Walking the environmental tightrope

Just how hard it is for port executives to plan ahead and get traction for major new development, in an era when environmental concerns are paramount?

At a time when shipping lines are clamouring for new berth space, and are prepared to drop some ports from their voyage patterns to overcome congestion, port managers in the western world in particular are having to walk a tightrope between the need for quick action and the need to ensure that not just commercial issues but environmental concerns are fully answered.

Melbourne's channel deepening is a case in point. As Australia's largest container port, Melbourne is vital not only to the economy of the state of Victoria but to the country as a whole.

However, the port has long been plagued by a shallow channel, meaning that some vessels have to leave with below-optimal loads. Deepening means dredging the channel, which has an effect upon marine life and also creates the need for a dumping ground for the spoil.

The Melbourne environmental lobby is strong meaning that the issue is now not only a "news" event for the shipping and transport media but is on the front pages of the non-trade daily newspapers every day.

As is normal when "general" news reportage strays into shipping and ports, there is a feeling that the facts are not always understood and that the debate has become emotive. When dredging started recently, a water-borne protest by environmental critics raised fears of people on surfboards or canoes placing their lives at risk from the suction created by the dredger.

The port has been forced into the position of promising frequent news conferences to handle the weight of questioning.

That's not necessarily bad - the environmental concerns are genuine and the concerns need to be answered.

But the idea of deepening Melbourne's channel has been around since 1993. It has taken 15 years to get this far. It signals how tough it is for ports now, and no doubt it will be tougher in future, to balance development with the need to clear environmental hurdles.

The question is has the correct balance been found yet?

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