Proponents behind a new port in the globally significant biodiversity hotspot of Exmouth Gulf are confident the project can still go ahead despite the West Australian government deciding to create an A-class reserve close to the proposal.
The A-class reserve for Qualing Pool, a lagoon near a creek mouth on the western side of the gulf, is one of the new levels of environmental protection proposed for the water body, with a marine park also set to run some 90 kilometres along the eastern edge which has significant mangrove, bird and dugong habitat.
A new marine park, which would be jointly managed with the Nganhurra Thanardi Garrbu Aboriginal Corporation, will also run adjacent to a $430 million salt mining proposal by the German chemical company K+S which is yet to receive state environmental approvals for its project.
Further A-class reserves, a land designation which has high levels of protection from development, have also been mooted over islands near Exmouth and a site called Cameron’s Cave. Boundaries for the marine park and reserves are yet to be finalised.
The director of marine campaigners Protect Ningaloo, Paul Gamblin, said the government’s decision, which was made off the back of recommendations by the Environmental Protection Authority, was a clear signal of the end to industrial threats to the gulf.
Protect Ningaloo boasts renowned Australian author Tim Winton as its patron and has been rallying against Gascoyne Gateway’s deep-water port proposal, salt projects, and a since-scuppered plan for a subsea pipeline.
Mr Gamblin said the campaign’s focus would move from trying to stop each major industrial proposal as it came along, to protecting the gulf.
But the $300 million port, which would be located not far from a house owned by Winton on a wilderness estate south of the town, is not dead in the water with the EPA yet to determine whether risks from the project could be mitigated.
In Gascoyne Gateway’s latest submission to the environmental watchdog it recognised the EPA’s report to the government in August, which recommended Qualing Pool be protected, by talking about the work it would do to not impact and better understand the site.
Under the banner of ‘required work’ in the submission, the company said it needed to “provide a detailed impact assessment on values of Qualing Pool including cumulative impacts on the water quality, including groundwater, to Qualing Pool from existing and future surrounding activities”.
Gascoyne Gateway chief executive Michael Edwards said it had long understood the pool’s cultural and environmental value to both Traditional Owners and the broader community.
“We are confident our project can co-exist with Qualing Pool as an A-class nature reserve. We are committed to a regenerative approach to everything we do, which includes leaving the environment better than we find it,” he said.
“We look forward to working with the state government, the Traditional Owners and the local community to identify the best way we can support the ongoing protection and enhancement of Qualing Pool for generations to come. This will include the provision of data collected during our environmental impact studies.”
EPA chairman Professor Matthew Tonts said it would be up to developers to prove their projects are compatible with the protection of key values in what was a “globally significant area”.
“This will ensure important marine species such as humpback whales, dugongs, dolphins and turtles are protected for future generations.”
K+S Salt Australia managing director Gerrit Gödecke said the marine park would not impact its project.
“From the outset of our project in 2016, we recognised the importance of the Exmouth Gulf and its south-eastern coastal areas,” he said.
“For this reason, we have engaged with Traditional Owners, environmental authorities, scientists, industry and local stakeholders to study impacts on the local marine environment and adjusted the Ashburton Salt project to minimise them.”
Despite the enthusiasm from the salt and port proponents, WA Environment Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said a higher bar had now been set for would-be projects around the gulf.
“There’s a number of proposals with the EPA and they’ll go through the EPA process,” she said.
“What the EPA cumulative impact assessments did indicate was that there will be a higher bar for those assessments and so the EPA will have to take that into consideration.”
An integrated management body will also be established to fill knowledge gaps over the next 18 months with the official marine park to be set up afterwards.
The state government is still working on marine parks in the Kimberley and Great Southern, which would be finalised before moving onto Exmouth. The coastal edge of the gulf marine park would also connect to another proposed national park on the land called Giralia.
The protection of some of the 2600 square kilometre gulf comes after a previous Labor government removed the water body from its application to UNESCO to make the Ningaloo Reef a World Heritage Site a decade ago.
Ms Sanderson said there were still a number of options that may allow a certain amount of conservation with commercial activity which was important for the small town of Exmouth.
“It’s about balancing those interests,” she said.
In another recent development, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions is looking to have more research done into “blue carbon”, which is carbon stored in marine ecosystems.
“Focusing on Shark Bay and Ningaloo marine parks, both inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list, the project will quantify blue carbon in these parks, assess risks to long-term storage, and identify key assets,” a government challenge document said.
“Understanding blue carbon capture in marine parks requires research that takes a whole-of-ecosystem approach to assess areas of strength and weakness in WA’s blue carbon capacity, with the scope including macroalgae, mangroves, seagrass and tidal marshes.”
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