Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex (Motions)
The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:08): I move:
1. That a select committee of the Legislative Council be established to inquire into and report on the decision-making process and impact of approval of the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex at the tip of Eyre Peninsula by Southern Launch, with particular consideration to be given to:
(a) the potential impact of the project on surrounding nearby marine parks, the Southern Basins Prescribed Wells Area and water protection zone, heritage agreements, and coastal conservation zones;
(b) what assessments of environmental, social, and economic implications were undertaken before declaring the project a major development;
(c) the preparation of the environmental impact statement released for public comment in August 2021 and its content;
(d) the consideration given to alternate sites;
(e) the impact of the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex on Eyre Peninsula tourism industry;
(f) the interaction between the space industries sector strategy and the state planning system;
(g) the separation of the Test Launch Campaign from the major development declaration;
(h) the consideration given to the bushfire risk associated with the test launch campaign;
(i) the level of consultation of, and engagement with, First Nations people regarding the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex; and
(j) any other related matters.
2. That this council permits the select committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it sees fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to such evidence being presented to the council.
This motion calls for a select committee of this council to be established to inquire into and report on the decision-making processes and impact of the approval of the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex at the tip of Eyre Peninsula by Southern Launch, with particular consideration to be given to a range of factors. I will go through some of those factors as I speak to this motion.
This is an incredibly important motion and I urge this parliament to take a serious look at what is being proposed down at Whalers Way on Eyre Peninsula by the aforementioned Southern Launch. South Australia is rightly investing in establishing a space industry in our state and much of that work in the area is both commendable and necessary, but I and many others—and those who caught the protest yesterday on the steps could see the strength of the local community concern about this—are concerned that there is a proposal to establish a rocket launch facility on land that is zoned ‘conservation’ under the Planning and Design Code.
This land contains a unique ecosystem and some endangered native species. It is commonly known as Whalers Way, at the bottom of Eyre Peninsula. Whalers Way is a privately-owned property under the South Australian Heritage Act 1978. The South Australian Heritage Act was established in 1978 to prevent the overclearance of native vegetation and to protect native fauna in agricultural regions of our state.
Heritage agreements were created at a time when it was evident that we needed to protect what little native vegetation and fauna we had left, and such agreements are supposed to last lifetimes even if the property to which they apply is sold. But now the government seems determined to ride roughshod over this particular agreement, all in the name of private profiteering. This is just the tip of the conservation iceberg that seems to be being actively ignored in the name of this project.
The launch complex is surrounded by a marine park, adjoins the Southern Basins Prescribed Wells Area public water supply and water protection zone, is a declared historic reserve, is a coastal conservation zone, lies between Lincoln National Park and the Coffin Bay National Park, and the area is known to have inhabiting it 25 species that are listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act as either threatened or migratory and/or marine.
Southern Launch are hoping to overturn this agreement for a mere $965,477.76, a little under $100,000, to clear 23.7 hectares of land and create lasting effects on the surrounding environment when there are other suitable areas along the southern coast of Australia that are not under the Heritage Places Act or part of coastal conservation and do not launch over a marine sanctuary.
There are approximately 98.3 million hectares in our state of South Australia, with only one million hectares protected by heritage agreement. That is 1 per cent of all of South Australia. Surely we need to protect what is left of that 1 per cent. Conservation zones are supposed to do just that—protect—but this proposal seems to fly in the face of all the efforts that have gone into protecting Whalers Way.
The proposal is for two permanent launch pads and support infrastructure, which will involve clearing over 23 hectares of native vegetation. Further, conservation groups have raised concerns that a permanent rocket launch facility at Whalers Way could push threatened bird species to extinction, including the white-bellied sea eagle, the eastern osprey, the Eyre Peninsula southern emu wren and the white-fronted whipbird. The emu wren and the whipbird are particularly under threat and, should this proposal go ahead, as they are sedentary, weak fliers and have limited ability to disperse, it is particularly concerning.
