EES Directions Hearing Begins

EES Directions Hearing Begins

The Directions Hearing for the Environment Effects Statement on AGL’s gas import proposal was held on September 17.

For the first time an EES Hearing will be live-streamed via video link due to COVID restrictions.

The Hearings will be chaired by Kathy Mitchell, Chief member of the five-member Inquiry Advisory Committee Panel. The Panel was appointed by the Victorian Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne to oversee the EES Hearings and advise him of their findings at its conclusion.

Ms Mitchell was clear and direct as she explained the purpose of the Directions Hearing, and laid out the schedule. The Panel Hearings will review the Environment Effects Statement that AGL prepared, and the thousands of submissions that the public has written in response. 

The IAC Hearings will begin October 12continuing every day except Fridays and weekends until mid December. The Panel will break for Christmas and return their finding sometime in mid-February 

The Hearings will be live streamed, and recordings made available the following day along with other information on the EngageVic IAC website here

At the Directions Hearing on September 17, each of the Panel members introduced themselves, followed by the legal teams for the represented parties. These were:

– The local Mornington Peninsula Shire Council

– Cardinia Shire Council 

– Key community and environmental groups Save Westernport, Environment Victoria and Victoria National Parks Association, (VNPA) represented by Environmental Justice Australia (EJA)

– the EPA 

– the Proponents AGL, and pipeline company APA

– the Port of Hastings Development Authority

An article about the Directions Hearing appeared in the Australian Financial Review the following day. 

The two most important aspects of the Directions Hearing were. 

1. Legal Counsel for Mornington Peninsula Shire Council (MPSC) requested the Hearings to be adjourned on the grounds that expert witnesses have not been able to conduct necessary site inspections due to current Stage 4 Lockdown restrictions.

They argued that it would be procedurally unfair to require expert witnesses for the Council and other groups to give evidence on subjects including visual amenity, marine impacts, coastal flora and fauna, traffic and more, without the benefit of visiting the various locations that would be affected by AGL’s project.

The IAC Panel seemed reluctant to allow any change to the Hearing schedule, but gave no reason for the rushed agenda.

In May this year AGL CEO Brett Redman claimed in The AGE that the EES process should be ‘fast-tracked’.

This led to concerns that the AGL CEO’s comments might have unduly influenced Minister Wynne’s decision that led him to announce that the EES would proceed without due regard for the difficulties of COVID-19, the State of Disaster, or the escalating restrictions of Stage 4 lockdown that as predicted, have been making participation in the EES process so difficult for the public. 

The Minister for Planning refused to be swayed by appeals from Save Westernport, from the Mornington Peninsula Mayor, local Member for Flinders Greg Hunt MP, and hundreds of members of the community, requesting that he consider how greatly the limitations of the pandemic would compromise people’s ability to write submissions and participate in the Public Hearings if the EES were allowed to proceed with COVID restrictions still in effect.

This will be the first time an EES Hearing has ever had to be remotely operated. DELWP representatives have confirmed that it is also the most complex EES ever held in Victoria.

Just as COVID restrictions limited the ability of the public to collaborate on reviewing thousands of pages of AGL’s EES reports to make a submission, AGL will also benefit from the inevitable advantage they’ll receive due to the considerable challenges of COVID-19 and the ways that will impact the EES Hearing. 

For the last two years, Witnesses for AGL have been able to visit the area without restriction. In contrast, our expert witnesses may not ever have the chance to see the proposed locations before being required to give evidence at the Hearing. 
Groups including Save Westernport will have difficulty  advising our legal teams in real time when neither of us can be present during the Hearings.  

In response to the request for an adjournment, the IAC Chair asked whether the local Council could simply issue permits to allow expert witnesses to visit the proposed locations. Panel members we’re issued with permits to visit the area last week.

In his response the Shire’s legal Counsel referred to the State government’s list of exemptions to COVID restrictions, pointing out that it does not allow for witnesses.

The Panel Chair stated that twice during their recent visit to the area, the Members’ vehicle was stopped by local police patrols to check their permits and ask where the group was going.

According to Ms Mitchell, unless permits for site visits can be arranged, we may have to accept that our expert witnesses will have to give evidence without the benefit of ever viewing the areas they’re required to report on.

Nevertheless, expert witnesses will play an important role, challenging AGL and the information they provided in their EES reports during the Hearings.

You can help us meet to costs of providing expert witnesses by DONATING to Save Westernport’s Fundraising campaign here. Expert witnesses will test AGL’s claims, and present detailed evidence on key subjects at the Hearings.

 

2. The second point of interest resulting from the Directions Hearing was Panel Chair Kathy Mitchell’s announcement that the IAC overseeing the Hearings and the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council have each issued AGL and APA with requests for further information that was not available in their EES reports.

Among the many tabled documents on the IAC website, are the extensive lists of further information that the proponents must supply.

These requests confirm what we discovered when AGL’s EES reports became available: they lack important detail and rely on flawed modelling, questionable data and incorrect assumptions.

The lists of extra information required by the IAC Panel and Mornington Peninsula Shite Council  are extensive and include requests for details of tidal and weather conditions that should’ve been provided with the original field work in the original EES reports and pipeline application.

