ”In the future that is the maximum size that we would actually see.”
But the prospect of any future port at Bay West has been dampened by a damning assessment made by the Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure in a briefing to Ports Minister David Hodgett last year, and obtained by Fairfax Media.
After spending two years investigating Bay West, the department and its executive director, freight, logistics and marine, Terry Garwood, formed the ”clear conclusion” that it’s a bad idea – ”an unrealistic alternative to the Port of Hastings”.
To make it a realistic alternative would require dredging of a magnitude never before attempted in Australia, removing between 66 million and 84 million cubic metres of material, including rock, from the sea floor.
By comparison, 22 million cubic metres was dredged from the bay during the last major channel deepening project.
”Even more critical, there is a real risk that development of any alternative Bay West site would ultimately prove not to be feasible due to the level of technical difficulty involved and uncertainties in achieving social and environmental licence to proceed,” Garwood wrote.
Environmental groups have also raised fears about the impact a new port in Bay West would have on the area’s wildlife.
A report released by the Victorian National Parks Association in February suggests it could threaten the Spit Wildlife Reserve and Lake Borrie (an artificial lake crucial to the Western Treatment Plant), which is protected under the global wetlands treaty known as Ramsar and is home to more than 270 bird species, many of which are threatened.
But concerns about how the Port of Hastings expansion could affect the natural environment of Western Port are also growing.
Dr Brian Cuming, research co-ordinator for the Westernport and Peninsula Protection Council, a community group, says Western Port is uniquely vulnerable to shipping-related pollution, because the ocean current flows clockwise around French Island, meaning any contaminant spreads around the entire bay. ”Pollute the bay anywhere and within days or weeks it’ll be everywhere,” Cuming says.
While parts of Western Port have been home to industry for decades and look like it, the bay is one of the state’s most sensitive environmental sites. It is also protected under Ramsar and is home to 1350 marine species.
Within its boundaries are three marine national parks that house important mangroves, seagrass and mudflats that are habitats and nurseries for aquatic species and rare birds. Species found throughout the bay include the Phillip Island fairy penguins and one of Victoria’s faunal emblems, the weedy seadragon.
The United Nations also recognises Western Port as one of 500 global ”biosphere reserves” – alongside other Australian sites such as Uluru and the Kosciuszko National Park – which combine outstanding natural values with high rates of human activity.
And the world’s bird lobby, BirdLife International, sees Western Port as critical, naming it as one of its 10,000 important global bird areas because it provides a home to endangered species such as the orange-bellied parrot, far eastern curlews and the red-necked stint.
Conservation groups worry about what an expanded Port of Hastings will mean for this rich biodiversity. They point to the potential for oil spills, waves from increased shipping, and the dredging, dumping and land-use needed to grow the port.
Last year the Victorian National Parks Association commissioned consultants to model the effects of a relatively small oil spill from a ship in Western Port. The modelling did not look at the likelihood of a spill, or study a major accident involving a spill from an oil tanker, but rather focused on the effects of a smaller spill of transport fuels (there have been 27 similar spills in 43 years in Australia).
The work, which was backed up by tests on water, found oil would spread widely and quickly and in some conditions reach protected areas within hours. This week the association will release two more reports – building on that modelling – on the potential environmental risks from an expanded Port of Hastings.
The first, by BirdLife Australia, identifies risks to birds in the bay. It finds penguins are most at risk from oil spills, and that any oil spill would have serious short and long-term impacts on migratory shorebirds and the bay’s 270 square kilometres of mudflats that are a food source.
The report also finds waves generated by ships can have an impact on the productivity of seagrass beds and erode shorelines, which are again crucial for swans, ducks and shorebirds to forage. Also, reclaiming land and dredging is likely to affect seagrass beds.
The second report, by marine ecologist Dr Hugh Kirkman, studied the potential risks to the bay’s seagrass, mangroves and saltmarsh communities. If a minor oil spill occurred all three could be damaged, depending on weather and tidal conditions. Mangroves are highly susceptible, and could be killed by spilt oil within weeks.
But the government is adamant that Victoria cannot afford to take a punt on Bay West, and that expanding Hastings is inevitable.
”The first principle of ports is you build it for ships,” Napthine says. ”It’s no good building a port that suits road and rail if you can’t get the ships in.”
Adam Carey is transport reporter and Tom Arup is environment editor.