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Great Barrier Reef decision is a U-turn to an inglorious past

Few of us remember that the declaration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and its subsequent World Heritage status was born out a 12-year popular struggle to prevent the most wondrous coral reef in…

Beautiful one day … a quarry the next? Underwater Earth / Catlin Seaview Survey - www.catlinseaviewsurvey.com

Few of us remember that the declaration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and its subsequent World Heritage status was born out a 12-year popular struggle to prevent the most wondrous coral reef in the world from being destroyed by uncontrolled mining.

A cane farmer’s attempt in 1971 to mine a supposedly “dead” coral clump called Ellison Reef for cheap limestone fertilizer triggered a national resistance led by the unlikely trio of a poet, an artist and a forester — Judith Wright, John Busst and Len Webb. With the help of some student divers, these three leaders of the newly formed Queensland Wildlife Protection Society were able to demonstrate that Ellison was, like most reefs, a mosaic of dead and living corals and a hub of marine bio-diversity.

They also persuaded the Innisfail Mining Warden that mining silt could not be confined to specific local areas. Instead, it would be carried by waves and currents to smother the life out of living corals situated at far off and unpredictable distances from the dredging.

The larger concern of the trio was that Ellison would serve as a precedent for the unrestrained mining ambitions of the Queensland National Party Government.

The conservationists were wrong only in thinking that Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen worried about precedents. He instructed his mining minister to zone 80% of the 3,200 kilometre Barrier Reef for oil and gas mining. Forced to affect an objective assessment of potential environmental impact, the premier gave the task to an American geologist with extensive mining experience. He managed, in the company of government officials, to survey an area of reef the size of Japan in less than a month.

Predictably, he reported that oil-mining prospects looked good and that dead reefs could be used for cement manufacture. Judith Wright compared this last suggestion to bashing down the Taj Mahal for road gravel.

Revelations that the premier and his ministers had also invested heavily in the oil companies whose licenses they were supposed to be assessing didn’t exactly enhance the government’s credibility.

In the end it was a combination of intensive popular campaigning, news of environmentally catastrophic marine oil spills overseas, threats of trade union black bans, and bipartisan legislative action by the Federal Liberal and Labour governments that in June 1975 produced the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

This enacted a spectacular marine reserve for nature lovers which at the same time permitted controlled economic and recreational use. Not everyone liked the multi-use compromise, but it enabled the Barrier Reef to gain World Heritage listing in 1981 as “the most impressive marine area in the world”. And it helped the reef’s administration to acquire a reputation for responsible management.

Still, Judith Wright ended the 1996 edition of her book Coral Battleground with a chapter entitled “Finale Without Ending”, warning that popular memories were short and fresh onslaughts on the reef’s mineral resources likely to resume at any time.

And so they have. This week, the Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved a swathe of new shipping and gas projects. They entail the dredging of 3 million cubic metres of spoil, which will be dumped to swirl through the reef’s waters from the aptly named Abbot Point north of Bowen*.

This dredging will enable the development of four coal export terminals, the building of a new coal seam gas refinery and a pipeline, and extended facilities to increase ship traffic through the coral-laden inner channel of the Great Barrier Reef. The minister claims this infusion of coral-choking sediment will be offset by improvements in water quality elsewhere, particularly through restrictions on agricultural sediment from farmers.

With the Alice in Wonderland logic that prevails these days, he insists, “We are actually making things better”. Those who care know that he has finally tipped the delicate balance between the economic use and the environmental protection of the reef.

Perhaps Minister Hunt has simply been influenced by brutal realism. After all, he says that the area was already industrialised, so why not more?

The Australian Institute of Marine Science tells us that 50% of the reef’s coral cover is already severely degraded, that mass coral bleaching is becoming an annual event, and that calcium-based corals and other marine species are starting to show signs of dissolution from the acidifying waters.

Should we then just give up on the greatest and most beautiful marine environment that this planet has known?

Mr Hunt’s decisions, which 40 years ago would have provoked national and international outrage, are now barely news — no more than a few column inches hidden on the inner pages of our daily newspapers.

