Industry’s leaders set course for long haul

Sustainability is the new watchword for the ports sector in Australia with an array of new sustainability initiatives under way across the nation. Projects range from shorebird habitat rehabilitation at the Port of Newcastle to refurbishment of historic wharves in Cairns to the Port Lincoln wharf recycling project (using redundant wharf timbers to construct public art benches) and the $1.6 billion redevelopment of the Port of Melbourne, incorporating sustainability goals.

Ports Australia chief executive officer Mike Gallacher says that while there are immense differences between ports in Australia — some are privately owned, some are state-owned; some are huge, some smaller — there is a common understanding that action on sustainability is crucial for the future health of all ports.

“Sustainability has become internationally a very important focus of a number of port organisations around the world, in Europe, and in North and South America,” he says. “That has now become quite topical, not only in the government-owned ports but also in the privately owned ones here as well.”

Australian ports, he adds, have been considering how to boost efficiency in power and water usage, and looking at boosting the environmental contributions they make to their local communities.

So far, sustainability action is voluntary and Gallacher says that while there is an ongoing Senate inquiry into ports and shipping scheduled to report in August which specifically includes sustainability, the ports themselves are getting ahead of any mandatory requirements by taking action now.

“We’re very conscious of the sensitivity around it [sustainability] — particularly in the area of climate and the environment,” Gallacher says. “Individual ports are taking steps to be part of that debate and make a contribution to it.”

Since Gallacher took charge at Ports Australia two years ago, he has tried to pull the various ports’ voices into a unified position on sustainability.

“There were ports, particularly up in Queensland — with the sensitivity around the Great Barrier Reef — that were very aware of sustainability, that were making significant financial investment into sustainability programs,” he says.

“We saw a need to share knowledge, and as an entire industry see if we could start to bring all the ports together and drive an agenda towards sustainability.”

Ports Australia has signed up to the World Ports Sustainability Program, guided by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which has been established to support ports around the world working towards a sustainable future.

In Australia, there has been a tight focus on the Great Barrier Reef, following the devastating coral bleaching attributed to climate change in recent years, so ports in that part of the world have to be particularly careful and aware of their sustainability responsibilities.

Nicolas Fertin, chief executive of North Queensland Bulk Ports, which manages three major ports in a World Heritage area in the region of the reef, says the seabed is a live organism that needs care. Crucial exports including coal, bauxite, fuel and sugar are freighted out of ports in north Queensland, which are used by about 2000 ships every year. Vessels are inexorably increasing in size as the years go by, and currents and tides wash sand and sediment into navigational channels, so regular dredging is inevitable, he says.

NQBP covers five ports in total — Weipa, Mackay, Abbot Point, Hay Point and the non-trading port of Maryborough. The organisation has been developing for many years a sustainable sediment management program, Fertin adds, which includes analysing the clarity of the ocean, the rate of movement of the sediment and the kind of sediment that actually moves around the ports — mud, sand or a combination.

Further detailed analysis determines the best place to relocate dredged sediment, which is usually spread over a wide area. “Marine engineers and environmental engineers are working with the regulator to ensure that where we deposit this sediment, it has a minimum impact,” Fertin says. “It’s usually a large, extended relocation area.”

Technical advisory consultative committees that include university academics and scientists help NQBP determine the best environmental choices for the ports, Fertin says. “Each location is different,” he says.