I must note the work of Des Menz, who has been working with the Eyre Peninsula Environmental Protection Alliance, and who puts it best. I will quote him now:
In a Conservation Zone there are substantial planning limitations to establish any industry or land use change let alone a rocket launch facility. And yet, it is happening at Whalers Way, a place that is environmentally fragile and is home to endangered flora and fauna, a place that has unique associations with the marine environment and endangered marine species, a place that has a long-standing Heritage Agreement, a place that contains the highest amenity value coastline in South Australia, a place that has been open to public visitations for fifty years, a place that is highly significant to many local and non-local residents.
Local residents, conservation advocates, tourism operators and many more are being left with many questions, including how on earth an approval could possibly be granted for a rocket launch facility in such a sensitive area. The process has been nebulous and community questions remain unanswered, particularly when it comes to potential environmental impacts. Going through the environmental impact statement, there is a clear trail of failures within the planning and environmental processes that have seen the proposal get this far.
The Greens and many others believe there have been failures in applying our planning laws, codes and procedures, along with compromise of proper process. I ask for the council’s patience as I elaborate on the string of issues with this proposed rocket launch site at Whalers Way and the threats it poses to the environment but also the precedent it sets within the planning system. That is why the Greens believe we do need a comprehensive inquiry into this project.
I want to start by going though some of the flagged potential impacts and the shortcomings of Southern Launch’s environmental impact statement (EIS) in addressing them. In this respect one of the key concerns is the contamination of the surrounding environment from rocket exhausts, including marine parks, and the contamination of aquifers.
That is why point (a) of this inquiry would look at ‘the potential impact of the project on surrounding nearby marine parks, the Southern Basins Prescribed Wells Area and water protection zone, heritage agreements, and coastal conservation zones’. Indeed, our concerns are that contamination from rocket exhaust into the surrounding environment, including the marine parks and contamination of aquifers, which have been addressed by Southern Launch as—and I am quoting from their own EIS, on page 23, appendix V:
…the key chemicals of environmental concern identified in the literature review were HCl (which form hydrochloric acid when dissolved in water), carbon black (which may contain traces of PolyAromaticHydrocarbons) and aluminium oxide…
They go on to say that when the rocket is launched the ‘heated ground cloud’ of atomised and/or vaporised water deluge will mix with the atmosphere. Here the chemical contaminants will ‘mix with the water and fall/rain out at some distance from the launch site’. That is on page 6 of that same appendix.
They go on to say ground level concentration of hydrogen chloride is considered toxic if it is 270 milligrams per cubic metre of air. That is referenced on page 12 of that document. Launches will result in levels up to 1,000 milligrams per cubic metres of air over Whalers Way and surrounding land, water and coast. They say the:
…installation of groundwater monitoring wells and groundwater monitoring is—
in the submission by Southern Launch—
not recommended at this stage since risks to groundwater are considered to be low subject to implementation of surface water management measures which will mitigate the risk of waterborne contaminants migrating from the launch site(s).
That is on page 25 of that document. There is significant concern about a lack of formal and independent assessment of the use of the local aquifer for this project. How would this use impact locals dependent on this aquifer? How will the proposed fenced-off 30 megalitre dam and the collection of local rainfall or runoff to fill it impact the local environment, specifically the water availability to animals and plants?
Further questions are the potential for rocket failure, resulting in the dumping of debris and unburnt fuels into the marine protection zone. By their own admission, Southern Launch say, ‘We expect to lose rockets on the pad, and in the air.’
The proponent’s environmental mitigation strategies are inadequate, misguided and do not adequately mitigate the vast impact that this facility will result in. Their EIS does briefly detail an app for feral cat spotting, removing waste appropriately and some weed removal. However, concern for underestimated environmental impact in the proponent’s self-assessment remains strong due to the lack of an independent review.
There is, quite rightly, concern that chemicals and debris from launches will fall within the complex, which is in a water protection zone and could filter into public water supply. It could also enter into water lenses used by neighbouring properties which are underground, meaning it is impossible to remove those pollutants once they enter that water.
The full development by Southern Launch actually requires an estimated 30 million litres of water. Originally, this was going to be sourced from public waters, but as the Southern Basins are over-allocated and over-extracted Southern Launch have now stated they will be using water sourced from a farmer. The water in the lens used is for stock and domestic use for neighbouring properties, and this could and probably would severely affect their water supply.