Perhaps the self-proclaimed “Bastard of Bingil Bay”, John Busst, was right when he predicted that the Great Barrier Reef would one day become “a quarry surrounded by an oil slick”. Will Mr Hunt care when the United Nations decides to put the Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage in danger list?

*This sentence previously stated Abbot Point is near Gladstone, but was meant to say near Bowen. It was corrected on December 19.

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40 Comments sorted by

  1. David Bindoff

    manager

    I heard it on the news last night with sadness. Thanks for putting this background information which reminds me how corruption keeps coming round. This is a complete spiral of destruction, an endangered reef being dug up to facilitate a damaging shipping process to export a product which will inevitably 'fuel' further damage.
    Actually it's a double spiral of destruction since the whole financial flow is likely to lead to wealth destruction in parallel and investments with better values and (net present long term) value will be displaced.
    I've never attended any rally in my life until the Climate Action rally a few weeks ago.
    If I lived near Gladstone I'd be up for a rally on that issue! (but could not justify the Jet A1 fuel to get there)

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    1. David Bindoff

      manager

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Greetings to you Mark! Yes I care about about a lot of things, keeping calm and a level head is sometimes difficult. I tend to agree with you on that one. (polly VIP jetting)
      I have 2 grandkids arriving shortly, I guess if and when a sufficiently clean personal transport is developed to be able to justify getting up to the GBR it won't really be there any more. My grandkids will probably have to be content to see the video footage of what once was..

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    2. Cat Mack

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Bindoff

      The news is appalling. It is impossible to be optimistic about the future under the current approaches to the environment.

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    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Hey Mark, I am not going to Europe for a friends wedding because of the flight and the pollution which I cannot justify

      Do you know why it seems to you that no one cares about not flying? because we don't come up to you on the street and inform when we make these decisions.

      The idea that there is this mass hypocrisy when it comes to flying is rediculous denialists crap - if your breathing your emmitting CO2, if you drink a coffee you are soaked in oil, if you drive a car you are swimming in oil.

      Air planes are bad, but so is everything else including the energy you used to type that comment

      if you weren't such a hypocrite - you would stop burning coal to leave silly comments

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  2. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer

    'With the Alice in Wonderland logic that prevails these days, he insists, “We are actually making things better”.' It's almost unthinkable, in this day and age, that politicians could come out with such blatant crap. Do they really believe this? Do they really think we believe it? Clearly, nobody making such a decision could possibly have actually observed the reef themselves, and seen the wide-scale destruction wreaked by silt deposition from other, smaller-scale dredging operations up and down that fragile coast. At best, the attitude displayed by this crazy decision is one of prostitution - lets destroy a globally unique treasure for the short-term possible gain of a few miserable dollars. Already, doubts are growing about future coal exports to China, so the port is likely to have a limited operating life. Australia really is fast becoming a third-world country.

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    1. Craig Read

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      I don't think the politicians believe it Paul, but many of the LNP voters seem to believe everything they say (or at least assert that they do).

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    2. wilma western

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      As others have pointed out Greg Hunt opposed the further dredging of Port Phillip Bay to allow bigger container ships in. Of course it was a Labor Govt proposing this. So far it seems the dredging was mostly done without undue siltation - some short-term damage reported ,etc.

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    3. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer

      In reply to wilma western

      But I think the hydrodynamics and biological ramifications of siltation in Port Phillip are very different from those of the GBR. Is Port Phillip Bay especially unique, or in a World Heritage Area? And it feeds a large city, established well before human populations had grown so far, and the ecological impacts of such activity became well understood.

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  3. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Great Article, as to your end question "Will Mr Hunt Care" - the answer is a resounding NO

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  4. Hugh McColl

    Geographer

    I drove out to Abbot Point and its coal stockpile on Sunday. It's just off the Bruce Highway a few kilometres north of Bowen (which is nowhere near Gladstone by the way). This is an almost vacant piece of coastline in the middle of nowhere . . . . except for a very large wetland. A very large and completely undisturbed wetland, saltflat, marine margin - probably a unique ecosystem. Whatever happened to maps and aerial photographs? Have they gone out of fashion in the visual communication business?

