By Pat Pepper
Great Barrier Reef Ports: On 5th December 2013 the NCWQ made a submission to the Queensland Government about the Queensland Ports Strategy raising the following concerns:-
- Expansion of ports designated as Priority Port Development Areas within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) to cater for the expected increased quantities of coal and liquefied natural gas to be exported;
- Impact of dredging and the dumping of dredge spoil given the report by Sinclair Knight Merz Pty Ltd of the possible wider than expected dispersion of dredge plumes;
- Increased shipping within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GMRMP) and potential introduction of many threats to the reef and marine life.
The concerns raised by NCWQ in Queensland Ports Strategy submission and specifically that of the impact of dredging and the dispersal of dredged spoil from the expansion of the Port at Abbot Point were also raised with the Australian Government (AG) via the NCWA. On the 10th December 2013, the AG Environment Minister, the Hon. Greg Hunt MP, gave approval for the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation Ltd (NQBPC) to undertake capital dredging and dredge spoil disposal for three terminals at the Port of Abbot Point, admittedly with several commendable conditions to mitigate or offset any impacts (2011-6213-approval-decision.pdf). However, it is noted that the proposed relocation area for the dredge spoil is within the GBRMP although the Minister’s priority for all future capital dredging projects within the Central and North Queensland coastal zone will be for shoreline, near to shore or land reclamation disposal (mr20131210.pdf).
On 31st January 2014, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved the application by NQBPC to dispose of dredge spoil at a deepwater location offshore of Abbot Point, subject to strict environmental conditions. The GBRMPA said they would support the use of an alternative site within the identified investigation zone if the NQBPC found one to be equal to or better in terms of environmental or heritage outcomes. However, the investigation zone is still within the GBRMP. Testing has confirmed there are no identified contaminants in the sediments that will be dredged at Abbot Point http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/media-room/latest-news/corporate/2014/strict-conditions-placed-on-approval-for-abbot-point-permit. The GBRMPA has reported that the uncertainty about the additional effects of sea dumping of dredge spoil is a key concern, particularly given the potential for large volumes of proposed dredge material to be dumped and resuspended in areas of the Great Barrier Reef Region (GBRR) already in poor condition GBRMPA 820 Strategic Assessment in Brief- Low Res.pdf.
The North Queensland Conservation Council (NQCC) considered the Abbot Point cumulative impact assessment (CIA) only considered a limited number of impacts from a limited number of actions and failed to meet the standard established in 2010 by Franks, DM, Brereton, D, Moran, CJ, Sarker, T and T, Cohen,2010, in “Cumulative Impacts: A Good Practice Guide for the Australian Coal Mining Industry” NGCC- comment- on –the draft GBRWHA- strategic – Assessments-2013.pdf. One questions whether given the dredge spoil is uncontaminated, could not better use be made of it on land? The possibility of smothering reefs and seagrass meadows remain. Given the threats from climate change and agricultural run off, why let the additional effect of sea dumping of dredge material put the reef’s world heritage status further at risk, and threaten marine life and the tourism and fishing industries?
Strategic Assessments of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and adjacent coastal zone: Draft assessments were released on 1 November 2013 as part of AG’s response to the World Heritage Committee’s concerns about the impact of development on the GBRWHA. It was reported that, while the outstanding universal value of the GBRWHA remained largely intact, the overall health of the Reef, especially in the southern two thirds of the GBRR, south of about Cooktown and Port Douglas, has declined significantly. Key habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass meadows are in serious decline and populations of some iconic and highly vulnerable animals e.g. southern dugong are on a downward trend. While agricultural practices are improving, and the loads of sediments and nutrients being washed into the GBRR are decreasing (Reef Water Quality Protection Plan 2013), there is likely to be a lag of some decades before water quality significantly improves. High concentrations of nutrients in Reef waters are likely to promote continued, more-frequent outbreaks of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish. With sea dumping of dredge spoil, the cumulative effect of these impacts require additional management intervention. With a concerted international effort to reduce global climate change, action at the national, state and local levels is needed to build the Reef’s resilience by reducing impacts GBRMPA 820 Strategic Assessment in Brief- Low Res. The GBRWPA advocated strengthening current management strategies as well as a number of initiatives GBRMPA Draft Program Report sml.pdf.
However, the North Queensland Conservation Council (NQCC) has drawn attention to the dangers of “ Strategic assessments remove the need for the assessments of individual projects, instead they mean a range of developments can proceed without further approval if undertaken under a policy, program or plan endorsed under the EPBC Act, (p2)” in the AG’s Strategic Assessment Prospectus. The NQCC stressed that as the Strategic Assessment focused on the management of the GBRWHA any acceptance of the proposed Program can only demonstrate Ministerial approval of individual management approaches within the proposed Program, not a range of development proposals. In reviewing the effectiveness of the GBRMPA, the NQCC concluded the GBRMPA needs to be strengthened to be able to exert greater control over the range of activities having an impact on the GBRWHA. The NQCC urges that the condition of all aspects of the GBRWHA be linked to causes of degradation and the associated proposed changes to deliver targeted quantified benefit. The NQCC questioned whether the claims in the QG’s Draft Program Report – Coastal component that management have been effective. For example, the recent revelations of the failure of the wall designed to retain dredge spoil at GladstoneHarbour and systemic failings in the monitoring, managing and reporting hardly confirm effectiveness.
