Last Friday the Queensland government suspended dredging in Gladstone Harbour — for three days. This was in response to ongoing deaths of green turtles, dugongs, blind barramundi, fish kills and fishermen ending up in hospital after just handling fish. The Gladstone Ports Corporation has now also released a Briefing Western Basin Dredging and Disposal Project Environmental Impacts paper, which appears to be  little more than a long letter written with the help of  lawyers saying “its not our fault”.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is still “out to lunch” — at taxpayers’ expense — and this document quotes GBRMPA as saying that the turtle and dugong deaths are due to loss of seagrass — while also stating that the seagrass in and around Gladstone is “coming back”.  The report creates many potential issues,  seemingly to blur Gladstone Ports Corporation’s potential liability. In doing so it has in effect provided further evidence that will negatively impact the current review of the World Heritage status of the Great Barrier Reef.

As reported by The Sydney Morning Herald in August, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee expressed ”extreme concern” at the Queensland and federal government’s backing of planned multibillion-dollar liquid natural gas processing plants at Curtis Island on the edge of the reef: “UNESCO criticised the federal government’s failure to inform it, in line with World Heritage guidelines, that the projects would go ahead.”

Delisting of even a portion of the Great Barrier Reef would cost Australian tourism millions of dollars and permanently damage Queensland’s and Australia’s tourist industry.

By down-playing the amount of dredging done to date as mostly ongoing “maintenance dredging”, it raises the question as to what the affect will be when a further 8 million cubic metres or more of dredge spoil is dumped at sea in marine park waters — let alone five times that amount to be dredged from the harbour for the liquid natural gas project. There will be an additional impact of massive coal port expansion planned for the mouth of the Fitzroy River also to be managed by the Gladstone Ports Corporation. This project is strongly opposed locally and requires further permits from the federal minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Tony Burke.

While the reason that Gladstone Harbour is in such a toxic mess remains a mystery, it again raises questions about the state and federal governments’ ability to address serious environment issues in the catchments that flow into Gladstone Harbour, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and coastal waters generally.

The Queensland government some years ago established a taskforce to investigate why two-headed fish were being bred on a fish farm near the Noosa River surrounded by a macadamia farm.The only qualified scientists on the panel were “outnumbered” and the minister was able to say why there were two-headed fish remained a mystery. The macadamia industry has also grown rapidly in the catchments that feed into Gladstone Harbour.

One of these rivers is the Calliope and last May a fishermen had a scratch infected while fishing in the river and rapidly became seriously ill, almost dying and losing a leg to a deadly bacteria. For competent managers and scientists, this event — combined with the deaths of turtles, dugongs and dolphins, even back in May — would have rung alarm bells. There should have seen immediate action to identify the source of the problem but all government departments state and federal and their scientists appear to have ignored it.

In the void left by nearly all national and international environment groups, local people and groups have maintained pressure on Burke. This letter from Jan Arens of Winfield, Queensland, neatly expresses the issue and has been passed around so rapidly that it threatens to go viral.

Dear Tony

I get no satisfaction out of telling you “I told you so”. You ignored my warnings about the dredging and the likely impacts on dugong when I made my public consultation submission, please don’t ignore me now.

You promoted the idea that the multitude of conditions you imposed would safeguard the environment and in particular the matters in your portfolio. You made no comment on how you would respond when things go wrong or how bad you will allow things to get before exercising your obligation. Dugong are dying while you continue to permit dredging within the Gladstone dugong protection area, within World Heritage-listed water.

While I understand those perpetrating the environmental damage when they try to absolve themselves from any causal relationship, it is profoundly inappropriate behaviour from those in leadership roles. To pre-empt the possibility of a link between the marine wildlife degradation and the dredging activity is reprehensible. Those involved should be removed from their roles.

I note that when you approved the Western Basin Dredging you specifically required that “… the bund-wall … must prevent water quality impacts from leaching material through the bund wall …” The wall does appear to be leaking, as such it is in breach of your requirements. Will you withdraw the permit? If not, how many breaches will you turn a blind eye to before you act?

I would also like to draw your attention to the fact that this bund-wall is not trivial and its construction would have been started well before your dredging approval was issued. It begs the question how the permit holder was even in a position to construct such a bund-wall to your future requirements. It could reasonably have been anticipated that in the rush to get on with it, corners would be cut and failures of this kind would be an outcome.

Dredging is an activity well known for adverse environmental effects. It is unacceptable to continue the dredging on the assumption that the marine-wildlife degradation is caused by floods 10 months ago. The dredging poses a clear and present danger and you are required to apply the precautionary principle. It is quite likely that the system has been weakened by the flooding events; this makes it even more important not to inflict additional stress.

If you don’t stop the dredging and instead allow it to continue while a “panel” tries to resolve the source of the marine wildlife deaths, expect stonewalling from the proponents. I alert you to the use of a similar process when deformed fish were reported in the Noosa River in 2006. The Noosa fish health report, plagued by legal obstacles was finally released June 9, 2011. Five years it took and after all that it did not “resolve” the source of the environmental harm despite clear advice from relevant scientists on the panel. Minister Mulherin made the excuse “these types of investigations were complex and it was difficult to identify a specific cause … Overall, the investigation found that there was no definitive link between chemicals and the events that occurred at the hatchery or in the Noosa River.”  Pesticide spray has been business as usual throughout.

One of the scientists on the panel felt compelled to issue a press release:

CHEMICALS STILL THE PRIME SUSPECT IN NOOSA FISH DEFORMITIES AND DEATHS

“With respect to the suggestion that the majority view was that agrichemicals were not involved, the expertise of the individuals in that majority must be assessed. It is noted that in Queensland only veterinarians are trained in diagnosis of animal disease, and are registered by the Veterinary Surgeons Board of Queensland to undertake “acts of Veterinary Science”, including reaching a diagnosis. Hence the final decision of likely causation must legally lie with the registered Veterinarians on the scientific sub-committee. It is noted that they are in agreement, that the most likely cause, is exposure to agrichemicals. These two veterinarians are the only two members of the scientific sub-committee who have any experience with fish hatchery operations and veterinary disease investigation and diagnosis.”

The lesson from this is that if you load the panel with vested interests, policy advisers and stooges, the majority few may well be engineered to reflect the government’s and GPC’s position that there is no definitive link between the dredging and the marine life deaths. While that may have the effect of wiping egg off a few faces, it would do our environment a terrible disservice. Our Great Barrier Reef is more important than the careers of a few bureaucrats.

Should you fail to deal with this crisis responsibly, the IUCN inspection may well lead to delisting of parts of the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area. Such an event would have wide ranging repercussions for our reputation and will impact adversely on our tourism industry. I can’t recall such a cost factored into any environmental impact assessment and should the degradation of the harbour and Curtis Island lead to this, it would invalidate the original EIS on which you have based your approval.

I urge you to halt all dredging until the scientific evidence is on the public record that the dredging is not contributing to the environmental degradation observed.

I also urge you to enforce your permit requirement, to make all monitoring data available to the public, including the  LTSDP, DCMP, WQMP and EREMP with relevant findings and non-conformances triggering adaptive management. There will be no resistance from Queensland Premier Anna Bligh as she reportedly said she would welcome the IUCN monitoring team as “They’ll see the great work when they get here”

If it is so good she will have no issue submitting it for scientific peer review.

Jan Arens

Peter Fray

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