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  5. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    I wonder if Hunt cares that his name will go down in history as the person who signed the final death warrant for the Great Barrier Reef?

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  6. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Kill the sharks. Destroy the reef. Dig up agricultural land for coal mines. Take no action on climate change.

    Did anyone in the right mind really vote for these bastards?

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      "Did anyone in the right mind really vote for these bastards?" It seems not.

      Could it be that the anti-fluoridation campaigners ("it causes mass insanity") were right all along? If so, fluoridation is the only issue on which I've been wrong for quite a while :-).

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  7. Jeremy Tager

    Extispicist

    “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?” 
    ― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

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    1. Liz Downes

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Jeremy Tager

      Ah Jeremy, good to hear your voice with the superbly apt quotation. 'Tis indeed a mad, sad world we're inhabiting right now. Funny - all those taunts about loony greenies with grass for brains - seems like we're the only sane ones left.

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    2. Georgina Byrne

      Farmer

      In reply to Liz Downes

      Indeed that is the case...if it wasn't the fluoride, maybe it was those childhood vaccinations, or too much time in the outdoors?

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    3. Jeremy Tager

      Extispicist

      In reply to Liz Downes

      Hey Liz, great to hear your voice too...I remember in the 80s when irony apparently died...Now we're at a stage where even absurdity is dead - it is the new normal. I don't know if we're sane, but we're certainly not as destructive and stupid as the Hunts of the world.

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  8. Bianca Hart

    Self employed

    Let's not forget this is australia and we are just 'all for the money', no matter the long term implications, as long as there is a dollar to be made now who cares about the long term ramifications. We are a reflection on modern day society. I feel sad for the future of my children's children and the skeleton of a once beautiful country they will be left with. The baby boomers started it but I think their children are going to take it to the next level

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  9. John Geoffrey Mosley

    logged in via Facebook

    Something wrong with the dates here. The Ellison Reef mining application was 1967 not 1971. ACF opposed it at the Mining warden's court.

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  10. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    Iain, my question is why now? According to the "2013 Scientific Consensus" statement, there's about
    10 million tonnes of sediment spewing out onto the reef annually ... as well as assorted other reef buggering nutrient increases. "annually" means ever single year. Say ~100 million tonnes over the past decade. Mostly this is and has been the cattle industry with spirited assistance from sugar.

    This new project is 3 million cubic meters ... (about 4.5 million tonnes) once.

    Why will this 4.5 mt do more than the previous decades 100 mt?

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    1. Mike Brisco

      Scientist at Flinders University of South Australia

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Geoff, it's concentration.

      10 million tonnes over say 2000 km of coast x say 80 km of continental shelf is one thing.

      4.5 million tonnes in one small area, otherwise undamaged - will wreck that neighbournood. Smother it.

      Like a house - bit of dust we can live with. Dust gets everywhere, but we are OK with it, thinly spread. Hoover it up - how much in the vacuum bag - a shovel full? Empty half that bag on one chair; dig up the same from outside and dump that in the middle of the dining table... no one wants to go into that room.

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    2. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Mike Brisco

      Thanks Mike, but I still don't get it. Your analogy doesn't work for me. Sure I can live with plenty of
      dust/dirt when it's diffuse, but clearly the reef can't. It isn't coping well with those 10 million tonnes/yr
      coming down rivers along most of its length. It's in deep trouble.

      In most water quality literature I've read, the "point sources" are generally preferred to diffuse sources precisely because you have a chance of controlling them. If you dump 4.5 million tonnes of dirt somewhere, most…

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    3. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Geoff, the 2013 Scientific Consensus report you quoted was written up in The Conversation last weekend by one of its authors, Jon Brodie. He described sediment outputs from GBR coast rivers thus:

      "To put that in context, the total human-caused sediment load from agricultural sources, combined with much smaller contributions from urban development and mining, is estimated to average 6 million tonnes a year, out of a total sediment load of 9 million tonnes. (That is, 3 million tonnes is from natural…

