It has been five years since the Port Lincoln Times first reported the space industry was coming to the city’s doorstep at Whalers Way and rocket service provider Southern Launch is now seeking public consultation on its Orbital Launch Complex plans.
The company said in a statement it had been directed by the Federal Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water Department to undertake public consultation on December 18, 2023.
Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, consultation must begin within 20 business days of receiving direction from the department.
The public consultation for permanent structures at Whalers Way coincides with another major development, as Planning Minister Nick Champion advised the Eyre Peninsula Environmental Protection Alliance (EPEPA) on January 8 there would be no more test launches from the site.
“I note the significant public interest in the temporary launch campaign and concerns raised by the community, particularly during the most recent extension period,” he said.
“I have formed the opinion that the limited time and opportunity for a temporary rocket launching facility for research purposes has now passed.”
As this occurs, debate continues whether the company should be allowed to utilise Whalers Way for its operations.
Southern Launch’s chief operating officer Rebecca Darcey said it encouraged community members to visit the website and read the extensive research undertaken by independent experts to make up the company’s Act application, with its construction and operation plans.
“Developing this document and gathering scientific information from experts in their field has given us the confidence that we can develop a launch complex that is sustainable and works alongside the natural environment – similar to other launch sites around the world,” she said.
“We are committed to delivering a net environmental benefit to the Whalers Way site.
“Currently there is no environmental management plan in place for this private property, we intend to implement a comprehensive plan to ensure native species in the area are protected.”
She said for each of the launch campaigns conducted from Whalers Way the company had worked with more than 50 Eyre Peninsula businesses and helped inject more than $1 million into the local regional economy.
“The development of the Whalers Way site will bring economic complexity to the Eyre Peninsula region,” Ms Darcey said.
“It’s another industry that can complement the existing agriculture and aquaculture industries that the Eyre Peninsula is so renowned for.”
Southern Launch said the creation of the Whalers Way facility would see neglected land around the launch site enhanced and protected.
It added that decades of dumped rubbish would be cleared, while a weed, vermin and feral animal eradication program would restore the land to its natural state and assist native species protected under the EPBC Act.
Over the years there has been conflict within the community and stakeholders regarding the environmental impact of the proposed launches, especially after a launch vehicle suffered an internal fault causing it to catch alight in 2021, plus the release of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Following these events the community saw the formation of EPEPA as some residents believed the facility and its operations would have a greater impact than originally communicated.
“We didn’t really pay an awful lot of attention until 2021 when we were informed they were going to do test launches, the full impact of which had been sidelined out of the EIS,” founding member and local resident Nel Taylor said.
“The test launches came and went and we had a very small group of protestors because nobody really knew what was going on, but I think those first test launches actually woke Port Lincoln residents to the fact it was really happening.
“We just really want to continue to raise awareness to the community.”
She said the group would continue to fight.
“We had big protests out the front of CFS (Country Fire Service) in December 2022, so that test launches weren’t to occur through high fire danger seasons – we feel the minister heard our protests when he changed the cut off date this summer to November,” Ms Taylor said.
“It’s still a long process from here, we put the submissions in, then Southern Launch have to prepare another response document and we hope that our South Australian minister doesn’t approve a fourth test campaign.”
Regional Development Australia Eyre Peninsula chairperson Bryan Trigg said there was not enough scientific evidence available to show the Southern Launch constructions would negatively impact flora and fauna.
He said before Southern Launch came along, the area was being damaged by tourism.
“The benefit to the nation in communications will greatly impact our future,” Mr Trigg said.
“Southern Launch is just providing a service, when you look at the involvement at Koonibba especially with the relationships with the Koonibba community, it’s had a positive effect.
“We think it will be a benefit to the area and the nation, not just Port Lincoln and Whalers Way. It will benefit everyday people that use their phones, improving communications.”
Southern Launch has invested $180,000 towards research into the Southern emu-wren and the kestrel endemic to the area by Flinders University as part of its education outreach program, independent of its research and applications.
Fran Solly is a concerned Port Lincoln resident, the local representative for Birds South Australia on its conservation committee and a member of Friends of Osprey.
“I’ve read the new documents and attachments and my biggest concern is around the endangered bird species that either nest or forage at Whalers way, four in particular, the Southern emu-wren, the white-bellied whipbird, the osprey and the white-bellied sea eagle,” she said.
“They are proposing to clear 23 hectares of vegetation, which will have a direct impact on the Southern emu-wren in particular and the whipbird to a degree, and they are acknowledging they are clearing the area that is habitat for these birds.
“There’s only 11 habitats and approximately 1000 emu-wren birds left and Whalers Way is one of the most important areas for this species as it is low, thick shrub area for these low-flying, shy birds.”
She said the number of birds at Whalers Way and the fact it had been protected under legislation should mean there was greater potential for these birds to thrive in this particular area, if left undisturbed.
“It’s less at risk of fragmentation, it’s one of the larger areas of the 11 that gives the bird the space it needs to nest and forage,” Ms Solly said.
“Southern Launch is basically saying they will pay $1.9 million to offset the damage made by clearing vegetation at Whalers Way under Native Vegetation Regulations Act – my argument is that this is not enough to offset the environmental impact of potentially displacing a species that relies on that vegetation.”
She said as part of her osprey monitoring, she noted there is a 68-day-old chick at Whalers Way.
“Osprey return year after year to the same nest and if left undisturbed these birds could return for the next 20 years, but I’m pretty certain if rockets are launched they won’t.”
Ms Solly has said she would be responding to the call for public consultation in more detail before the February 2 cut-off date.
Some of the other mitigation risks in the planning report include: “An 1800mm chain mesh fence with three strands of barbed wire will be installed around all the three open water bodies and they will be covered with a Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex, geotextile tarp or shade cloth to detract bird species, and keep pest species and native ground dwelling fauna species out of the open water bodies,” it reads.
“The Weeds and Pests Sub-plan will ensure weed control methods for threatened species will be done in accordance with the relevant Recovery Plan for the species (i.e. the Mallee Whipbird National Recovery Plan).
“Vegetation clearing to be undertaken in a sequential manner to allow fauna present sufficient time and space to move out of the area of their own accord.”
There has not yet been a successful launch from the Whalers Way pads for Southern Launch or affiliated organisations, however the permanent structures at Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex about 40 kilometres out of Port Lincoln would allow for launch attempts to be easier to organise.
Interested parties can review the documentation for the complex plans on the Southern Launch website at southernlaunch.space/epbc or copies are available at the Port Lincoln Library. Comments are to be received by Friday, February 2 to firstname.lastname@example.org or by post to CEO, Southern Launch, 242 Port Road, Hindmarsh, SA, 5007.
Meanwhile, last year the Port Lincoln Times reported the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia had launched legal action against Plan SA regarding the extension of launch proceedings, however the suit has since been dropped.