With most major ports located in the middle of populated areas, the government faces some tough decisions on infrastructure.
SINCE the election of the new state government last September, one of the recurring issues it has faced has been controversy over the planning and management of Western Australia's shipping ports.
The government has been under pressure over operations at existing ports including Esperance, Fremantle and Port Hedland, and is yet to resolve issues surrounding future developments in the Kimberley, the Mid West and Cockburn Sound.
The controversy surrounding the existing shipping ports stems in most cases from their historic location. With the exception of Dampier, all of the state's major ports have been built in the middle of regional cities and towns, creating an inherent tension between the wishes of residents and the needs of exporters.
This is not a new problem. Residents in places such as Esperance, Albany and Geraldton have for decades needed to deal with big trucks and noisy trains carrying the wheat harvest to port each December.
However, it is getting more difficult to manage, as some of the existing export industries (iron ore, liquefied natural gas, woodchips) expand and new industries (lead, uranium) emerge.
The most contentious issues have been at Esperance, where the mismanagement of lead exports has raised sensitivities about other mineral commodities.
The Liberal government sought to quickly resolve the lead issue, only to find itself embroiled in controversy over nickel exports.
Plans for lead miner Magellan Metals to export through the port of Fremantle ensure the controversy will not go away. There have already been protests in the port city, with Lord Mayor Peter Tagliaferri vocal in his opposition.
Curiously, some of the critics of lead exports are the same people who insist the inner harbour needs to be retained as a working point, despite all of the congestion, noise and odour problems.
The prospect of uranium mining commencing in WA, after the state government lifted a ban, will inevitably create more controversy.
Premier Colin Barnett has sought to deflect this issue by saying uranium would be exported through an "industrial port".
"It will not go out through a residentially bound port," he told journalists last year.
However, as we have already noted, virtually all of the established ports in WA have been built in the middle of established towns.
This has complicated the planning task at all ports, none more so than at Port Hedland, where giant iron ore stockpiles sit a stone's throw away from houses.
In a report released earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Authority expressed concern about the health and noise impacts of iron ore exports at Port Hedland.
The EPA recommended approval of a planned port expansion but also called for more action.
"The health effects of iron ore dust at the levels expected in Port Hedland may be greater than previously thought and all residential areas may be affected," EPA chairman Paul Vogel warned.
Dr Vogel said the issue needed to be addressed as a matter of high priority "and will require leadership, coordination and resolve at a level greater than has been evident hitherto".
If the state government wants to resolve these issues, it needs a transparent and compelling response.
The lead poisoning at Esperance has caused a breakdown of trust. Winning back community trust can be challenging, especially when a body like the Esperance port authority declares that bulk nickel concentrate exports should be halted.
Community education can play a helpful role, to break down popular myths and inform the community about remedial measures.
For instance, uranium is a commodity that is safely traded in many countries around the world and there is no logical reason why properly regulated exports from WA should create health or safety issues.
Similarly, the plan to export lead in sealed bags inside containers shows that, when industry and government are prepared to spend, they can develop solutions.
A similar approach should ensure that nickel concentrate can be exported safely.
Developing new ports is also part of the solution.
For instance, a new port is needed at Oakajee, to ensure the Mid West can achieve its economic potential and to take pressure off Geraldton.
It is also broadly accepted that a new port is needed at Cockburn Sound, since the inner harbor at Fremantle is expected to reach capacity over the next decade.
This project is likely to generate community concern, especially if the Fremantle port authority proceeds with plans for a massive island harbour. The alternative proposal, developed by private company James Point, would be a less intrusive, land-backed wharf.
However, any adverse consequences would be far outweighed by the environmental benefits of taking export activity away from the inner harbour. Transferring the live sheep trade to Kwinana would be a great start.
The proposed Kimberley LNG hub is yet another contentious port issue facing the state government.
While this is often perceived as an industrial project, critics believe the associated shipping movements and dredging pose a major threat to marine life and tourism.
Against that needs to be weighed the enormous commercial and financial benefits flowing from big LNG projects, which with careful planning should be able to co-exist with most of the region's environmental attributes.