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UNESCO throws down gauntlet on Great Barrier Reef ports

A bund wall surrounds the Fishermans Landing Wharf expansion in Gladstone. AAP/Dave Hunt

The sealing of a leak of dredge spoil (harbour-bottom scooped up and dumped in a landfill area) in a bund wall in Gladstone harbour was announced on 25th of June by the Gladstone Ports Corporation. Scientists and engineers of the Dredge Technical Reference Panel stated that the sealing process will help restore seagrasses in the harbour. It is unclear how long the leakage of spoil has been occurring but the statements in the release tend to suggest that it had been occurring for some time.

Such an event may seem rather un-newsworthy. But, on the contrary, it has added fuel to a controversy with implications have grown from local to global.

Background on the harbour saga

Australia agreed to accept, for the benefit of all humankind and future generations, an obligation to protect the Reef when it was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981. The boundary of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) was set at low water mark. The dredging of Gladstone harbour, which is expected to continue until at least 2015, is within the GBRWHA boundary, as is the construction by three companies of LNG processing facilities on Curtis Island.

The Gladstone Ports Corporation needed approval of the developments from the Commonwealth Government; these were forthcoming, as was approval for the dumping of 11 million cubic metres of spoil in the outer harbour. The fragility of this dumping approval, and indeed of most approvals by the state and commonwealth associated with this project, is illustrated by the fact that it lists 52 conditions and 102 sub-conditions on how the dumping is to take place. This raises the question: who is monitoring compliance and what steps are taken in the event of breaches.

Dredging impacts

Let’s first consider the issue of dredging impacts. The on-going addition to turbidity associated with the removal of bottom sediments in order to allow large vessels to operate is something that is admitted by the Gladstone Ports Corporation, given that it has twice suspended dredging operations — on May 12 and June 4 — because it did not want to add to high levels of natural turbidity caused by high tides. The original environmental impact statement of the project modelled the extent of the plumes, with the Queensland Coordinator General concluding in its report that a total of 2,043 hectares of seagrass and habitat in the harbour would be affected by dredging and Fisherman’s Landing landfill (see pages 92 and 93).

Meanwhile a study by James Cook University scientists (available here) suggests that turbidity is affecting a far greater area of the GBRWHA than forecast in environmental impact statements. Their report provides evidence that sediments have moved as far as 35 km to seaward of the main dredging site.

While it is officially acknowledged that turbidity will hurt the marine ecosystem, there is denial by the Gladstone Ports Corporation that the disease outbreaks which have continued since mid-2011 are linked to turbidity.

The official hypothesis that disease in fish, crustaceans and shellfish is caused by an influx of fresh water is, however, strongly challenged by a veterinarian. Landos found that lesions in fish increase with the proximity to dredging operations—asserting that the lesions are consistent with exposure to dredge spoil and their associated toxins. His findings are available here (listed as Update 002).

Management of the Gladstone project

A cutter suction dredge in Gladstone Harbour. AAP/Dave Hunt

We turn now to the concerns that socio-economic impacts of the development have been ignored and that the development has been poorly managed by the Queensland government.

Despite the acknowledgement that there would be extensive impacts on the harbour’s habitats, it was accepted by the state’s Coordinator General, in his review of the social impact assessment, that economic impacts would be minimal; that, for example, only six commercial fishing operations would be affected.

But further investigation of the impacts of the project concluded that 65 fishermen would be affected at a cost of some $40 million. Furthermore, fish wholesaling, processing and exporting operations in Gladstone would likely be rendered unviable. Since then the disease outbreaks in fish have brought forward the crisis in fishing and wholesaling by reducing the supply of, and demand for, Gladstone seafood.

A UNESCO Mission dispatched to Australia in March to find out what has been going on, found that criticisms of the process of environmental impact assessment as well as ongoing management of the developments are in fact widespread. Concerns presented to the mission included:

  • Lack of transparency in port decision making;

  • Lack of independent, transparent and well communicated scientific oversight in monitoring water quality;

  • Lack of government response when water quality targets are exceeded.

UNESCO, whose Mission Report is available here, has recommended that Australia commission an independent review of the Gladstone harbour dredging and Curtis Island construction, to see if things can be done differently and what lessons can be learned. In reality, the horse has already bolted where Gladstone harbour is concerned. Federal and state approvals have been given, and the projects are well underway; there are thousands employed in construction and the companies have mobilised billions of dollars of investment.

Apart from observing the large developments in Gladstone Port, the UNESCO Mission to Australia in March became aware that there were no less than 45 proposals for coastal development pending, including 11 for port facilities. Thirty five of these proposals were to be decided before 2013.

Implications of the UNESCO meeting’s decisions

We turn to examine some of the policy implications likely to flow from decisions made by the World Heritage Committee, presently meeting in Saint-Petersburg.

The meeting, in endorsing without amendment the recommendation of the Mission, has urged urgent action by Australia to:

  • Not permit any new port development or associated infrastructure outside of the existing and long-established major port areas within and adjoining the property.

  • Not permit development if it would impact individually or cumulatively on the Reef’s outstanding universal values.

The Australian government is also urged to undertake a strategic assessment of long term sustainable development of the GBRWHA. The Committee will then review actions taken and the strategic assessment at its 2015 session.

The implications of these recommendations, if they are followed by Australia, are far reaching. First, there will be cancellations of projects; and, second, inevitable delays to others while their cumulative impacts are assessed. For example, cancellation must surely apply to the proposals of Xstrata Coal Queensland (Balaclava Island Coal Export Terminal) and the Mitchell Group (Fitzroy Terminal) to develop coal ports at Balaclava Island. The Xstrata proposal for a 35 million tonne per annum coal loading facility, and the Mitchell Group’s for a 22 million tonne facility are in a pristine area of high conservation value; likewise the Wongai Project is a new port development on pristine Bathurst Bay/Princess Charlotte Bay.

Examples of additional development proposals not within pristine areas — but which in World Heritage Committee recommendations must be assessed for their cumulative impacts — include the Yarwun coal facility proposal of 50 million tonne coal loading capacity and the Mackay Dudgeon Point proposal of up to 180 million tonnes capacity. The Yarwun project will generate an extra 4 million cubic metres of dredge spoil that will need to be disposed of in Gladstone harbour, adding to the impacts already experienced and expected. The cumulative area of marine habitat—estimated to be affected directly and indirectly by harbour development excluding that by the fourth LNG plant on Curtis Island—is already 11,700 hectares.

The Initial Advice Statement for Dudgeon Point project of North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation states that 11 to 15 million cubic metres will be dredged in relatively undisturbed areas. Moreover, the dumped dredge spoil will be subjected to strong currents in the spring, raising the risk of widespread turbidity.

The World Heritage Committee has no power to enforce compliance by Australia with its recommendation that neither new port developments nor developments adding to cumulative impacts proceed. Nevertheless, if the Committee is not satisfied with Australia’s response, it can relegate the GBRWHA to the List of World Heritage in Danger, or remove it from the World Heritage List altogether.

Either outcome would reverberate around the world with the question asked, particularly in poor countries with World Heritage sites: how it is that very wealthy Australia cannot satisfactorily manage the iconic Great Barrier Reef? At home the backlash will fall on those politicians who chose to ignore the UNESCO recommendations. And there will inevitably be damage to Australia’s tourism industry, exacerbating its present decline caused by the high Australian dollar and depressed economic conditions in Europe and North America.

Colin’s earlier article about the environmental effects of LNG development in Gladstone can be read here.

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