Giant saltworks proposal threatens WA marine park

Ningaloo Reef is an important part of Exmouth ecosystem

Contributed from Victoria

German industrial company K+S has submitted a proposal to build a saltworks in the Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia. Reaction from conservationists opposed to the 2,600 square kilometre project by the world’s largest salt company has been swift. The plan is to produce 4.7 million tonnes of salt per year in the nationally listed wetland, one of the last undisturbed arid-zone wetland ecosystems along the coast.

Salt ponds walls will be built over the nationally listed wetlands, which could disrupt the ecosystem’s nutrient flows via tidal or flood waters into the gulf and disrupt the marine food chain.

Photo by Andre Rerekura: Urala Creek at the top of the Exmouth Gulf will be part of the development footprint

The proposal has bee submitted to the environment Protection Authority (EPA). Almost 15 years ago, the EPA rejected a similar project, because the evidence suggested the environmental harm could be serious. This time the company has enlisted the support of dome local business interests and managed to get an agreement from some local First Nations people, and the outcome is not certain.

Opponents say the K+S plan will risk the discharge of toxic hypersaline water from the salt ponds, which will kill highly sensitive mangroves and harm marine animals, such as critically endangered sawfish and shovelnose rays living in the nearby creeks and marine waters.

Rejection of the earlier project resulted in a set of recommendations. They led the McGowen government to introduce protective measures for the region, which included the establishment of a new marine park for the eastern and southern parts of the Gulf, and A status for areas of significance. This was a recognition of the need to protect the Exmouth Gulf. The K+S proposal flies in the face of this.

Local conservation group Protect Ningaloo wants to see the project stopped. Its director, Paul Gamblin, said it poses too many risks to the local environment.

Photo by Laura Birch/ABC: Paul Gamblin

“It’s Ningaloo’s nursery. It’s closely connected with the Ningaloo Reef ecosystem…”

“The right thing for K+S to do would be to withdraw its project for the good of the Exmouth Gulf ecosystem and its long list of threatened species.

“Those huge salt ponds would potentially block the water that runs over that coastline into the gulf, which provides a lot of nutrients for Exmouth Gulf, it relies on that shoreline.

“If you build those very long walls, you risk breaking that connection between the lands and the sea. You could also have the hypersaline water that could seep through the walls, as has happened elsewhere, and threaten the local ecosystem.”

Gamblin said such a proposal would “undermine” attempts by the state government to protect the gulf, which is a sanctuary for threatened species such as dugongs and turtles.

“If you start undermining the environment there, you start undermining the natural capital, which supports the activities which generate most of the jobs and the economy in that area,” he said.

“So, you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face by allowing industrial projects that damage the area.”

Company spokesperson Gerrit Gödecke insists that extensive research into the environment and ecosystem has shown that the impact will be negligible.

Photo by Tom Zaunmayr: K+S CEO Gerrit Godecke

The critics are not convinced and are determined to fight the project all the way.

They say that a much better alternative meeting both the economic needs of the region and environmental protection, is to take advantage of the unique natural wonders and develop ecotourism. This would create jobs and help local businesses to thrive.

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