Moyne Shire Council has endorsed a proposed Panmure quarry despite impassioned and at times emotional public opposition at Tuesday's monthly council meeting.
Councillors voted 5-2 to provide symbolic approval to the planning application for the quarry. The actual decision will be made at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal after quarry proponents Ben and Janelle McCloud referred the application there to "get an objective, independent trial".
While the council didn't have decision-making power over the proposal, it will still be presenting at the VCAT hearing and its stance will carry weight with the tribunal, so the endorsement was significant. The high stakes were on show at the meeting, with one woman weeping over the issue and mayor Ian Smith rapping his gavel and reprimanding hecklers in the public gallery to "show some respect" to others in the chamber.
The planning application proposes to create a basalt (bluestone) quarry on a parcel of land on the Ellerslie-Panmure Road adjacent to the Hopkins River. The total area of the quarry would be nearly 43 hectares, with an "extraction area" of just under 20 hectares. It would produce a maximum of 100,000 tonnes of basalt each year.
One of the controversial aspects of the project is its proximity to the Hopkins River, 200m to the west, a creek known locally as Cragieburn Creek, 100m to the north, and the Framlingham Forest on the other side of the river.
Basalt, which comes from the Latin for "very hard stone", requires intense blasting to be extracted, and five objectors spoke at Tuesday's meeting to raise concerns about the possible effects such blasting might have on the waterways and native animals.
Heytesbury District Landcare Network coordinator Geoff Rollinson has led community opposition to the project and said it was "flawed from the outset" because of its proximity to the river and Aboriginal-controlled forest.
Mr Rollinson said key documents like traffic impact and environmental assessments had only been done after significant community outcry and a hydrological study looking at the effects of blasting on nearby rivers and artesian aquifers underneath the site still hadn't been done.
"You only have to look 1km to the south to see what happened at Coleman's basalt quarry with blasting and subsequent groundwater infiltration," he said.
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Several local residents said if the aquifer was damaged they could lose their water supply and their livelihoods because they could no longer water their pastures or stock.
Mr Rollinson criticised both the proponents and council officers for what he viewed as a "reluctant" and superficial analysis of the effects the project might have.
"Planning officers ... have presented arguments worthy of a glossy brochure of the quarry rather than a deep analysis of all issues," he said.
"This is not just another 'not in my backyard' story."
Mr Rollinson also said the project had only been referred to VCAT because the council officers had failed to make a decision on it in 2020. "It's a highly unusual situation," he said.
Through the planning process the quarry proposal was referred to several state authorities including the Environment Protection Authority, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Department of Transport, Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority, Country Fire Authority, Wannon Water and Heritage Victoria.
Most of the authorities either provided no response or no objections to the proposal. DELWP and the CFA provided several conditions under which they said they would be happy for the project to proceed.
One authority that did object was Eastern Marr Aboriginal Corporation, which has lodged a statement of grounds with VCAT to speak against the project at November's hearing.
In voting to endorse the application, Cr James Purcell said the permit would have 30 conditions attached to it.
"It's not like it's just being waved through," he said.
An issue raised by several objectors was the lack of a cultural heritage management plan for the project. Ms McLeod said a CHMP was not required for the project, however advice from Aboriginal Victoria in 2020 suggested a plan may be necessary. The McLeods ultimately decided to "voluntarily" produce a CHMP, but it wasn't available for councillors or the public to view before Tuesday's meeting.
Mr Rollinson said it was inappropriate for the council to make a decision without seeing the CHMP. Crs Jordan Lockett and Karen Foster also expressed concerns about the missing information.
Speaking in defence of the project, Ms McLeod described the proposed quarry as "modest in scale", saying it was "a half to a third" the size of the Tarrone basalt quarry north-west of Warrnambool.
She said despite its modest size it would bring "significant" community benefits, with jobs for quarry employees and raw materials for repairing the region's dilapidated road network. Ms McLeod suggested it wasn't necessary to have reports into every single potential issue.
"Everything will be closely monitored in a highly regulated industry," she said. "Everything is in place to ensure it works successfully."
John Bant, who runs two south-west quarries, also said the industry was highly regulated. He said he had "just been fined $5000 for not doing something right" and this was proof the watchdogs were on top of things.
Cr Lockett asked Mr Bant whether his fine might also "show quarry owners sometimes do the wrong thing?" but Mr Bant said his infraction wasn't serious.
Cr Lockett said when he had first heard about a quarry being proposed so close to the Hopkins River and Framlingham Forest he thought "that just seems wrong". He said learning more about the project hadn't changed his mind and he believed there were too many unknowns.
He said the proximity of the quarry to the "culturally sensitive" forest, which sat well within the 500m EPA-mandated buffer zone was "enough of a reason alone not to do it".
"We've heard that blasting from the applicant, we're not actually sure how far it will go," he said.
"It's in the wrong spot and we can't risk it."
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