Southern Launch have indicated their intention to cover the smallholding dams part of the project but have made no mention of covering the 30 million litre dam to be constructed to prevent birds, animals, reptiles and insects from drinking that contaminated water. Further, while it is indicated that the water will be contaminated to the allowable contamination levels, what those levels are is not detailed in the EIS.
At a public meeting, the general manager of infrastructure for the site stated that before the dam is constructed and filled with harvested run-off, the water will be trucked in from Port Lincoln’s water supply. Residents have also raised concerns that the rainfall data used for estimating how much can be harvested from that rainfall is over 30 years old.
It has been said that each rocket will require somewhere between 50,000 litres and 70,000 litres of water per launch. However, the general manager of infrastructure stated at a general town meeting that it would likely be closer to 150,000 litres of that same water per launch and that this water is used at high flow in rocket exhaust to absorb sound, heat and energy.
The environmental impact statement, self-assessed, states that the stormwater and wastewater run-off provides the greatest source of potential pollution of the marine environment and that total surface water cycle management will be employed through the Whalers Way OLC to ensure that. Southern Launch have stated that they have not been able to estimate the potential of contaminants in the water from fuels, lubricants, cleaners and firefighting foams handled in a launch.
At this point, it is vital to consider as well that Southern Launch have made it clear that they plan to expand the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex in the future. Southern Launch’s own documents responding to the submissions made to the EIS include these statements about their proposed future growth:
The WWOLC is proposed to be developed in stages over time in response to emerging market opportunities and conditions. The current proposal represents the initial development of the complex and is the subject of this EIS.
They go on to say:
Additional non-conventional launching facilities, as a component of the ultimate development of the WWOLC, are currently under investigation and may be sought on the site in the future; however, these will form subsequent phases of development and will be subject to a further application and assessment at the appropriate time.
There are many references in the current application to how ‘minimal’ the vegetation clearance will be, but clearly any further expansion, either at Whalers Way or in Lincoln National Park, which was also identified as a preferred site, would of course entail further habitat loss and damage.
Point (b) of this inquiry would look at ‘what assessments of environmental, social and economic implications were undertaken before declaring the project a major development’. I remind the council that former Minister Knoll declared this proposal a major development on 22 August 2019. He was guided by Southern Launch’s planning consultant’s master plan ‘major development declaration request’ of 13 May 2019.
Former Minister Knoll in his declaration stated, ‘The proposal has major environmental, social and economic implications.’ Yet, the Koonibba rocket launch facility, despite being quite considerably comparative, was able to be created without this same major project status, and all the free passes that that provides. Major project status enables the bypassing of numerous local council restrictions on such a development. In fact, without major project status this development would likely not be approved.
Point (c) of this inquiry would look at ‘the preparation of the environmental impact statement released for public comment in August 2021 and its content’. There is a concern that there is inadequate depth of assessment, given the significant disclaimers that are attached to each section. I point to the marine ecological assessment. To quote that:
While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the contents of this report are factually correct, the author does not accept responsibility for the accuracy and completeness of the contents.
It is laughable if it were not so serious. It goes on to say:
The author does not accept liability for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the contents of this report.
Extraordinary. With the geotechnical assessment:
It must be accepted that variations in subsurface conditions are likely to occur at this site and such variations may impact on the design recommendations provided. Under no circumstances can it be assumed that this report represents the actual subsurface conditions at all locations over the site. Further geotechnical investigations must be conducted during the detailed design phase to more reliably assess the ground conditions at the site and confirm the recommendations contained in this report.
With regard to air quality:
From a literature review for references to emissions data for orbital launch facilities, it appears facilities are typically located in remote areas without nearby receptors. Given this, assessments are typically more qualitative than quantitative, and the level of detail available on rocket engine exhaust launch emissions is limited.
The role of the Southern Launch Taskforce in this project, in their own words, is ‘to facilitate the communication between areas of government to ease the formation of the EIS’. It begs the question of whether a private company’s development plan has ever had a government body created with the sole purpose of assisting them with developmental approval.
