action-story | 10th May, 2016

Louise Crisp: The other side of the Snowy

Writer and canoeist, Louise Crisp, journeys to Corringle Lagoon in search of answers to key environmental issues. ‘If a particular landscape speaks, it’s because that particular landscape has something to say.’ Gustaf Sobin, writer Marlo is a small coastal town in East Gippsland, situated at the mouth of the famous Snowy River.

ActionStory_Louise Crisp heroEvery summer, thousands of tourists visit the area to enjoy the clear waters of the river, the sandy beaches,  and abundant fishing. However, very few people know that just across the Snowy River, a deep lagoon lies hidden at the foot of the dunes. Corringle Lagoon, with its deep, still waters, remains a secluded secret of the Snowy River estuary.

On a freezing winter day in July 2004, I set out to paddle the lagoon. My partner and I lower the canoes into Corringle Creek, and follow the creek, a tributary of the Snowy estuary, upstream into the broad reach of the lagoon. A 20-knot gale from the west tries to blow the paddles from our hands. The lagoon is an unexpectedly beautiful place. After the narrow creek, a wide body of water turns to the west and continues further than we can see beyond a bend.

Over the roar of the wind we can hear a deep booming vibration travelling ominously towards us. Then a little further upstream, on the opposite bank we see the Patricia Baleen gas plant (see right). It is hunched like a nuclear reactor, thirty metres from the edge of the lagoon, silver chimneys rumbling over the water. Three huge compressors, a raised flare pit and plastic-lined evaporation ponds. The whole site, covering several hectares, is set behind a high wire fence.

On the lagoon side the fence marks the boundary between Ewing Marsh Wildlife Reserve and the oil company’s land. The reserve and the lower Snowy Estuary wetlands are listed on the National Directory of Important Wetlands. The Snowy River is also classified as a Victorian Heritage River.

Corringle’s contradictions

We paddle past the plant up into the top of the lagoon, the wind dropping off as the water narrows. The gas plant development poses overwhelming contradictions: in 2001 the Victorian and New South Wales  Governments jointly committed $500 million in an attempt to restore an environmental flow to the Snowy River. At the same time the Victorian Government approved the Patricia Baleen gas processing plant here on its estuary. Then in 2003, the Government gave the go-ahead for the Sole development. This was to be an extension to the Patricia Baleen plant that would double the footprint of the plant along the uncleared land beside the lagoon.

The Sole development will include a toxic gas processing plant for Hydrogen sulphide present in gas from the Sole Well. In the ensuing Environmental Effects Statement (EES), the scope of the coarse risk assessment was limited to the study of loss of life at the plant site. There was no risk assessment undertaken regarding the potential impact of accidents or explosions on the surrounding estuarine and coastal environment. A few cars are parked at the Patricia Baleen gas plant (see left) but no-one appears outside the plant. Eight people are employed here, only half of them locals. Cameras watch over the site. The gas plant squats on a narrow strip of higher ground. Beyond the plant lies an expanse of floodplain. A bitumen road crossing swampy ground is the only access. In flood time the waters would take days, even weeks, to recede. One hundred metres behind me, down and around a dune gully, is the ocean.

I’m standing on a very high ridge of dunes scooped and weaving inland from the beach. The prevailing south-westerly is continually tunnelling the sand into valleys and rises. It is a landscape to lie in, to hide in, to share with friends.

Corringle’s connections

A few weeks later I talk to local Gunai/Kurnai people and am told that OMV, the Austrian oil company that  built the gas plant, never dealt with the Native Title elders of the Gunai/Kurnai people, even though the Patricia Baleen EES reports that a native title claimant was a member of the cultural heritage survey group. The Sole EES also reports that all Native Title consents as required under the Native Title Act had been received for the project. I ring a respected elder and member of the Gunai/Kurnai Native Title Council. He confirms that the Council has not been involved in any discussions with OMV. We talk about how places that were important in the past, continue to have a strong connection with people now, and will in the future. Through our hearts we feel that connection to place.

To care for a place, however, involves more than simply feeling a fondness for it. In the last year the local communities on both sides of the Snowy River, at Marlo, Orbost and Newmerella have taken a stand.  Resistance has been co-ordinated by the Orbost Angling Club whose membership now includes a broad range of people from diverse backgrounds. They have distributed a petition calling on the State Government to halt any further development on Corringle Creek and to re-locate the Patricia Baleen gas plant to a more appropriate site away from the Snowy River waterways. The petition has now gathered 1500 signatures from local people. The angling club continues to lobby parliamentarians, local shire planning officers and oil companies.

On a beautiful Spring day, spokesperson for the angling club, Robert Caune (pictured, right) and I visit the dunes overlooking the lagoon. As we follow the beach back to the car at Corringle, I ask Robert how did he make the choice to act. ‘I feel about the river like I feel about my kids,’ he said. ‘If someone was going to hurt them I would act. Not to in this case would be cowardly.’

In February this year Santos, a major Australian oil and gas company, announced they were the new owners of the Patricia Baleen gas field and on-shore processing facility as well as the controversial Sole well. Santos stated clearly their intention to develop Sole and establish the Patricia Baleen plant as the gas-processing hub of Eastern Bass Strait. A number of other gas field discovered in the Spring and Summer by local and international companies could also be connected. Where is the vision that will protect Corringle Lagoon? Where is the vision that will protect the Snowy River? All the communities along its length have been fighting for its survival. They depend upon the health of the river. We all do.

To read the full version of this story, contact Louise Crisp.
Louise Crisp’s collections of poems include ‘the luminous ocean’ (1988),’ pearl & sea fed’ (1994) and ‘Ruby Camp, a Snowy River series’(1998).

She is currently working on a collection of poems about the East Gippsland forest. Written by Louise Crisp
Photography by Louise Crisp and Andrea Savage
Edited by Vin Maskell
Copyright 2005