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    4. Jon Brodie

      Research scientist

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      Just to clarify the numbers. As noted the annual average anthropogenic sediment load from all rivers is about 6 million tonnes (latest estimates). Abbot Point will add 5 million tonnes to this over about one year but as noted in a concentrated area not used to having large sediment loadings. However Abbot Point is only one of several large dredging projects about to commence - others are in Cairns, Townsville, Hay Point (Mackay) and further dredging in Gladstone on top of the very large scale dredging of the last 2 years. If the tonnes of sediment for all of these are added we are talking in the order of > 100 million tonnes.
      The comment by the Minister that Abbot Point going ahead would improve water quality in the Great Barrier Reef was certainly amusing. One would assume therefore that if we keep building Abbot Points in profusion we should be able to make the water quality perfect.

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    5. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Jon Brodie

      I'm interested in how estimates can change so quickly ... this is from your
      2012 paper Jon "Terrestrial pollutant runoff to the Great Barrier Reef: An update of issues,
      priorities and management responses":

      "Recent estimates indicate that since European settle-
      ment in the GBRCA (c. 1850), the mean annual TSS load to the GBR
      lagoon has increased by 5.5 times to 17,000 ktonnes/yr (Kroon
      et al., this volume). The large beef grazing dominated catchments
      of the Fitzroy and Burdekin contribute over 50% (7400 ktonnes/
      yr) to the mean annual anthropogenic (human caused) TSS load
      of 14,000 ktonnes/yr to the GBR lagoon (Kroon et al., this volume)."

      But regardless of the numbers, one thing is certain, the GBR will end up as just
      another casualty of Australia's "Feed the man beef" BBQ obsession together
      with the opposition to nuclear power.

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    6. Nick Kermode

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Hi Geoff, to quote a the famous toxicology principle "the dose makes the poison". Dredging is concentrated by both area and time frame so it makes sense it is more dangerous just from that perspective. But there is something to add to that as well. This is the fact that there is a very dramatic difference between run off sediment and sediment stirred up by dredging.
      Below the first couple of centimetres on the ocean floor or river bed what you will have is a deoxygenated environment. This contains…

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    7. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Nick Kermode

      Thanks for this Nick. The principle certainly sounds plausible, but are there any examples of global hypoxic/anoxic zones around the word caused by dredging? There's no shortage of examples caused by fertiliser run-off.

      Dredging doesn't get a mention in what is a pretty comprehensive global survey here:

      http://www.sciencemag.org/content/321/5891/926.full

      The green/left side of politics has generally been either highly supportive (e.g., Flannery) or complicit by ignoring (the Greens) the…

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  11. Chris McGrath

    Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

    Thanks for this well-written and thought-provoking article Iain meshing history with the present. I particularly liked your metaphor, "With the Alice in Wonderland logic that prevails these days ..."

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    1. Mike Brisco

      Scientist at Flinders University of South Australia

      In reply to Chris McGrath

      "Alice in Wonderland logic" -

      -----now, it was Humpty Dumpty, in that other Alice book, "through the looking glass" who said. "When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean"

      Always reminded of Humpty, when I hear ministers for the environment using words like "Safe" - 'sustainable' - ' regulated' - 'care' -' won't damage' - 'minimize' - 'in the interests of all Australians' and 'lowest possibly achievable'

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  12. Colin Buxton

    Adjunct Professor, Fisheries Aquaculture and Coasts Centre IMAS at University of Tasmania

    Good article Iain and very interesting to read the early emphasis on mining/physical destruction that was a lightning rod for the establishment of GBRMPA. I’ll be into the bookstores to get a copy of your book.