Point (d) looks at ‘consideration given to alternate sites’. The environmental impact self-assessment states that the critical criteria for site selection included latitude, launch trajectories, coastal access, weather, land size, critical national infrastructure, population and environment. It goes on to say:
Failure to meet one or more (of the critical criteria) will almost always rule a site option out of contention.
I refer there to page 143 of that document. It was not made public, however, which sites failed to meet which criteria. Considering the vast environmental concerns with the proposal and the location’s weather being a combination of significant wind and extreme bushfire risk, are we to assume that Whalers Way inappropriately passed these criteria, or was the assessment process itself limited and inadequate, hence the need for an independent review into suitable sites? Why should we take their word for it without the evidence?
Multiple alternative sites are identified in the EIS; however, it seems all have been excluded without substantial assessment. The site identified west of Ceduna seemingly provides a very similar landscape and launch trajectory as Whalers Way; however, it was excluded due to ‘the limitations of service and logistics’, not due to any of the supposed critical criteria.
There is also a significant concern that alternate sites have not been assessed properly, and there have been suggestions that an independent review should be undertaken for possible alternate locations for the launch pads. As I believe some of the above examples do highlight, there is a lack of clarity around what the site criteria are or how stringently they need to be adhered to. The elephant in the room is that, at the end of the day, this is a for-profit company looking for the cheapest land they can get, and that sure as hell should not allow them to trample over conservation zones or heritage agreements.
Point (e) of this inquiry would look at ‘the impact of the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex on Eyre Peninsula tourism industry’. I know everyone in this place cares about our state tourism. I am going to point something out: Whalers Way is the number one tourist attraction on Tripadvisor for Lower Eyre Peninsula. Many local tourism companies benefit from uninterrupted access to Whalers Way as marketing for the region.
WWOLC will close this off and allow guided tour access only. It is substantially at variance with the otherwise clean, eco-friendly tourism businesses that work on Eyre Peninsula. Southern Launch expects that tourists will be coming to view launches for rocket tourism. However, the suggested viewing point is 45 minutes’ drive into the Lincoln National Park, with a tiny area for car parking and potential for people to drive or park over fragile native vegetation, bird nests and other fauna habitat.
The entire coastline from Whalers Way to Wanna has a limited number of small parking areas on fragile sandstone cliffs. There is concern that extra vehicle and foot traffic could well destroy those cliffs. Southern Launch envisions hundreds of tourists flocking to view the launches, but if a bushfire broke out in that national park, there is only one road out and it is through thick scrubland for both campers and the purported space tourists.
Space tourists could find themselves waiting up to 12 hours for launches as Southern Launch does not provide exact launch times, only 12-hour windows. I point out there are no toilet facilities in the area, and there are rightfully concerns about litter.
Point (f) of this inquiry would look at ‘the interaction between the space industries sector strategy and the state planning system’. This case makes it apparent that, while we have a space industry sector strategy for our state, our existing laws and regulations, particularly in planning, are ill-equipped to facilitate such a strategy in a way that is transparent and fair, particularly when it does come to contentious cases of land use and development.
Six years have now passed since the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy Action Plan was created, yet there is still no action on identifying and zoning suitable land for commercial rocket launch facilities and other space-related development in South Australia. This is a major failure of our planning system and is indeed the root of the problems now confronting Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex that we see now.
The absence of a proper zone for rocket launching, which should have been appropriately identified in the Planning and Design Code, has resulted in some serious compromises by various participants and has involved the exposure of flaws in our planning processes, including what appears to be an abject misinterpretation of the relatively new Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016 as well as a misapplication of the Planning and Design Code.
Although the strategy identified that there is no domestic orbital or suborbital launch capability in Australia, there was no further mention in the strategy of a launch facility for or in South Australia. The absence of a launch capability, which is reasonable to assume would be vital to be part of the space industry, revealed a significant lacking by those in government who were pivotal in establishing this 2016 strategy and also by those whose business it was to promote it.
