Brown fights to save whales from reach of gas plant

THE suit has been replaced by a slightly frayed cardigan but the newly retired senator Bob Brown is hurling himself into the latest environmental campaigns with the same determination that saw him take a week-long fast on top of a mountain 35 years ago in protest against nuclear weapons.

James Price Point, the proposed site of a vast gas processing factory in Western Australia's remote Kimberley region, is now the focus of Brown's energy. The joint venture, led by Woodside Petroleum, will cost upwards of $30 billion to build and threatens to despoil Aboriginal sacred sites, the offbeat culture of Broome, and the world's longest trail of fossilised dinosaur footprints.

It's the whales, though, that Brown particularly wants to save.

''We have our place, the whales deserve to have theirs,'' he says simply. The gas factory plan calls for a lengthy breakwater that would cut through a whale migration route that leads to what is thought to be the world's largest nursery for humpback calves.

''We were in the inflatable boat, about two kilometres off the point, and a baby whale calf came up right in front of us and let out a great, melodious sigh,'' Brown says of his recent voyage to the gas factory site aboard a Sea Shepherd vessel.

''Then, further along, another calf came up out of the ocean and splashed back in, and it was followed by its mother, which sent up a huge fountain of water beside us. That's going to be with me for the rest of my life.''

The main concern of the Wilderness Society and other groups throwing resources into the campaign is that the large-scale dredging required for the gas port will create a ''dead zone'' across the whales' traditional migration route. They also warn that it could damage and disrupt turtle and dugong populations.

Western Australia's Environmental Protection Authority examined the dredging process and decided it could proceed, if blasting and marine pile driving were not undertaken for part of the whale migration season.

But the authority's decision is now under review, after four members of its five-member panel ruled themselves out of the process because of links to or past dealings with the gas industry, leaving only the authority's chairman, Paul Vogel, to make the call.

The WA Premier, Colin Barnett, said this week that it was just a ''coincidence'' that state law had been changed last year to allow the authority to issue recommendations on the basis of one vote. ''The whole process has been an exhaustive process of environmental assessment over a long period of time,'' Barnett told ABC radio.

The authority's review, being led by the former CSIRO chief executive Roy Green, follows 244 public objections to the decision - a record in WA for an environmental assessment. A final decision is expected early next year, at which point the federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, will have the opportunity to grant or withhold approval.

Protesters at the site said this week that they felt the sheer amount of money involved meant governments at all levels were finding the proposal hard to resist. Friction has been evident for months on the ground.

On Monday Woodside contractors were drilling to test a local aquifer to see if it could supply water to the work site - which would eventually involve building a camp for 8000 workers - but work was shut down after people locked themselves onto drill rigs. The company said it ''respects the right of people to protest but we ask that they express their views in a peaceful and lawful manner''.

Aboriginal groups, some of which initially supported the gas port plan, vowed to stay at the site until they had won their campaign.

Brown says he sees shades of the Franklin Dam dispute of the early 1980s. ''It does, to me, seem similar,'' he says. ''Ultimately, what will 'win' this is people. The government cannot hold out forever against public opinion.''

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