    Sadly recent emphasis appears, at least to distant observers, to be more about no take and locking sustainable fishing out of the MPA than addressing the real threats to the marine environment. And the same Alice in Wonderland logic is used to justify it – that it will be good for biodiversity…

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  13. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Politicians with mining shares back then? Some are more discreet in business now. Enterprising relatives in the dredging business? These "green tape" slashing "conservative" governments state and federal have been engineered into place by the Murdoch machine in order to facilitate this very outcome amongst many others. Legal rape. The capture of the legislative process for the benefit of global corporate capital, feasting upon the spoils while it still can make profits in a degenerating biosphere…

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    1. Georgina Byrne

      Farmer

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Actually I think we're now probably worse than England."Lie back and think of "Chevron/ Shell/BHP etc" might be closer to the mark. And lie back it will have to be too..protesting against environmental outrages in Tassie is now an indictable offense!

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  14. Liz Downes

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Great article - a couple of corrections 1) It was the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (not Wildlife Protection Society) that took the lead in this early battle with Judith Wright, John Busst and Len Webb as driving forces, and 2) Abbot Point is just north of Bowen and quite a way north of Gladstone. Though since we're talking Gladstone, how come it's okay to dump all those tonnes of spoil in the reef waters off Abbot Point but not off Gladstone, Mr Hunt?

    Did his recent decision re Abbot Point refer to this or attempt to explain it?

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  15. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    So far no-one has mentioned the threat to seagrass beds deprived of sunlight by suspended solids -thus loss of dugong feed and habitat for many small organisms.

    I would like to read a qualified hydrologist's or other suitably qualified person's assessment of Hunt's "conditions".

    The offset idea seems unlikely to do the job as however much work goes into preventing run-off of nutrients into these big rivers , there is still the sediment in the river beds and there will still be flooding and normal river flows ,won't there?

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  16. Georgina Byrne

    Farmer

    No is the answer to the question about Greg Hunt caring....if ever there was a wolf in charge of the flock it is this truly dreadful little man becoming the Minister "for" the envirobment

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  17. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    So…..we are about to be overrun by miners and construction workers with their tattoos and grim-faced wives driving around in their luxury Prados.

    Sections of the reef will be finished off with the Abbot Point expansion, together with much of the nearby Whitsunday Islands.

    There were areas of the Whitsunday Islands that were said to be amongst the most beautiful areas in the world.

    That was before tourist developers came up from Brisbane and Sydney and ripped the guts out of the place, (with complete disregard for any local opinion about what they were doing).

    Now the miners and construction workers will finish it all off.

    Poor fellow my country.

    We are giving the country away to miners, tourist developers, real estate agents and foreign companies.

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  18. Mark Marzuki Philip Skinner

    logged in via Facebook

    Dredging on the reef will provide conditions on which harmful(toxic)algae blooms(HAB) will flourish (Marine Pollution Bulletin vol 77, p210). Sending pulses of toxins through the GBR food web, poisoning those animals (turtles, grouper, dugongs etc) that attract tourists and causing more ciguatera fish poisoning (See PLOS NTD Ciguatera in the Pacific). More Coal ships with more bioinvasives in ballast waters(the 2004 IMO ballst water convention is not ratified) will multiply the number of toxic HAB species, turning the GBR into a toxic algal wasteland! Global climate warming from coal fired power in China and India will provide warmer GBR waters, more coral bleaching, exasperating its decline! Perhaps the GG could sack the co called minister for the environment!

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    1. David Bindoff

      manager

      In reply to Mark Marzuki Philip Skinner

      "Perhaps the GG could sack the co called minister for the environment!"

      Mark S,
      She's quite plucky I think, leaving on a strong statement would be in her DNA, we can only hope..

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    2. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Mark Marzuki Philip Skinner

      Mark, the MPB article makes a good case that all the current noise should have been being made
      a decade or two ago in response to the flourishing of land clearing and resulting sediment and nutrient flows. It doesn't mention dredging. Certainly the ballast water issue is well known.

      But I'm still waiting for anybody to find an example of a single significant dead zone due to dredging anywhere on the planet. It certainly sounds plausible, but does it happen on a scale that justifies the lack of environmental action over the cattle industry and the sudden frenzy over coal?

      I'm also waiting for someone to explain what would happen if Hunt stops the dredging. Presumably all this sudden opposition will fade away and the cowboys will continue with business as usual and wrecking the reef and noone will say boo. They'll just continue to support the destruction with every beefy BBQ.

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