Minister backs Western Port woodland clearance to expand sand mine

The Andrews government has given the green light to clearing native bushland to make way for the extension of a sand mine near Western Port against the wishes of the local council and hundreds of residents.

The decision comes as the is not achieving its own objective of no net biodiversity loss from native vegetation clearing on private land.

The government has given Dandy Premix Quarries permission to clear 13 hectares of native woodland in the Western Port Woodlands, near Grantville, to expand a large sand quarry and remove 30 million tonnes of sand over the next 40 years, including authorisation to dig below the water table.

Local environmentalists and residents have reacted angrily, saying the woodland is a crucial biolink, or wildlife corridor, that connects fragmented areas of forest in the region.

Bass Coast Mayor Michael Whelan said the decision ignored the concerns of both the council and the community around the expansion and ran counter to the government’s own mission to safeguard the state’s distinctive areas and landscapes.

The environment is our economy in Bass Coast, but this decision by the state government shows it does not put the same value on the environment as it does on the economy, which is incredibly concerning, Whelan said.

The Western Port Woodlands lie between the small towns of Lang Lang and Bass and is the only significant coastal forest in one of the most cleared regions in Victoria. It is home to threatened species, including southern brown bandicoots, powerful owls and lace monitors.

About 40 per cent of the woodland area is designated as an extractive industry interest area. Eight sand mines operate in the woodlands, including five in conservation reserves. Another 11 work permits have been approved for sand mining and seven more are under application.

The government says Victoria needs a ready supply of raw materials as the state grows and embarks on its unprecedented big build of new infrastructure. Victoria’s population is forecast to reach 10 million before 2050.

After the application was lodged with the council in 2020, Planning Minister Richard Wynne removed the decision from the council’s hands and referred it to an independent planning panel. There were about 80 objections on the grounds the plan was inconsistent with the council’s biodiversity strategy and its impact on threatened species.

This approval sends a strong signal that the government is putting mining ahead of the environment, and ahead of the people who live near the sand mine, said Catherine Watson, a spokesperson for the Save Western Port Woodlands group, which has 350 members.

The group had presented a petition to parliament with 4000 signatures. Ultimately, it wants the woodlands to be turned into a national park, to be co-managed by the Bunurong Land Council and Parks Victoria.

The planning panel found the native vegetation corridor was likely to be irreversibly damaged by clearing, saying it was critical that ongoing habitat connectivity was provided between the nearby Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve and Grantville Bushland Reserve.

The issue of policy balance has been challenging for the panel, and there is a direct tension particularly between policies relating to extractive industries and native vegetation, the panel’s report said.

But the panel also noted the sand resource had been identified as a priority project on the state’s extractive industry list. and extraction locations are shifting to fragile environments, such as rivers, coastlines and oceans, which is severely impacting these ecosystems.

Jordan Crook, a nature campaigner with the Victorian National Parks Association, said the decision to sever the Western Port Woodlands with sand mining showed the government did not value Victoria’s natural resources.

It’s death by a thousand cuts for the Western Port Woodlands and the amazing array of plant, animal and fungi species that call it home, he said.

The panel found the company should integrate a biodiversity and vegetation management plan into the site, saying these aspects be resolved before vegetation removal begins.

Proportionately, Victoria is the state with the most cleared native vegetation, according . Two thirds of Victoria is private land, and 80 per cent of this has been cleared. Illegal land clearing continues to take place across the state, and this undermines the investments in protecting the quality and cover of Victorian native vegetation, the report found.

In a statement, Dandy Premix Quarries said the new permit contained a raft of conditions that comprehensively address all environmental risks associated with the quarry. The business has been in operation since 2013 and is expected to employ 20 people under expanded operations.

In total, Dandy Premix has committed to protecting more than 117 hectares of private, uncleared land that abuts two existing public nature conservation reserves, it said.

The final approval was shaped by the community feedback, with protections in place to ensure we can maintain access to the these vital resources without compromising the environment, a government spokesperson said.

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