Bunbury Outer Ring Road court injunction extended as environmental challenge begins – Michmutters

Bunbury Outer Ring Road court injunction extended as environmental challenge begins

A Federal Court injunction that halted the construction of a contentious $1.25 billion highway in Western Australia’s south has been extended, as an environmental legal challenge gets underway.

Bulldozers began clearing bushland for the final leg of the Bunbury Outer Ring Road last week but work suddenly stopped on Friday afternoon when a local environmental group mounted a legal challenge, and an injunction was enforced.

Opponents say the road’s environmental and social impact is too great, but both the state and federal governments say the risks can be managed.

In the first day of proceedings, Justice Craig Colvin heard arguments for and against Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek’s approval of the project in late June.

Justice Colvin ordered a pause on construction must remain until midday tomorrow as the case enters its second day.

Possum species ‘might vanish’

Lawyer Angel Aleksov, representing the Friends of the Gelorup Corridor group, put forward a series of legal arguments he said proved the ministerial approval of the project had been unlawful.

That included a claim that much of the environmental mitigation plan the project’s approval rested on would not occur until much later.

He said by that stage, it would be too late for animals such as the critically endangered western ringtail possum, which “might vanish from this earth.”

A western ringtail possum in a gum tree, another is behind it
Western ringtail possums are only found in pockets of WA’s south west.(Supplied: GeoCatch )

Mr Aleksov claimed Main Roads WA was working on an assumption that 9,000 western ringtail possums remained in the region but that “Wikipedia” showed there could be as few as 3,000 possums left.

I have conceded delaying the project was costly but said the cost “does not outweigh risk to species that might leave this earth”.

It was revealed in court the project had already been delayed from April to August, at a cost of up to $10 million.

“There are large financial ramifications, but there are very, very large environmental consequences,” Mr Aleksov said.

Lawyers argue all procedures followed

Both the Solicitor General of WA, Joshua Thomson, and Commonwealth lawyer Emrys Nekvapil argued all procedures had been followed and every measure taken to mitigate environmental damage.

Mr Thomson argued the Friends of Gelorup Corridor’s legal argument was not strong enough to grant an injunction.

“If so…why was it overlooked until this time?” he said.

A drone shot of a road being built through green paddocks
The northern section of the Bunbury Outer Ring Road largely passes through cleared farmland.(ABC South West: Anthony Pancia)

Mr Thomson said if the project was stalled now, it would have to be delayed another seven months, due to the western ringtail possums’ breeding patterns.

He said there were major benefits to the completion of the Bunbury Outer Ring Road, including separation of freight and local traffic and economic benefits to the entire region.

“This must be weighed against bringing [the project] to a shuddering halt for seven months,” he said.

He said three western ringtail possums had been found dead due to predation during the past weeks’ clearing.

A red and white tape wrapped around a tree
A tree taped off within the Gelorup road reserve that is marked for clearing to make way for the highway.(ABC South West: Asha Couch)

Mr Thomson said there were very strong steps in place to project animals including fauna spotters on site and GPS collars tracking the locations of possums at all times.

Mr Emrys Nekvapil, acting for the Ms Plibersek’s office, said there was “not a serious question to be tried”.

He said the plan to ameliorate or mitigate the impact on the environment was completely orthodox.

Justice Craig Colvin ordered court resume at 9.30am WST on Tuesday.

Bunbury bypass ‘not Roe 8’

Opponents of the road had likened its construction through the Gelorup corridor to the aborted Roe 8 highway project in Perth.

Land clearing for the six-lane freeway through the Beeliar wetlands had well progressed in the lead-up to the 2017 WA election.

The McGowan government had campaigned on canceling the $1.9 billion project, which they did almost immediately after winning the election.

An animation of a highway extension proposal
Amid a large amount of community opposition, the McGowan government campaigned on canceling the Roe Highway extension which traversed the Beeliar Wetlands.(Supplied: Main Roads WA)

But speaking ahead of today’s hearing, Premier Mark McGowan said it was an incorrect comparison to make.

“They’re very different projects. Roe 8 and Roe 9 weren’t really necessary because the port was going to fill,” Mr McGowan said.

“Whereas a road around Bunbury will just save many lives and ensure that people’s commute between the south west and the city is much more efficient and quick.”

A close up shot of a man wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt and red tie
Mark McGowan said his government was committed to building the road.(ABC News: James Carmody)

Mr McGowan defended the project’s environmental merits.

“Look, it’s been through two rounds of environmental approvals,” he said.

“We’ve done everything we can to ameliorate the environmental impacts by offsets and other plantings and fauna initiatives costing many millions of dollars.

“I understand people’s concerns. We just want to get on and complete this project.”

Concerns for community, environment

The southern section of the road, which involves the clearing of 71 hectares of native vegetation, has received full state and federal environmental approvals.

A drone shot of a highway with land bulldozed next to it
Clearing on the southern section of the Bunbury Outer Ring Road was stopped after five days due to the court injunction.(ABC South West: Anthony Pancia)

In May, Environment Minister Reece Whitby said it was clear the proposal would have a long-term impact on the local environment, and noted the “uncertainty” as to whether the Gelorup population of western ringtail possums could recover in 10 or 15 years.

“It is accepted that 72 [western ringtail possums] will be lost from the area due to the permanent loss of habitat,” he said.

He said that environmental offsets to counterbalance the loss of habitat would include acquisition of land and revegetating other areas, including in nearby state forest.

The road has garnered bitter debate in the south west, with locals expressing concern it will split the suburb of Gelorup in two.

Main Roads has long said that the chosen route has the least environmental impact, compared to other options.


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