Two months ago I was in Gladstone, and I was deeply concerned then to see how the interests of big LNG corporations were being put ahead of everyone else in the town. Now, following widespread fish contamination, health impacts, animal deaths and the livelihoods of the entire Gladstone fishing industry on the line — as Crikey has been reporting — I am appalled that dredging is allowed to continue in these circumstances.

Gladstone Harbour is an incredible place. On the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, it’s part of the precious World Heritage area and provides a living for the Gladstone community. The harbour is the lifeblood of Gladstone.

But since federal and state governments approved 46 million cubic metres of dredging in the harbour to facilitate LNG exports, things have started to go horribly wrong.

Already under stress from the floods, dead turtles and dugongs are washing up on shore at alarming rates. This year’s count of turtle deaths stands at a horrifying 188 and counting, a huge spike on the previous year. While authorities have been quick to blame the floods, 10 months on and the recovery of seagrass is being hampered by sediment from dredging and we are still seeing distressed and dying marine animals in greater numbers than our wildlife hospitals can cope with.

Sick and dying fish are rife the harbour and the fishing industry was shut down for weeks. There are reports of contaminated sharks and stingrays also caught bearing the red rash and cloudy eyes, and there are fears the contamination could spread to the Great Barrier Reef.

Fisheries Minister Craig Wallace shut down the fishing industry when the contamination outbreak first occurred, but the dredging continued. Fishing in the harbour has now been re-opened, but fishermen are still reporting widespread contamination of their catches.

These fish are contaminated, and medical experts are adamant that these fish pose a serious health risk and must not be eaten. Re-opening the harbour while the contamination is obviously still present has simply shifted the responsibility for public health from the government to the Gladstone fishermen.

The Gladstone Fish Market has shown itself willing to take responsibility where the government will not, and is refusing to receive or sell fish caught within the original fishing ban zone. The safe and conscientious response to the contamination has become a huge burden for the industry and the community to bear alone.

And still the dredging continues.

The Queensland Environment Minister Vicky Darling has downplayed any connection between dredging and the Gladstone Harbour environment crisis, pointing to a Department of Environment and Resources Management (DERM) report claiming there has been little change in water quality in the past few months.

However, the report is remarkable more for what is excluded than included. It relies heavily on data taken from monitoring sites up to August 2011, before the full impacts of the dredging hit the harbour, and before the fish contamination crisis.

And what data is available for September isn’t encouraging. Included in the DERM report was data from one monitoring site in the harbour, known as BG10, which had recorded extreme turbidity exceeding the 99th percentile. The kind of turbidity that would cause very poor water quality, compromising the marine life in the harbour.

And from Gladstone Ports Corporation’s own data for September 2011, which was excluded from DERM’s report, there were three more monitoring sites that recorded extreme turbidity — QE4, P2 and ST1. Again, this is turbidity that exceeds the 99th percentile, which is meant to be a trigger point.

A trigger for what, exactly? According to the conditions of the federal approval to dredge the harbour, Gladstone Ports Corporation is obliged to report the breach and take steps to mitigate the effects of the dredging. What steps should be taken are up to Gladstone Ports Corporation. There’s already been two temporary suspensions of dredging, but each time it resumes unabated.

When the harbour is full of sick and dying animals, it’s clear these conditions are completely inadequate. It’s the same as a ship hitting an iceberg, the first mate reports the collision to the captain, and the ship pauses for a minute before continuing to move full-steam ahead.

And the ship in this case is powered by the million dollar LNG industry. For LNG exports, federal and state governments have approved 46 million cubic metres of dredging. That’s an open-cut mine, under water.

It’s no wonder fishos are saying the harbour looks like pea soup.

So what exactly will it take to turn this ship around? Is there a number of dead animals to be reached before we say enough is enough? Or a number of people getting ill from eating diseased fish? Or the loss of livelihood for the entire fishing community of Gladstone? Just what will it take to put the health of the harbour, the World Heritage marine area and the Gladstone community before LNG dollars?

In Senate estimates this week, I asked the federal environment department some of these questions. I asked about the quality of data — primarily from Gladstone Ports Corporation themselves — that government is relying on when it allows dredging to continue. I asked about the future plans for dredging, dumping and construction in the harbour, and if it intend to respond to this environmental crisis or sweep it under the carpet.

The department maintains the Gladstone Ports Corporation line that the fish contamination has nothing to do with the dredging, despite this crisis coinciding with the huge increase in dredging activity.

Already 1.7 million cubic metres have been ripped up from the bottom of the harbour in the past two months. Alarmingly, there’s still 44 million cubic metres to go.

When people’s livelihoods, health and the very future of the harbour are on the line, it is time for state and federal governments to act in the interests of the people who elected them and the environment we all rely on, and put the brakes on the dredging and the LNG industry.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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