Champion of Western Port’s unique ecology

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OBITUARY

Brian David Cuming OAM, 10 January 1928–23 May 2017, scientist, environmental activist

Dr Brian Cuming

SCIENTIST Brian Cuming played a major role in the protection of Western Port for more than 40 years.

Dr Cuming, who died on 23 May at age 89, joined the Westernport and Peninsula Protection Council in 1978.

WPPC was the peninsula’s first environmental lobby group, founded in 1971 to oppose further industrialisation of Western Port.

Plans included a nuclear reactor and dry dock on French Island and heavy industry stretching from Hastings to Stony Point.

Liberal Premier Henry Bolte wanted Western Port to be the “Ruhr of Victoria”, named after the heavily industrialised valley in Germany, and this sparked a long and bitter battle between pro-development forces versus scientists and conservationists.

Only three major industrial plants were built – a BP refinery at Crib Point (closed in 1985), Lysaght’s steel mill near Hastings (now BlueScope), and Esso’s gas fractionation plant, which still operates.

Sitting in his holiday house at Somers overlooking pristine Western Port and finding out about industrial plans for the region led Dr Cuming to join the protection council, founded by Dr Bill Carroll, Meredith and Ken Hayes, Joe Tilleard and other concerned residents.

One of Dr Cuming’s first tasks was to provide evidence to a government inquiry into oil spills. For four decades he undertook research, modelling and wrote submissions to government bodies about Western Port and its need for protection.

Dr Cuming had earlier done work on chemicals entering water catchments in Gippsland and his expertise was seized on by the protection council. Key battles during his tenure included successful campaigns to halt a fertiliser plant at the old BP site at Crib Point in 1987, and Shell-Mobil’s 1992 plan for an oil importing depot.

In 1985 Dr Cuming had taken on the presidency of the council after the death of Bill Carroll, a post he held until 1996. Dr Cuming was on the committee until 2007 when he retired. He became the council’s “honorary scientific adviser”.

In 2015 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his environmental work. (Nanette Cuming also received an OAM, for her work in the native plant industry and for volunteering at community groups in the region.)

Dr Cuming grew up in Caulfield and attended Caulfield Grammar before doing a science and chemistry degree at the University of Melbourne, and a PhD at Cambridge in England.

He worked for the CSIRO either side of his Cambridge days before joining ICI Australia, where he worked for 18 years before leaving in 1977. He was a part-time chemistry lecturer at Swinburne Institute of Technology and set up an environment course, one of the first in Melbourne.

The Cumings moved to five hectares at Hunts Rd, Bittern, in 1981 to expand the native plant business, and Dr Cuming helped Nanette operate it.

He was a founding member of Devilbend Foundation, which successfully lobbied the government to make the decommissioned Devilbend Reservoir into a reserve rather than housing.

Dr Cuming was a member of several groups including Environment Victoria’s community reference group; Conservation Council of Victoria; Western Port Biosphere Reserve Foundation; Port of Hastings community reference group; and Greenpeace Australia.

WPPC secretary Karri Giles said Dr Cuming’s “love of environmental philosophy helped develop the vision of our group”.

“Brian was especially good at keeping people updated, networking and finding new allies. He was our main contact with environmental groups and bureaucrats for many years.”

In 2011, Dr Cuming said: “Western Port is not and has never been the place for industry. It is one of the world’s most important wetlands, and has outstanding marine and coastal environmental values. More than 350 native plant and 330 native animal species including reptiles, amphibians, mammals, fish and birds live here.”

He said even a minor oil spill would have devastating effects on the environment because of tidal movement and shallow areas of Western Port, 40 per cent of which was inter-tidal mud and sand flats.

His funeral will be held at Bunurong Memorial Park, Frankston-Dandenong Rd, Dandenong South, at 11.30am on Friday 2 June.

Dr Cuming is survived by his wife Nanette; brothers Lindsay and Bob; children Richard, Ian, Pip (Philippa) and Rohan; and grandchildren Damon, Joel, Mayra, Ella and Jamie.

First published in the Western Port News – 30 May 2017

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