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EPA raises concerns on desalination plant

Published: The Age, 15-Oct-08
Author: Peter Ker

GAPS have emerged in the environmental appraisal of the Wonthaggi desalination plant, with Victoria's environment watchdog telling the Government that further investigations are required.  Victoria's Environment Protection Authority said the desalination Environmental Effects Statement could have more fully examined the possible effect of the project's waste on the marine environment.

Under the desalination plan, seawater is sucked into the plant through a pipe for filtering, before a second pipe transports a salty byproduct, dubbed "brine", back into the ocean.

Disposal of the "brine" back into the ocean is one of the most environmentally contentious aspects of desalination.

In a written submission, the EPA has highlighted several shortcomings of the EES and requested more information about how frequently the brine would fail to disperse — a phenomenon that can occur in calm conditions — and how the failure to disperse could affect the marine environment.

The EPA also highlighted a lack of scrutiny over the project's ability to create an artificial current in the ocean.

Dubbed a "gyre formation", the current occurs when the brine is sucked from the outlet pipe back towards the intake pipe in a recirculating motion.

The EPA warned that such a gyre current could be "five times" more powerful than natural currents and therefore destructive to the marine ecology.  "(It) has the potential to disrupt prevailing along-shore flows, acting as a barrier to the natural passage of plankton along this part of the coastline and have potential consequences to the benthic ecology of the area," the statement said. EPA director of science and technology Stuart McConnell outlined the areas in need of more investigation to a Government panel in Pakenham yesterday.

Mr McConnell said desalination discharge could be returned to the ocean "with minimal impact" if the process was properly managed.  "We have identified a couple of areas where some additional information would be helpful," he said. "The potential is there in the modelling (for gyre currents to occur) and we want to understand how likely it is to occur and, if so, how often."

Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Greg Meyer last night defended the 1600-page EES.  "A comprehensive Environment Effects Statement found there would be no long-term or irreversible damage to the environment from the construction or operation of the desalination plant," he said.

Two consortiums remain in the race to build the plant on the Bass Coast under a public-private partnership.

The project is planned to be completed by 2011, with initial capacity to supply 150 billion litres of drinking water to Melbourne, and the scope to increase to 200 billion.

Peter Ker is a senior writer

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