Our June 2022 speaker was Virginia Trescowthick, a lawyer with Environmental Justice Australia (EJA). EJA is an independent group that provides legal advice and representation for community groups tackling environmental issues including pollution, climate change and species loss. EJA also seeks improvements to existing legislation to better protect the environment.
EJA provided legal support to the Yarra River Keeper Association during the North East Link Environmental Effects Statement hearing in 2019. Other recent cases have involved opposing Vic Forests’ plans to log fire-damaged habitat, young Australians complaint to the United Nations regarding inaction on climate change, challenging the Environment Protection Authority’s assessment of coal fired powered stations in the Latrobe valley, and seeking justice for First Nations people. Virginia spoke about her work with community groups in relation to the Crib Point Gas import terminal and the Fingerboards mineral sands mine. These cases are notable because community groups successfully used the Environment Protection Act and the Planning and Environment Act to protect the environment.
Crib Point in Westernport Bay was the site proposed for a gas import terminal by AGL. The proposal would have featured a 300m long floating terminal/storage facility and a pipeline. Imported liquified gas was to be regasified in a process requiring a huge volume of seawater (about 180 Olympic swimming pools worth per day) to be chlorinated, used for heat exchange, and then discharged back into the bay. Westernport Bay is recognised as a wetland of international significance under the Ramsar Convention and the detrimental effects large amounts of chlorinated water on marine life were of great concern. Virginia and the EJA team represented an alliance of community groups seeking to stop the project (Environment Victoria, the Victorian National Parks Association and Save Westernport) at a 10 week long public hearing. Eight expert witnesses were engaged on to provide evidence on marine, biology, seawater chemistry, engineering, and hydrodynamics. The evidence of AGL’s experts was also tested under cross examination and aspects of their submissions were found to be questionable or incomplete. Key arguments against the proposal centred on Australia’s Ramsar obligations and the need to prevent the irreparable and progressive loss of significant habitat. Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the Minister for Planning rejected the proposed gas import terminal, saying it would result in “unacceptable environmental effects” to the internationally significant Westernport Bay.
The Fingerboards mineral sands mine was a proposal for an extensive open cut mine in Gippsland. The proposed mine site was near a vegetable growing area and the Mitchell River which flows into the Gippsland Lakes. Approximately 250 hectares of endangered and vulnerable native vegetation and habitat for threatened species would have been lost. Contamination of the Mitchell River, the Gippsland lakes and nearby agricultural land were dangers. The material that was to be mined is radioactive meaning that is presented additional dangers if it escaped the mine site. Large volumes of water, extracted either from groundwater or the river, would have also been required to operate the mine. There was great local opposition to the mine and Virginia and the EJA team supported a group of motivated and organised community group called Mine-Free Glenaladale. The public hearing spanned 10 weeks and expert witnesses were engaged to comment on ecology, ground water, economics, and mining. The hearing revealed flaws in the proponent’s plans, including calculations relating to groundwater usage and a failure to consider the handling and transport of radioactive material. There also appeared to be no prospect of the project achieving the no net loss of biodiversity required. Locals spoke in detail about the potential impacts on the area and the community. Following the hearing, the Planning Minister deemed the project to be an unacceptable risk to the environment.
Virginia noted the Crib Point and Fingerboards cases are only the second and third times in 43 years that an Environmental Effects Statement process has halted a development. In both cases a huge effort was required from the community and legal representation was expert evidence was essential. Too often the community do not have the resources to get a fair run at Environmental Effects Statement hearing. This is a critical flaw in the current system that needs to be addressed. For more information on the Crib Point and Fingerboards cases see https://envirojustice.org.au/crib-point-terminal-rejected/ and https://envirojustice.org.au/a-huge-win-for-a-stellar-community-campaign/