Port Playford – the latest in a decade of industrial proposals for Spencer Gulf

by Dan Monceaux

Most naturalists probably haven’t committed much thought to the topics of port developments, seawater desalination, shipping and their respective environmental impacts. I found my way into these fields of study back in 2011, when I began asking questions about the decline and future viability of the world’s only known mass breeding aggregation of cuttlefish in inshore waters.

Work began on the documentary film Cuttlefish Country (still in production) and it quickly grew to incorporate a thorough and ongoing analysis of the Spencer Gulf region’s industrial and natural history. Since that time, the cuttlefish population has taken a turn for the better, after bottoming out in 2013. Some industrial proposals have come and gone (like a mineral export port proposal at Port Bonython) while others have come to fruition (Sundrop Farms’ seawater desalination plant and the expansion of Lucky Bay harbour). Another was thought abandoned, but has come back from the dead: Port Spencer. Fish farming of Yellowtail kingfish in Fitzgerald Bay threatens to do the same.

The newest project to emerge and advance to pending State Government approval is called Port Playford. Primarily intended to serve the iron ore export requirements of Cu-River Mining, the project managed to secure legal status as “essential infrastructure” under South Australian legislation and has rapidly advanced from first announcement to pending development approval in under two years. The proposal is located south of Port Augusta, on the site of the former coal-fired Playford power stations.

Regrettably, I never saw the official opportunity for formal comment. Just last night, I was shown the 500+ page development application, along with a similarly substantial compilation of submissions from: the general public, concerned residents of Port Augusta, businesses and government agencies. Mucking my way through them resulted in a short letter intended for publication in the Upper Spencer Gulf region. It is republished in full below.

Not covered in the letter is the potential risk posed by increasing shipping traffic, should it cut close to the cuttlefish breeding grounds. The present proposal indicates loading ships at sea south-east of Whyalla, which should provide a wide enough buffer zone… but as I wrote many years ago when the Port Bonython mineral port proposal was a live issue, cuttlefish can be harmed or killed by underwater noise. The other consideration will be the potential for this shipping traffic to impact seasonal whale migrations, which in the cooler months bring playful humpback whales and vulnerable Southern right whales up the gulf, at times right up to the Port Augusta township.

Future whale interactions should be addressed with an EPBC Act referral… but despite their global significance, the Giant Australian cuttlefish aggregation at Point Lowly and Port Bonython receives no special protection from environmental impacts. They are only protected from direct, targeted fishing within a limited geographical area- one that has both expanded and reduced in recent years.

I was encouraged to read many submissions in response to the Port Playford proposal written by concerned residents who see, understand and value the living Spencer Gulf environment as a place of great environmental and cultural value. As always, economic thrust must be moderated by sound environmental decision-making and functional regulation and enforcement. Too often the latter are but an after-thought.


Letter: Port Playford – prospect or pipe dream?

When a proposal to convert the old Playford power station to a transshipment port surfaced in 2019 I was skeptical. Having studied all of the port proposals in Spencer Gulf closely since 2011, this looked to be the most dubious yet.

Transshipment is attractive to port developers as it reduces the cost of on-shore construction. Yet its viability depends on many factors, including the distance cargo must be carried by barge to reach the transshipment point where it is transferred into ocean-going vessels. The longer the journey, the more costly.

The numbers provided in the Port Playford development application are discouraging. The transshipment point, south-east of Whyalla is some seventy kilometres from the proposed port. That’s almost four times further than the average at existing or approved transshipment operations for minerals in Australia.

Each Cape-sized vessel will take at least eleven 140 kilometre round trips to load. Powered barges will make it roughly a 4 hour trip, each way. The proponent hasn’t mentioned how many barges it plans to run simultaneously. Barges create noise above and below water and can churn up the seabed in the shallows.

Environmental issues aside, the operation looks impractical. Yet the proponent predicts exports of up to 15 million tonnes of ore per annum. Arrium had that same target at Whyalla. Despite having much shorter transshipping distances and multiple barges, they never reached it.

The people of Port Augusta deserve more answers to their questions before the State Commission Assessment Panel makes their approval decision.

By Dan Monceaux

Dan Monceaux is a documentary filmmaker with a keen interest in marine biodoversity and conservation issues. He joined MLSSA in 2013 and served as Secretary from April-December 2014. Dan snorkels and has burning passions for underwater photography and citizen science.

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