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Battle for the reef rages below the poll surface

There is a new threat to the Great Barrier Reef in the form of shipping and nearby mining, writes local journalist John Mikkelsen. Will anyone except the Greens talk about it?

More than 70 years after the bombs dropped in the Batttle of the Coral Sea, a new battle is being fought over the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a war of words between environmentalists, independent scientists, rival governments and developers. But it’s not sexy enough to win a blitzkrieg in the mainstream media, which runs hot with issues such as sex appeal and shaving cuts.

Greens leader Senator Christine Milne has announced a three-year $176 million plan that involves “no more port development, no more dumping of port sludge onto the reef”. But so far the issue has slipped below the radar of the major parties. Many billions of dollars in existing and proposed mining and port developments in central and north Queensland are at stake, with the United Nations’ international scientific body UNESCO poised to declare the reef’s World Heritage Area at risk unless it can be convinced otherwise.

The Great Barrier Reef is a world icon that raises about $6 billion annually in tourism dollars and supports thousands of jobs, but cash-strapped governments at federal and state level are putting that in the balance against expanding coal and gas exports. There have been some significant skirmishes during the past week.

Freshly installed federal Environment Minister Mark Butler delayed approval for the construction of the world’s biggest coal port at Abbot Point near Bowen in north Queensland until after the federal election, effectively defusing it as a major election issue. Butler said several new reports into the impact of dredging for the expanded coal-loading terminal would be released to the public before a decision was made.

The project is vital for a massive expansion of coal exports from Queensland’s Galilee Basin, which would involve dredging and dumping 3 million tonnes of silt in the Great Barrier Reef marine park. This has been strongly opposed by groups such as Greenpeace, Save the Reef and Australians for Animals, which welcome the delay but call for the reef dumping to be abandoned in the light of environmental impacts from a much bigger dredging project at Gladstone to the south.

A group of “Save the Reef” walkers arrived at Gladstone last Thursday after a 1200-kilometre trek from Cairns, led by 72-year-old great-grandmother June Norman. She sees the battle for the reef as part of an ongoing commitment to fight for a better future for the next generation. “We know the reef has many challenges, but those don’t outweigh the huge damage that dredging will do. We’ve lost half the coral, more developments are too much, too quickly for a reef already under pressure,” she told Crikey.

Last year she led another trek following the 520-kilometre natural gas pipeline from the Surat Basin gasfields to Gladstone during a hot summer in time to meet visiting UNESCO delegates Dr Fanny Douvere and Dr Tim Badman, who later wrote a scathing report on the scope and potential combined impacts of  resource developments.

UNESCO called for an independent investigation, and a scientific review panel has finally just released an interim report for the federal government, originally due by June 30. This focuses on Gladstone Harbour, home to more than $70 billion in developments, including three liquefied natural gas plants on Curtis Island, a fourth in final planning stages and a major coal export terminal expansion on neighbouring Wiggins Island.

It is also the scene of a massive 46 million-cubic-metre dredging program, the largest in the southern hemisphere. A disease issue affecting fish, turtles, dolphin and other marine life first became apparent in 2011, several months after access dredging started around Curtis Island. Previous studies by state government departments have blamed flooding, but a report by independent aquatic disease expert Dr Matt Landos linked it to dredging.

A scientific review commissioned by the former Bligh government failed to confirm or clear dredging as the primary cause, and the latest federal review has also raised more questions. The review panel suggested further studies were necessary, there were multiple stressors involved, but flooding was the most likely cause:

It appears from the evidence available that compliance and enforcement is being managed in an appropriate way, relative to the environmental risks of non-compliance.

There has been variable consideration of world heritage and environment matters in the state and port strategic planning processes for the Port of Gladstone. When these matters were considered, there was inadequate avoidance or mitigation of impacts to world heritage values.”

The review recommended the federal government should:

  • Reaffirm its position against mining exploration and exploitation within the reef’s World Heritage Area;
  • Implement an effective information management system for sea dumping permits and subject the information to the same level of transparency as assessments under the Environment Protection and Biodiversitry Conservation Act; and
  • Build on the offsets policy launched in October 2012 and establish a list of appropriate offsets for the World Heritage Area.

Environmentalists have been quick to attack the report. Save the Reef spokesman Dr Andrew Jeremijenko drew a cricket analogy: “The way I see it this is a bit like the third umpire decision. Gladstone Ports Corporation has hit the ball with a thick edge, and they have been caught out. The umpire somehow missed it, but all the players on the field know that he did it.  The public also know he was caught out. It has gone to the third umpire, and they have had a look at the evidence, and said he is not out. Everyone is outraged by the decision.”

President of the Gladstone Conservation Council Jan Arens claims there has been “a cover-up” in relation to dredging, with authorities refusing to hand over water quality data as required under environmental conditions. He says an average of one turtle a week had been washing up dead on a Curtis Island beach over the past 10 weeks, and it’s “untenable” to blame the floods.

