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Toxic shocker.

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Thu, 24th January 2008 TOXIC SHOCKER

The Hon Greg Hunt MP Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Urban Water (to 22 September 2008)

Having grown up on the Mornington Peninsula, places such as Fisherman's Beach, Mt Martha Beach, Cameron's Bight and Safety Beach are of almost sacred standing in my memory.

Now, as the father of a two year old daughter, Poppy, one of the great joys of my life is to swim and paddle together in the shallows of Mt Martha Beach.

Like all parents who live around the Bay, there is a sense of deep personal responsibility to make sure that we protect the Bay's great heritage. Our task is simple. Protect the waters of Port Phillip so as our children will in turn be able to swim in one of the cleanest Bays - near to a major city - anywhere in the world.

This vision of a clean aquatic playground is however under threat. The proposal to dump two million tonnes of toxic sediment from the mouth of the Yarra into the middle of the Bay is simply wrong. Materials to be dredged from the Yarra and dumped in the Bay include heavy metals such as zinc, mercury, and lead. There are also remnant toxins such as DDT and Dieldrin.

These toxic materials are the result of more than a century's industrial activity on the banks of the lower Yarra. Sewage, oil refining, gas production, paint production and smelting have all contributed to the toxic cocktail which has settled at the bottom of the Yarra.

Yet the Brumby Government's proposal is to dredge two million tonnes of this toxic waste, to dump it in the Bay and then to leave it exposed at the whim of tidal movements and weather for almost 5 months. That's right, 150 years of toxic waste will be dredged and dumped in the Bay and left uncovered for almost 5 months. Only then will this most toxic of cocktails be capped.

Why will this process take 5 months? Because the Premier and his Government have determined that 140 days need be allowed for the suspended particles to settle. In the meantime the dredge material - including toxins and other sediments - will be in various states of suspension. The natural system of the Bay will of course wash the suspended material around.

Two other questions explain why this plan to dump heavy metals in our Bay is just plain wrong. First, why is it that virtually no-one swims in the lower Yarra? Answer: Irrespective of any shipping issues we all know the mouth of the Yarra is polluted. Second, would a private company be allowed to dump sediment contaminated by zinc, lead and mercury in the Bay? Answer: Absolutely not. There is then both a short and long term path forwards.

The short term answer is clear. The State must demand and develop a plan to not only clean up the spoil and safely store it, but also clean up the effects of over 100

years of industry on the Yarra. There could and should be a once in a century clean up of the lower Yarra. Instead of creating a toxic legacy for our children in the middle of the Bay we can use this opportunity to clean up the Yarra for them and for our grand-children - while at the same time protecting the Bay and not using it as a site for toxic spoil.

The State should be holding a tender to clean up the silt and store it in safe lined landfill rather than in free suspension for the next 5 months. In case the Premier says otherwise, remember the old gas works in South Melbourne was cleaned out, cleaned up, turned into a wonderful urban park and the spoil stored safely and appropriately on land.

The long term answer is also clear. Over the next 50 years Victoria's port infrastructure will progressively be moved from Melbourne to Western Port and more probably the coastal deep water harbour at Portland. Melbourne will inevitably be subject to the global trend to move from river ports to deep water coastal ports.

This is happening for three reasons. First, there are depth constraints on river ports. The very trend to deep draught shipping which is driving the current dredging will ultimately limit the Yarra's future as a shipping port. Second, as we see with the Docklands development, there is a global trend to residential and open space redevelopment of inner city port land. Third, as Lindsay Fox suggests, there are long term traffic congestion issues for the cities of the future.

We must then begin the task of planning for a Victorian shipping solution which looks out over a half century or more and which acknowledges the realities of the history to come.

In the meantime, the Premier has a once in a century chance to either clean up the Yarra and end the dumping of toxins in our public waters, or to repeat the mistakes of the last 150 years. These great generational choices are the reasons we elect leaders and I deeply hope the Premier takes this opportunity to be a leader for the next century, rather than the last century.