Data on greenhouse gas emissions, on the handling of chlorine and formaldehyde, management of contamination by potential acid sulphate soil (PASS), management of increased truck traffic, the inadequacy of mitigation strategies and disposal of the oily sludge produced during regasification are further examples of the kind of extra information that is sought.

Other examples were listed in an article in the Financial Review this week.

AGL needed two years to prepare their EES reports. They now have until September 25 to outline how they plan to provide all that requested information to the Panel.

Counsel for the proponent AGL, Mr Townsend attempted to make light of the requests, claiming that additional information is routinely requested at this stage. However, if these details were available to AGL, surely they would have included it in their original EES it was released.

A recording of the Directions Hearing, and thousands of submissions from the public have been made available on the IAC Planning Panels website here

https://engage.vic.gov.au/crib-point-IAC

Panel Chair, Ms Mitchell provided this list of the main themes emerging in the public submissions so far. 

Members of the public who made submissions on the EES will be able to address the Panel at the Public Hearings. Whether people initially requested to speak for one hour or one minute, the large numbers of people wanting to address the Panel has made it necessary for spoken submissions from the public to be limited to just 8 minutes each.

This stage of the Hearings probably won’t commence until about mid November, and everyone who applied to speak will address the Panel via Zoom video link.

Suggested sites for the IAC Panel to visit, and numerous witness statements are available in the Tabled Documents for the Hearing. This list is constantly being updated.

For more information on the EES Hearings contact Andrea Harwood or Georgia Thomas of Planning Panels Victoria (03) 8392 5116

cribpoint.IAC@delwp.vic.gov.au.

The Mornington Peninsula Shire Council has suggested that the Panel should visit sites on French Island, Woolleys Beach and Warringine Park. It’s hoped that Panel members will appreciate the extent of environmental degradation the AGL proposal would bring unless it is rejected.

Warringine Park, between Crib Point and Hastings lies within the Westernport Ramsar site. The Park is considered significant to the survival of critically endangered migratory bird species, including the Far Eastern Curlew and the Fairy Tern. 

If the project ever went ahead, Warringine Park would be severely impacted by the construction of a new gas pipeline that would bisect its fragile wetlands.

A Virtual Tour of Warringine Park is available here

Bass Coast Council has also suggested several a locations on Phillip Island.

A virtual tour of Ryhll on Phillip Island is available here

If AGL proceeded with their deeply unpopular plans, upper estimates of 40 LNG tankers per year would increase commercial shipping traffic in Westernport by as much as 40% for the next twenty years.

The ever-present spectre of AGL’s proposed floating gas factory at Crib Point, the visiting LNG tankers, dredging (‘levelling’) and diesel-belching tug boats, would permanently change the character of Westernport, altering its vista across the Bay from nearly every lookout and vantage point.

This and other disastrous impacts and safety concerns are detailed Save Westernport’s submission against the AGL proposal and EES. Read it here.

Despite the limitations and difficulties of COVID, we should congratulate ourselves that a total of 6,059 submissions have officially been received by the EES Panel in opposition to the AGL proposal.

These public submissions can be viewed here on the IAC website ( Inquiry Advisory Committee).
The Panel Chair confirmed at the Hearings that a controversial decision by Planning Panels Victoria has resulted in thousands of submissions being excluded from the official tally. Save Westernport raised this matter through our legal representative at the Directions Hearing. This resulted in the official tally being revised upwards from 3083 to 6059.

Even though this total smashed all previous records for EES submissions received in Victoria, the Panel’s decision not to count as many as half the submissions received has angered and disappointed many people.

This outcome was attributed to “incorrect advice” that meant thousands of submissions were lodged through an alternative government email address.

Understandably, the decision has been confusing, because the department acknowledges receiving some, but not all of the submissions through the alternate, (incorrect) website, and all submissions in question were received before Planning Panel’s deadline on August 26.

While submissions in this group will not be counted as individual submissions, Planning Panels Victoria states that they WILL be still be reviewed, and the information they contain taken into account. 

The enormous number of submissions against the AGL proposal is still many times greater than the numbers usually received for EES projects in Victoria, which confirms the extent of community interest, concern and overwhelming opposition to AGL’s plans.

Remember, Save Westernport is still raising urgently needed funds to take on AGL at the Panel Hearings on October 12.

 

Save Westernport will be represented during the EES Hearings by Environmental Justice Australia. However, we are still short of our target to provide legal Counsel throughout the two months of Hearings, and to engage expert witnesses to challenge the inadequate technical and ecological information contained in AGL’s EES reports. 

The average cost of an expert witness to provide a report and undergo cross examination by AGL’s barristers is over $5,000 each.

You can help by donating to help us meet the costs of expert witnesses and legal representation to take on AGL at the EES Hearings. Our barristers will be required to attend up to ten weeks of Hearings, and will be appearing at a greatly reduced rate. 

If you’re able to help us challenge AGL, you’ll also be helping us make sure the community’s interests are represented at the EES Hearings, 

PLEASE MAKE A DONATION TODAY.

We are determined to demonstrate how inappropriate and unnecessary AGL’s Gas import plans in Westernport really are.