Bimblebox 6: October update
I haven't written about Bimblebox for weeks. Not because there isn't anything to say, but because I've been holding my breath, and it's not easy to be creative when so constrained. (Also, our Lock the Gate sign went missing off the balcony and I thought it might be an omen.) A couple of times, immediately after I've published a Bimblebox update, there's been a significant development, decision or incident that I've missed by hours: and I'm concerned that Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, having pronounced on the Alpha Mine in the Galilee Basin, its rail link and new coal terminal at Abbot Point, will turn his attention to China First.
The Current EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) projects page of the Queensland Government's Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning still says what it's said for months; the status of China First – the coal project that will obliterate Bimblebox Nature Refuge – is that a Supplementary report to the EIS (an SEIS) is being prepared by the proponent, Waratah Coal. But what is actually happening? Are Waratah's environmental scientists busy waffling an ostensibly workable plan for the translocation of the Black-throated Finch to somewhere other than Bimblebox? Is Clive Palmer waiting to see how his old mate Gina Rinehart sorts out the conditions of approval of her Alpha Mine (see here)? Is he fretting about China's continuing economic downturn and wondering whether he would have done better to cosy up with an Indian company such as GVK, like Gina did? Has he lost interest and got busy instead with plans for his big boat (Titanic 2) and even bigger resort on the Sunshine Coast? And – my dearest wish – will Tony Burke, given the falling price of coal on the commodities market and having approved the Alpha project, decide not to give the go-ahead to China First and thus spare Bimblebox?
Last week I was discussing the Alpha Mine approval. My points about the fate of the Squatter Pigeon and whether or not flood plain analysis and modelling in Hancock's (Rinehart's company) SEIS adequately addressed local farmers' concerns about rail lines crossing the Belyando River flood plain seemed to be subsumed by the Indian people's need of Australian coal in order to keep their lights on. Call me cold-hearted, but not at the expense of Australia's already excessive carbon footprint or her magnificent landscape. There are other ways, and other issues; and a lot of people have to learn to live with a lot less.
Burke's approval last week of a new coal terminal at Abbot Point, so coal can be shipped to Asia from the Galilee Basin, had 60 conditions attached to it that, the Minister claims, will protect the Great Barrier Reef from coal dust and increased shipping. So that's the final hurdle overcome by Hancock and its Indian partner GVK: the mine and railway corridor were approved in August, and now the Abbot Point expansion. Greenpeace claim to have got hold of documents under freedom of information law that reveal GVK/Hancock had not shown the Federal government a crucially important report on the international significance of the Caley Valley Wetlands, close to the new terminal. Thousands of birds use the Wetlands, many of them migratory and some of them threatened species. Mr Burke responded by drawing attention to the condition of approval that insists upon a management plan for the Wetlands. Shouldn't that have been drawn up before approval was given? And how will it be monitored once it is in place?
Another condition calls for the offsetting of seagrass beds that will be destroyed by dredging prior to construction. According to seagrass expert Professor Michelle Waycott of the University of Adelaide, this offsetting of tropical seagrasses (eaten by dugongs and turtles) would be a first in tropical waters off Australia, and underwater offsets have not been particularly successful overseas. She claims much more research is necessary, probably taking years. Professor Waycottt believes planting seeds is more likely to be successful than transplantation. Appropriate areas would have to be identified followed by a lot of trial and error on the ground. All in all, there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding the whole idea. Again I say, why make seagrass offsets a condition if you don't know for sure it can be done?
During September, a dozen or so artists of various disciplines went to camp and create at Bimblebox for a week, capturing the essence of this semi-arid woodland refuge. How I wish I could have joined them and sat in quiet contemplation of the desert uplands. Let us hope the artists' efforts do not become a record of yet another large tract of Australian landscape totally disfigured by mining.
In Brisbane, we have our own Bimblebox artwork in the form of a traffic signal box decorated by artist Frida Forsberg in the city's west (top of page). Motorists sitting at lights at the junction of Croydon Street and Milton Road in Toowong can ponder these animals' fate.
Other environmental news in September was the Queensland government's announcement that its plan for a new shipping channel in Gladstone Harbour – 16 metres deep, nine kilometres long and at a cost of $400 million – has been given 'significant project' status. The commercial fishers of Gladstone as well as environmentalists are already unhappy about diseased fish in Gladstone Harbour that they claim are the victims of nasties disturbed by current dredging practices. Deputy Leader Jeff Sweeney's call for public submissions (by 5 November) will hopefully engender a vigorous response that will form the basis of the 'rigorous environmental assessment' he has promised.
There was a coal seam gas conference in Brisbane at the beginning of October. Lock the Gate wanted to attend but they weren't allowed, even though their 100+ groups represent thousands of people whose lives are being blighted by this and the coal industry. Adding insult to injury, delegates at the conference were told that protests were little more than 'background noise', since many Queenslanders welcome the creation of jobs and wealth for the state.
Other snippets of environmental madness include the announcement by Western Australia premier Colin Barnett of 'shark mitigation strategies'. In the wake of five fatal shark attacks in the last 12 months, the new policy allows the fisheries department to track and kill sharks that might attack swimmers. Great Whites are a protected species in Australian waters, but apparently not if they present an 'imminent threat to people'. This is a matter of human rights, of course. Do we have the right to pre-emptively kill a magnificent creature, ultimately to safeguard tourism? (There is, on average, just over one fatal shark attack in Australian waters every year.)
And in England final preparations are being made in Gloucestershire and Somerset for a badger cull. Badgers carry bovine tuberculosis and the government intends to kill 100,000, a third of the national population, to reduce a £90 million compensation bill for farmers who've lost cattle to the disease. But more than 30 experts in animal disease have denounced the policy as 'mindless' and not the answer to the problem: only 14 per cent of the badgers who died in the last cull had TB. Even the government's chief scientist refuses to back the cull. Unsurprisingly, the mass slaughter of one of Britain's favourite wild animals has caused a public outcry.
A couple of weeks ago I visited Spicers Peak Nature Refuge high in the Scenic Rim southwest of Brisbane. I found myself wishing Bimblebox was as safe as this refuge appears to be from any threat to its existence. Nowhere in this vast country is completely protected, however, so no one can rest easy.