Blood analyses of over 50 turtles have been shown to be unusually high in metals, pointing at recent high level exposure to contaminants in Gladstone Harbour. Turbidity and correlated metal levels have been statistically well above 2003-2004 averages,” he said.

He also refers to significant pH (acidity) variations, “two associated with fish kills”, and algal blooms caused by high nutrient loads similar to those causing crown of thorns population explosions which are “directly associated with dredge spoil dumping”.

Ecological stress such as the red rash on almost every species of fish in the harbour remains unexplained, but the Ports Corporation denies any possible link with dredging activities, Arens says.

The port’s outgoing CEO, Leo Zussino, says the dredging project has successfully met all of its environmental conditions. “We commit to the Gladstone community to continue to take every action to mitigate our impacts on the environs of Gladstone Harbour whilst developing a world class commercial harbour,” he said.

Zussino’s contract was not renewed by the Queensland government, and he is to be replaced by Craig Doyle next month. Meanwhile, the ultimate umpiring decision seems to rest with UNESCO.

13
  • 1
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 19 August 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    In Brisbane next Sunday there’s a Rally for the Reef in Queens Park at 11am.

    By the time the coal is exhausted the reef will be ancient history - future generations will rely on photos as proof it ever existed.

  • 2
    Posted Monday, 19 August 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Depressing but excellent article. However, the real problem is only just starting. If/when Tony Abbott gets into power he will side with the developers and mining companies.

    After yesterday’s great big media circus centering on the Rabbott’s paid maternity leave issue-and stressing how pro-babies he is, matters like the Great Barrier Reef will have to take its chances. Just as the women hoping to become employed who won’t be employed because of the $75,000 a company would have to fork out to retain a woman in six months of post natal care will be a giant bridge too far.

  • 3
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Monday, 19 August 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    A scientific review commissioned by the former Bligh government failed to confirm or clear dredging as the primary cause

    Really? “Sampling and analysis of sediment and water demonstrates that the dredged sediments are not contaminated to levels that would lead to toxicological effects” (p. xii of the executive summary), not to mention findings 9 and 10, would seem to incline substantially towards ‘clear’. Funny how these statements were omitted in favour of conspiracist claims about a cover-up and insinuations of incompetence by the report’s authors.

    But kudos to the author for at least providing a link to the independent report.

  • 4
    blue bubble
    Posted Monday, 19 August 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Damn, no smoking gun. We need a fourth umpire - Peter Garrett maybe?

  • 5
    Mikko
    Posted Tuesday, 20 August 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mark Duffett, the link and the section you quoted is actually from the latest federal review panel. An earlier State review for the former Bligh government made it clear it could neither blame nor exonerate dredging. A detailed study by aquatic veterinarian Dr Matt Landos covers the likely links to suspended metals and nutrients associated with dredging. In subsequent interviews he is critical of practices including dredging without the use of silt curtains as used in other projects here and overseas, and continued dredging on king tides. Gladstone Harbour has a tidal range of up to five metres and high tidal velocities. A study by James Cook University scientists using satellite imagery showed suspended dredge spoil extending up to 34 km from the dredging site. All this is in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
    The Landos study and other reports including the JCU study can be accessed at http://gladstonefishingresearchfund.org.au/#

  • 6
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Tuesday, 20 August 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    G’day Mikko,

    The source I followed was from the hyperlinked phrase ‘scientific review’ in the following sentence: “A scientific review commissioned by the former Bligh government failed to confirm or clear dredging as the primary cause, and the latest federal review has also raised more questions.”

    which implies it to be that commissioned by the former Bligh government. Sounds like ‘latest federal review’ is the phrase that should have had the hyperlink.

    But in any case, surely the latest report, building on previous work as per the normal course of scientific investigation, supersedes the earlier ones.

  • 7
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Tuesday, 20 August 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Though I must admit I find it strange the Fed review panel does not directly mention the JCU MODIS study, only a GPC response to it.

  • 8
    Mikko
    Posted Tuesday, 20 August 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    There are a lot of murky issues not properly clarified to date. A report in the Gladstone Observer published after the above article was written, quotes a large number of environmental incidents obtained under FOI including oil leaks, raw sewage dumped from a dredger and dredge spoil dumped outside the approved disposal site. The report states that Gladstone Ports Corporation was under no obligation to make the incidents public, despite obvious health and environmental risks. The federal review panel should also have had access to this information. See http://www.gladstoneobserver.com.au/news/dredge-dumps-sewage-in-one-of-many-incidents/1988097/

  • 9
    Serenatopia
    Posted Tuesday, 20 August 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Meet the Review Panel (oh yeah…did someone say ‘independent?’)

    http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/gbr/gladstone/panel.html

    The panel’s experience is heavily entrenched in Government including the CSIRO and Cabinet…And particularly with the amount of references to the word ‘independent’…c’mon?

    The report does not indicate the exact tests conducted in relation to water quality, turbidity and disease ramifications.

    Some of the statements made in the report are bureau-speak!

