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Environmental job cuts risk a repeat of Gladstone failures

A long-awaited report on environmental failures at the biggest port along the Great Barrier Reef coastline and today’s federal budget may not seem connected – but if you read the report, it’s clear just…

A report criticising government oversight of a major Gladstone harbour dredging project has warned against cutting resources for environmental monitoring and compliance. Flickr/GreensMPs, CC BY-NC-ND

A long-awaited report on environmental failures at the biggest port along the Great Barrier Reef coastline and today’s federal budget may not seem connected – but if you read the report, it’s clear just how important this budget will be for Australia’s environment.

About 16,000 public servants are predicted to lose their jobs after this budget, and environmental staff have been named high on the list in several news outlets.

My contacts within the Department of Environment say they expect more than 20% of their staff to go. From my personal knowledge, the department already has very few officers with sufficient skills, expertise and experience to oversee complex compliance monitoring programs for major projects.

Why does that matter? And what’s the connection to an independent review into what went wrong at Gladstone harbour, released on Friday last week but largely overshadowed by budget news?

The location of Gladstone's port along the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area coastline. Independent Review of the Bund Wall at the Port of Gladstone, CC BY

That review was set up by Environment Minister Greg Hunt, after years of local concerns about an outbreak of diseased and dead fish, turtles and dugongs within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area in 2011, and questions about whether that was connected to a leaking bund wall meant to contain sediment dredged from the harbour.

The review found that “insufficient resourcing for Department of the Environment monitoring compromised the Australian Government’s ability to adequately ensure compliance” with environmental conditions set on the harbour dredging project at Gladstone.

It also called for proper resources for future environmental monitoring, so that what happened at Gladstone doesn’t happen elsewhere in Australia. Its recommendations included:

  • Resource levels within the department of the environment should be sufficient to ensure adequate monitoring capacity, including for active participation in post-approval technical committees; and
  • Increased resourcing being applied to monitoring and compliance in the department of the environment should be maintained as a matter of priority.

So this is a key issue in today’s budget. How many jobs will go at the Department of Environment, and who will be left to act as watchdogs for Australia’s environment?

The review results

Despite constraints on what it investigated, the Independent review of the bund wall at the Port of Gladstone by a three-member expert panel has been highly critical of the environmental management that operated during the Western Basin dredging program in Port Curtis, Gladstone, from 2010 to 2012.

The Australian’s Graham Lloyd succinctly summed up the report’s key findings:

A key part of the Gladstone Harbour dredging program for the A$35 billion Curtis Island liquefied natural gas export hub has failed due to bad construction, inadequate monitoring and poor environmental oversight by state and federal governments

Some of the strongest criticisms in the review were of:

  • The design and construction of the bund wall “did not meet industry best practice”;
  • The location of monitoring sites, which were “inadequate to identify and then assist in managing discharge from the bund wall”;
  • “Inadequate” oversight of compliance monitoring by the federal government’s Department of the Environment;
  • A generally fragmented, uncoordinated and ineffective oversight of the dredging program by the federal and Queensland governments.

The review made 37 findings and 19 recommendations. Environment Minister Hunt says his department has already started to address some of the findings, including with “a significant increase in compliance monitoring staff numbers”, and a review of all compliance and enforcement procedures due by 30 June. Hunt will respond to the report by 1 July.

It’s important to note that the review was set up with a very narrow focus and terms of reference, only looking at the bund wall and not the broader dredging program.

Its criteria also excluded consideration of environmental effects of the leaking bund wall, including on the health of local marine life, or the environmental impacts of the dredging itself.

So the inability of the independent panel to examine ecosystem health impacts of the leaking bund wall basically hobbled this review from the outset.

An exodus of expertise

The review’s findings about Gladstone harbour have serious implications for environmental protection nationally, particularly for future dredging and spoil dumping programs in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, given the massive scale of future port expansions along the reef’s coastline.

We’ll know after today’s budget how the Department of Environment’s staff have fared. But looking more broadly, there has already been an enormous loss of expert environment management staff from the Queensland government, as part of the Newman government’s cuts to the public service since 2012.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) – where I worked for 11 years managing its Water Quality Research and Management Program – has many excellent staff of the calibre needed to oversee complex environmental monitoring programs.

However, even there the news is not good. Many of GBRMPA’s expert staff are also in the process of leaving the authority under public service jobs cuts.

Does it matter? It does if you want to be sure that major new projects, like the planned dredging to expand Abbot Point’s coal port, does as little environmental harm as possible.

On paper at least, numerous, stringent conditions have been set for environmental management at Abbot Point by our governments and GBRMPA. Those include environmental compliance monitoring and an offsets program.

But will the Australian or Queensland governments have the skilled staff to adequately oversee all those conditions? I don’t believe they will.

Given that, I would argue that it is imperative the decision to dredge and dump spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park from Abbot Point be changed to an option where less damage is predicted, such as with a long trestle. Similar considerations to better look at options to not dump spoil at sea apply for the proposed developments in Cairns, Townsville, Hay Point and further dredging in Gladstone.

