Environmental impact of Western Highway works a concern

Russell Pearse points out where he believes the proposed highway will destroy
the environment. Picture: PETER PICKERING
Russell Pearse points out where he believes the proposed highway will destroy the environment. Picture: PETER PICKERING

A GROUP of passionate locals are calling on VicRoads to hold off on its progression of the Western Highway duplication until an alternative route can be developed, one which will have a lesser impact on the environment.

Ararat's Russell Pearse is leading the charge in vocalising concern over the amount of change to the environment the road project has had so far.

"There has been a lot of angst with what is happening down around Middle Creek with the section from Beaufort to Buangor about the trees that have been pulled out there," Mr Pearse said.

"A lot of this is coming from the locals around that area, a lot of them are really upset by it...they have a pretty strong association with the land.

"Everyone recognises what has been done they can't undo, but having seen what is being done and with a bit of imagination in projecting that into the next stages through to Stawell, we can get a pretty good vision of what is going to happen."

As well as residents, the Ararat Landcare group has expressed concerns over the amount of trees which have been removed from the side of the highway in order to accommodate two extra lanes.

Mr Pearse said they would like to know what has happened to the fauna that lived in those trees.

"We know they put collars around some of the old trees which effectively evicted the inhabitants before they were cut down, but there's a good chance before they cut them down there was still some marsupials and things in other trees," he said.

Acting project director for the Western Highway Project, Steve Pattinson said VicRoads shared the community's concerns around native flora and fauna protection.

"We are committed to working to minimise the impact and to offset the loss of the trees as a result of this project," he said.

"In regard to the section between Beaufort and Ararat, VicRoads managed a comprehensive public planning process which was exhibited from September 14, 2012 to October 25, 2012. As part of the Environment Effects Statement (EES) process VicRoads conducted extensive investigations into flora and fauna and other areas upon which the highway upgrade would impact such as land use, cultural heritage, traffic, noise quality and social impact.

"This mandatory process aimed to identify an alignment with the least overall environmental impact and footprints, taking into account all of the various areas of consideration.

"All practical and feasible alternatives, without compromising road safety, were considered throughout the planning and design phase of the Project in order to preserve trees wherever possible.

"The EES process was then independently assessed by a planning panel appointed by Planning Panels Victoria at the request of Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure. Public exhibition and consultation was a significant part of that process, with the views of the community and the potential impacts of the different alignment options helping to shape the options for VicRoads and the recommendations of the Panel. Outcomes of the panel hearing were then assessed by the Minister for Planning who ultimately approved the alignment."

A similar process, including the comprehensive public planning procedure, occurred when considering the section between Buangor and Stawell.

Work on the Buangor bypass is currently underway and the next stage of duplication between Buangor to just before Ararat has been put on the planning scheme, with public acquisition of land imminent.

An area of land near Mount Langi Ghiran where the proposed Western Highway duplication will have an impact.

An area of land near Mount Langi Ghiran where the proposed Western Highway duplication will have an impact.

Mr Pearse said the group of concerned locals are calling for a stop to that stage.

"We are trying to just get a pause in the process, (asking VicRoads) don't go ahead with the public acquisition of the land because once that happens it is pretty much a fait accompli," he said.

"We would like to see some more consultation and the chance to review the panel decision. We know that VicRoads can achieve the same degree of alignment and safety using a much narrower corridor than the one they want to adopt.

"We have seen at Burrumbeet where there is a two and a half kilometre section that they have done that, only for the purpose of protecting one house and one old 'Cob and Co' staging area. What is the vegetation value in that?

"They don't seem to want to do it anywhere else. There has been a proposal that has been put to them...they need to look at it and seriously consider it.

"There is potential to make similar sort of savings, ecologically and monetary over the next 40 kilometres or more."

Mr Pattinson said Victoria's Native Vegetation Framework recognises that trees cannot be avoided in all circumstances and therefore has a mechanism in place to ensure they are offset in another location.

"VicRoads sources and secures environmental offsets for all of the vegetation that is removed," he said.

"VicRoads is working closely with the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries and the Federal Department of Environment to identify locations for significant trees which can be secured and protected. A number of sites are currently being considered.

"Where trees have been identified as having cultural significance to the local indigenous community, they have been transported and provided to the community for preservation. High grade timber will be made into furniture, with low grade material used for on-site mulch."

Mr Pearse is encouraging as many people in the region to visit the Facebook page 'Western Highway Environmental Recovery Effort (WHERE)'.

"If we have to have this freeway - and current thinking is we do given other funds have been allocated - let's see if we can do it better," he said.

"We just need to get VicRoads to acknowledge that they can do it better, put a pause to what they are doing and have some more community consultation."