Beach booms

The Polarcus Naila tows seismic equipment as it surveys rock strata below Bass Strait to determine whether it is suitable for carbon dioxide storage. Photo: Chris Holmes
The Polarcus Naila tows seismic equipment as it surveys rock strata below Bass Strait to determine whether it is suitable for carbon dioxide storage. Photo: Chris Holmes

SEISMIC survey work, being conducted in Bass Strait waters off Golden Beach, has united anti-coal activists, the Latrobe Valley Sustainability Group and beach community residents in social media protests and angry online commentary.

They now plan a public meeting on Saturday from 3pm in the Longford Hall.

The CarbonNet project, a state and federal government investigation into carbon storage in Bass Strait, aims to establish the potential of the rock strata below Bass Strait as a suitable location for carbon dioxide storage.

The specialist marine vessel, the Polarcus Naila, has surveyed one-third of the sea area to be swept with acoustic streamers, producing data that allows geoscientists to map below the sea floor. 

Sensors on four-kilometre-long streamers towed behind the vessel pick up sound reflections to map different rock densities. 

Independent vibration monitoring undertaken this week on Monday and Tuesday showed low levels of background vibration before, during and after the seismic testing. 

The project team argued the sound levels were well below regulatory limits and lower than typical vibrations from a passing truck, suggesting residents with queries should phone 1800 500 790, at any time of the day or night.

Despite these assurances, social media claims from a number of beachside residents, ranging from Loch Sport to Golden Beach, have detailed being awakened by loud booms in the early hours of the morning, houses shaking, dogs barking, and claims of nausea caused by sound waves.

While the Gippsland Times has no evidence to discredit these claims, no such sounds were heard during our reporter’s visits to the beach while the survey vessel was close to shore. 

However the project has employed lifeguards to patrol the beach to caution people not to enter the water, advising against swimming or placing their heads in the water. 

Last weekend, the vessel was more than 5.5km from shore in Commonwealth waters.

 On Monday morning, the vessel moved into state waters and has been working at times about 3.7km from the Golden Beach shoreline. 

CarbonNet project director Ian Filby reiterated the survey would not harm marine life.

“As part of the regulatory approvals, comprehensive environmental monitoring is being undertaken for the survey, supported by an independent advisory panel,” he said.

“The potential impacts from the survey on all fish, including those with a swim bladder, were assessed prior to the survey as minor or insignificant, localised, and temporary.”

Seismic testing has been conducted in Bass Strait for more than 30 years as part of joint venture partners Esso and BHP-Billiton’s and other companies’ gas and oil surveys without attracting this level of opposition.

However, this is believed to be the first testing of rock stratas’ reversed carbon storage potential in Bass Strait.

At the recent conference organised by Federation University and Brown Coal Innovation Australia in Churchill, Kawasaki Heavy Industry assistant manager for hydrogen energy production, Hirofumi Kawazoe, indicated a pilot project could be built in the Latrobe Valley to take advantage of its coal deposits, if a suitable carbon capture and storage solution could be found.

The impact of the ongoing seismic survey and its potential to lead to utilisation of brown coal has angered and united a disparate group of people.

No Carbon Storage on the 90 Mile Beach committee member Erin Foster wrote to the Gippsland Times arguing the CarbonNet project team had downplayed the environmental impact of the testing. 

“According to Greenpeace Australia, the level of sound transmitted through seismic testing can be up to 259 decibels per blast — enough to kill a human,” she wrote. 

“In 2012, the United Nations environment program published a synthesis outlining the impact of underwater noise on marine and coastal biodiversity and habitats. 

“It notes that in scientific studies to date have found that at least 55 marine species ... are negatively impacted by anthropogenic noise.”

Ms Foster questioned why such research was even necessary.

“In a country where natural resources are plentiful and renewable energy sources continue to increase in efficiency and decrease in cost, why would we risk harming the natural environment to save coal?”

The Latrobe Valley Sustainability Group emailed the Gippsland Times calling for support for the ongoing fight against the coal industry and its latest push for carbon capture and storage, also pointing to tomorrow’s public meeting in Longford.