    E.g. It is possible to operate, manage and enhance the
    port of Gladstone whilst also adequately
    protecting the environmental attributes of the area.

    Really?

    This might give you all a much better understanding of the problem:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQuWvBRiYQw

    Commercial ports cannot exist in harmony with turtles and dugongs and coral…

    Watch the Space…Australian Bureaucracy has been fully hijacked by corporate interests…We all need to Save the Reef…Contact Serene Teffaha on 0425 754 299 if you have constructive ideas that you would like to share on how this can be done…

  • 10
    col smith
    Posted Wednesday, 21 August 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Its just not cricket. A generation ago we went of to war to fight for things we valued, against a Nazi menace. Human nature remains the same while its understanding increased immensely, a generation from now will we have view this Economic Rationale?

  • 11
    rangi faulder
    Posted Wednesday, 21 August 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Mark Duffet, Take a look at the water quality data between Jan-Oct 2011 provided by the proponent rather than most of the results the government looked at too late. You can access these on the DEHP website in early reports. Metals went well over the trigger values but nobody intervened- Bligh said ” nothing will stop this LNG project” and nothing did. The oysters being used as biomonitors for metal uptake went missing as did passive metal sampling data. These are required under guidelines as very important. The panel never noticed? There were repeated exceedances in water quality, only it got better during government investigations, as it should because the worst parcels of material had already been released. No government report looked at this stuff. The panel failed to note that turbidity was over double the QWQG guideline for months running and should have been done with great caution, yet was then was dropped altogether as a trigger for management because they could not comply. The ANZECC guidelines were not followed at all like the panel suggested. The place was allowed to be degraded from background levels because the proponents had considered it a class 2 waterway not a class 1 high value WHA waterway, right from the time of applying for the permits. No one even realised this was done and no one acknowledged that this is the rule because of the sensitive species. This allowed the setting of incorrect and dangerous “enriched” triggers to begin with, which were then breached but never even modified when disease set in. That is clearly required in the guidelines. The panel did note that no baseline health sampling was performed, nor did the project determine toxicity limits for the species before setting their enriched values. It was all based on a guess. This panel regurgitated a major error and now it seems it will be the way for WHA and GBR waters into the future. If you read the guidelines word for word, and compare that to the assertion made by the panel, you would think very differently about the conspiracy theorists. Maybe they bothered to read them. CSIRO claimed no link of metals to dredging, there were no hot spots they said, yet core work, DERMS and their own data shows differently ( they never explained why they considered elevated metals as outliers and despite recommending the source be investigated, it was not) and they never thought it prudent to state what stage area was being dredged when they were called in by the people in control of the dredge machines on the few days they tried to match metals to turbidity. CSIRO never considered the earlier metal data. Those sampled from prior to the disease period.. before calling it all good. You can also venture into the core samples which did show contaminants above limits and a millions of cubics of acid sulphate soils which have been implicated in diseased environments in many places. Why was this place so special? Money. The panel suggest acid sulphate does not oxidize in marine waters, not really true, and it was not even full marine, remember how it flooded into an estuary? The panel never assessed all the core sample work, some of it because it was not available to them. Why? They have no business making that claim that it was safe to dump offshore. No spoil on barges were tested. They admit they do not know how much of a problem the “concerning” elevated metals in turtles would be, yet vouched there were no metals around!!. The bund wall reclaim area breached, spewing out acid muds. Yet they never looked at the discharge data from that bund, no one checked the leaking waters either, nor the open pits that saw rain hit acid sulphates that were excavated on Curtis island. There is nothing quiet like getting a WHA to deal with the contaminants after a flood, get hit over the knuckles by UNESCO and then have the government fix up a report to call it all fine whilst choosing to ignore piles of information that gave early warning.

  • 12
    Serenatopia
    Posted Wednesday, 21 August 2013 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Rangi Faulder

  • 13
    rangi faulder
    Posted Thursday, 22 August 2013 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Environment Minister Powell went on ABC radio recently and tried to distance Curtis island from the GBRMP/reef. Problem is that the turbidity from dredge plumes from the projects had ben predicted to run up into Grahams Creek in EIS work ( where CSIRO found metals) and also into the Narrows. This also borders the dugong protection zone. The prevalence of crab shell disease was highest in this area. Both these locations are protected habitat zones and can be seen on the GBRMPA maps for the area. Seen here : http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/28123/Map17-GDA94.pdf

    The east banks offshore dump site sees sediment from dredge dumping travel by currents to GBRMP waters. These areas do have reef and were included in the marine park for the reason of their UOVs. The plume direction is shown by a most recent report by SInclair Knight Merz which was prepared for the government in their search for information on the harms of dredging and dumping spoil in the GBR waters. It just happens to be that this area of GBR (sable chief) was found to have diseased marine fish in 2012 with some being caught as recently as a few months ago, which seriously puts the claim that floods are to blame under question and also begs the question is dumping in the reef safe at all?.

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