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Owens

    Professional

    "How many jobs will go at the Department of Environment, and who will be left to act as watchdogs for Australia’s environment?"

    I would have thought Abbott & Co have made it pretty clear that they don't want any green tape restricting an open for business Australia, irrespective of the environmental consequences.

    Now, if they could only get rid of the Independent Review...

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  2. John Newlands

    tree changer

    I'm puzzled how the task of setting emissions baselines for hundreds of enterprises can be carried out if the federal department is gutted. Perhaps that's a strong hint that Direct Action was never meant to get off the ground. Meanwhile the Abbott government looks for someone to punish over the pink batts scheme.

    Maybe just maybe the Galilee Basin development on which the Abbott Point expansion is partly predicated will not go ahead. With Gladstone LNG exports there will almost certainly be a backlash by domestic gas customers. In both cases the haste to approve port development will seem foolish in hindsight.

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  3. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Writer

    So, bottom line, if you're a Coalition or NLP backer, everything's going to plan. Newman just needs to ramp up the VLAD anti-association laws to target environmental NGOs, and get Victorian-style anti-protest laws passed to shut down any local outrage, and it's all good for fossil fuel in Queensland. The media is fully on side to avoid any mention that the environment and Queenslanders are getting shafted by their government and the FF lobby. Well done, Queensland voters! Turn up the aircon and get us another beer, love!

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  4. Hugh McColl

    Geographer

    Not only the Dept of Environment. Last night on Q&A the Victorian rural Liberal Sharman Stone praised her government's support for the 20% of Australians who look after that 80% of the country that's not near the coast where most Australians live. However, what she didn't mention is that the other public service group near the top of the hit list is Barnaby Joyce's Dept of Agriculture. This is the other expert land management group that Australia needs for the future but which the Liberal Party can use as a whipping boy whenever it wants to push the National Party into line. There will be a stunned silence from the Nationals who are having their electorates gutted save for a few roads and bridges. They've been able to hand out some drought money to a few Queensland cockies and that's about it until the next election.

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  5. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    If it's savings through elimination of duplication between State and Commonwealth environment departments, then the obvious thing to do is for all environmental oversight to be ceded to the Commonwealth.

    That's the thrust of my submission to House of Reps Standing Committee on the Environment "Inquiry into streamlining environmental regulation, 'green tape', and one stop shops" (http://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=environment/greentape/subs.htm) - and I note that they haven't updated the submissions page, although submissions closed on 30 April.

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    1. Karen Edyvane

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Arthur

      Thoroughly agree - the duplication in environmental regulation or 'green tape' needs to be removed. And yet only 1 submission the HRSCE inquiry website ?
      With over 30+ years of experience in State/Territory NRM and environmental management - I would advocating be stronger, national guidelines/egulations - and more devolution to the States/Territory for monitoring/compliance. Largely, because, of the loss of the Commonwealth's critical pool of technical expertise, particularly over the past decade. As State/Territory officers, our Commonwealth counterparts - were often 'rotating' and 'generic', career bureacrats (ie. not hired for their specialist, technical expertise), generally focussed on advancing in the Commonwealth public service - and significantly, rarely staying in the job for more than 12 months... not good for building institutional capacity.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Karen Edyvane

      Thanks for that reply, Ms Edyvane.

      Regarding the presence of only one submission on the Enquiry website, Mr Richard ?'s submission has been displayed for some weeks, and I've been periodically checking to see if they've posted any further submissions; perhaps they've been busy on other issues directly pertaining to the Budget?

      I'm disappointed to learn that the Commonwealth's pool of technical expertise has been allowed to drain away without replenishment, since I understand the same thing's been happening at State level. As an officer with technical expertise, Ms Edyvane, I'd rather you were employed by the Commonwealth, since all too often do States have pecuniary interests in progressing environmentally deleterious projects.

      I do go into more detail on this issue in my submission, but as yet it seems to not be publicly available.

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  6. eric oliver

    electrical contractor and solar designer/ installer

    Thanks Jon for keeping the spotlight on reef protection issues. Maybe their ultimate plan is to privatise the environment department or just contract mining industry employees to WRITE THE POLICIES as the LNP in QLD HAS DONE

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  7. Tony Simons

    Director at Bedlam Bay Pty Ltd

    Hunt has zero credibility. I would not trust him on any environmental matter.

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  8. Karen Edyvane

    logged in via Facebook

    Another excellent article, Jon.

    The cuts by the Queensland Government have been savage - so many highly experienced, and talented, staff - gone. And to the detriment of Queensland's natural heritage. These short-sighted decisions (particularly the loss of intellectual capital and corporate environmental history) will have ramifications for decades.

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    1. Jon Brodie

      Research scientist

      In reply to Karen Edyvane

      Thanks Karen

      I'm particulaly worried now by the losses at GBRMPA. Although the State will now have almost complete power over large scale developments, for projects potentially impacting the Reef GBRMPA may have still had some beneficial influence. With the loss of expert staff at GBRMPA, with decades of experience, the oversight capcity will be very thin.

      Not much hope all around. I guess UNESCO is watching closely and will not be fooled into thinking either the Australian or Queensland Governments have any real concern for the GBR.

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