Here was our best opportunity and best moment to identify appropriate land for commercial rocket launching somewhere in our state and then to zone that land for that intended use. The decision to entertain Southern Launch’s proposal to establish a rocket launch facility at Whalers Way therefore begs the question: what legitimate procedures were used to impose a rocket launch facility on a sensitive coastal environment that has been protected by various instruments of our state for many decades?
We do not have any definition or even mention of rocket launch facilities in any of our planning and environmental laws and regulations. One would therefore expect that the greatest care and the precautionary principle would be taken in finding a site for such a project. Clearly, it was not to be. This has clearly not been the case for Whalers Way. Do we really want the precedent for space industry development in our state to be defined by environmental destruction? Do we really want the precedent to be allowing private corporations to ignore our planning and environmental requirements? Is this a sustainable way to build any industry, let alone the space industry?
Finally, point (g) refers to ‘the separation of the ‘Test Launch Campaign’ from the major development declaration’, and (h) to ‘the consideration given to the bushfire risk associated with the test launch’. They are both incredibly important areas.
I have to say I was horrified to learn that Whalers Way and the surrounding area extending some 20 kilometres around is classified as ‘extreme bushfire risk’. There is only one access road, which extends 28 kilometres and passes over 70 human residences with continuous bushland. Launches are actually occurring during fire ban season. The test launch facility itself, being quite basic, therefore lacks many of the safety measures that should be required for full major development, such as necessary vegetation clearance around the launchpad, established flame trenches and temporary fuel storage containers.
Adjacent landowners and the nearest local township of Tulka have not been engaged with regarding the bushfire management safety plans, and this has created great consternation. These have actually been redacted from public viewing due to supposed security issues. There have been numerous attempts to either view these emergency management plans or to have increased communication with the proponents going forward for the trial launch campaign, but neither the CFS or the Southern Launch task force have responded with anything of substance to address these particular concerns.
It may never happen, you might think. However, when the fire did occur at their failed test launch on 16 September 2021, the local community was not notified of the fire, and they actually found out about it on social media afterwards. Community members, quite rightly, are deeply concerned by the lack of communication, because if this fire had not been controlled their homes and their lives could have been lost.
The launch complex is mainly native vegetation, with limited tracks for firefighting access, and there are concerns about the risk of fires becoming uncontrolled. I think they are quite valid concerns. For example, if a rocket ignites a bushfire this could indeed be quite a serious matter for these people. Southern Launch have denied, with regard to the incident of 16 September that did result in native vegetation being burnt, that the damage was of any concern. They have stated that no people or environment was put at risk, downplaying it despite photo evidence to the contrary.
There is particular concern about the night launches, as water bombers cannot be deployed at night, and Southern Launch refuse to share their firefighting plan with the neighbouring property owners, so there can be no coordinated approach to extinguishing these fires should they occur. I remind the council that Whalers Way is in a high bushfire risk zone. If a fire is ignited at Whalers Way, there is a corridor of thick scrubland to Port Lincoln and across the lower peninsula to both national parks, which would make that bushfire almost impossible to control. The area is under a strict fire ban from November through to April, and it does seem extraordinary that this ban would not apply to a rocket launch facility.
Further considerations include the level of consultation and engagement with First Nations people. It will probably, sadly, come as no surprise that this has also been found to be inadequate by locals raising concerns and certainly the First Nations people of this area.
I know there were many words in this speech, so I will not say ‘With those few words, I commend the motion,’ but with those, I hope, words that will pique members of this parliament’s interest that perhaps we might have gone the wrong way with this project, I do commend this motion to the council, and I look forward to providing further information in the form of potential briefings to interested members.
I note that there was a protest on the steps of parliament about this yesterday. It was a very vocal and very diverse group. Yes, there were probably vegetarians there and no doubt there were environmentalists, but there were locals, there were people who have been involved with the CFS in the region, there were First Nations peoples and there were regular community members who are rightly concerned that this is no place for space, that we have got it wrong and we need to ensure that our planning system is properly zoning projects, not seeing projects run roughshod over our lack of detail and appropriate provisions in our planning system.
Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.