The NQCC highlights a number of other deficiencies e.g. the proposed offset policy appears to be designed for quicker development application/assessment rather than an empirical assessment of the ability or failure of existing offsets to deliver net benefits for the environment; the claim that the Abbot Point CIA to be an innovative model for this kind of assessment given it failed to meet the standard NGCC- comment- on –the draft GBRWHA- strategic – Assessments-2013.pdf. The independent review of the Coastal Zone Strategic Assessment (draft in progress 13 September2013) by Sinclair, Knight and Merz commissioned by the Department of Environment of the AG found the reports to be consistent with the terms of reference if key gaps identified were addressed. They concluded further explanation was needed on how the Strengthened Management and Forward Commitments of the Program are sufficient to reverse the declining condition of Matters of National Environmental Significance. A number of recommendations were made e.g. expanding the assessment of port development and associated activities such as shipping and dredging to provide further justification for the assessments of risks and considering the cumulative impacts of multiple port projects across the GBR; and describing the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification are likely to be manifested on the GBR and how managing for resilience could partly address these challenges. Great Barrier Reef Coastal Zone Strategic Assessment Independent Review Report 25 October 2013
State Party Report on the State of Conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Australia) was released by the AG on the 31st January 2014, in response to the World Heritage Committee Decision Whc 37 Com 7b.10. The above Strategic Assessments and Programme Reports form the basis for the claim of that substantial progress has been made in responding to the World Heritage Committee decisions and mission recommendations. Work on Reef 2050 – Longterm Sustainability Plan has commenced. gbr-state-party-report-2014-hi.pdf
Environmental threat from the nickel refinery at Yabulu near Townsville: A GBRMPA report obtained by FOI by the Australian newspaper stated that there was 5000 million litres of “hazardous waste” in the refinery’s tailings pond and the nitrogen concentrations were more than 150 times the maximum for sewage discharge in the GBRMP. There are concerns about the risk of a spill in the event of a major downpour or cyclone or the possibility of unpermitted discharges. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/investigations/clive-palmers-yabulu-refinery-a-reef-risk-says-report/story-fnk76wj3-1226824182234
Coal Seam Gas and ground water: The work undertaken by Geoscience Australia, the Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment (OGIA) and Gas Industry Social & Environmental Research Alliance (Gisera) is acknowledged and commended. Geoscience Australia is investigating potential recharge zones to the GAB aquifers of the Surat Basin from downward leakage through the Quaternary alluvial aquifers, usually via rivers and potential areas of upward leakage from the GAB to the Quaternary alluvium and river systems http://www.ga.gov.au/groundwater/our-capabilities/great-artesian-basin.html.
Gisera has current research projects looking at maximising the amount of treated coal seam gas water that can be re–injected into aquifers:- Geochemical response to re-injection project to understand how treated coal seam gas water interacts with groundwater; Re–injection of coal seam gas water to understand how to minimise clogging of re–injection wells; Groundwater modelling to determine the possibility of large scale re–injection programs and Groundwater baseline study to understand the origin and age of groundwater prior to and during initial stages of development GISERA Research progress December 2013.
A regional groundwater flow model was constructed to predict the impacts of current and planned CSG development on water pressures in aquifers for Surat Underground Water Impact Report (UWIR) which was approved in December 2012. At that time there was little monitoring data to assist in understanding the interconnectivity between the formations Surat underground-water-impact-report.pdf July2012. Condamine Connectivity Project is being undertaken to improve understanding of the hydrogeological relationships and potential for interconnectivity between the Condamine Alluvium (CA), the underlying Walloon Coal Measures (WCM) and other associated formations. Outputs from this project will improve the representation of the formations in future groundwater modelling that will support the revision of or the Surat UWIR in December 2015. However the existing UWIR groundwater model is continuing to be used for assessing regional impacts Annual Report 2013 for the Surat UWIR December 2013. It is understood the collection of baseline data, research and computer modelling all take time and substantial progress is being made. However, given that water resources are such an essential resource to life, the environment and other industries would it not be prudent to slow the pace of CSG development?
Cape York Regional Plan: On 25th November 2013, the QG released for comment a draft plan aimed at balancing economic development opportunities such as agriculture and mining, with protection of the regions’ significant natural and cultural resources http://statements.qld.gov.au/Statement/2013/11/20/newman-government-releases-plan-for-cape-york. Land use was categorised General Use Areas (GUAs; areas where economic development activities are prioritised including agriculture, tourism and resource activities, while recognising that site specific environmental and cultural values remain important considerations in any development/resource proposal; 53% Cape York Region); Strategic Environmental Areas (SEAs; areas containing regionally significant values for biodiversity, water catchments and ecological function. Development supported if the development outcome does not present risk of irreversible or widespread impacts to the ecological integrity of the areas in supporting the region’s significant biodiversity; 32% Cape York Region) and National Parks (Development and activities in national parks may be facilitated where they are ecologically sustainable activities that protect an area’s natural condition and values; 15% Cape York Region) http://www.dsdip.qld.gov.au/resources/plan/cape-york/draft-cape-york-regional-plan.pdf. The Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve was drafted as an SEA. http://statements.qld.gov.au/Statement/2013/11/20/newman-government-releases-plan-for-cape-york
The Regional Planning Interests Bill 2013 introduced in Parliament on 20 November 2013 requires resource activities authorised under resource acts and other regulated activities to align with the regional land use policies in the regional plans as well as other government policy Regional planningB13.pdf. At a State Development, Infrastructure and Industry Committee Hearing into the Bill 2013, Mr Barry Lyon, Senior Conservation Ranger, Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, Australia Zoo put the case that bauxite mining and land set aside for nature conservation purposes such as the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve were incompatible. With strip mining, large areas are cleared and bauxite, which is the supporting substrate for the ecosystem, is taken out and the landscape is lowered. When that substrate that supported the original ecosystem is gone, the hydrology is affected. Monsoonal rain that falls on the bauxite plateau filters through the bauxite into the deeper aquifer and feeds the springs, which then feed the Wenlock river Public Hearing—Inquiry Into The Regional Planning Interests Bill 2013 Transcript Of Proceedings Wednesday, 12 February 2014 Brisbane.