I knew I would have to return to Gladstone. Not literally, of course. When I wrote about it before (The trouble with Gladstone, June 2012), a lady who lives there got very upset about several things: I confused aluminium smelting with refining (bad journo), and my impressions of the town were based on too little experience (probably true). But she mistakenly assumed I was slagging the place off – slag heaps, get it? – whereas in fact I was concerned about the effects of harbour activities on wildlife and the livelihoods of those dependent upon that wildlife.
Eighteen months on and the National Parks Association of Queensland is asking people to contact the CEO of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Russell Reichelt (write to him at Russell.email@example.com), asking him to refuse a request from the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation – the company doing the dredging of the Abbot Point coal terminal – to dump 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil into the Marine Park, as part of the expansion plans for the port. The National Parks Association say the alternative is to dump the spoil on land. The answer, surely, is not to dredge.
The Authority had been due to make their decision just before Christmas, but postponed it until 31 January – so you have plenty of time to make your views knows to Mr Reichelt. They have delayed their decision so further tests can be carried out on the protective lining of bund walls. This follows dredge spoil leakages in 2011 and 2012 into the Harbour, and the implications thereof for dredging in Queensland in the future. We've only just found out about the leaks, you see.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the Abbot Point coal terminal expansion at Bowen late on 10 December. He announces bad news late in the day I have noticed, presumably in an attempt to diffuse the outcry that inevitably follows as he abrogates his responsibility for the protection of the Australian environment. On this particular occasion he also gave the go-ahead to Arrow Energy's liquified natural gas plant on Curtis Island and a connecting transmission pipe. Which brings me back to Gladstone.
The so-called environmental movement includes many activists affiliated to lobby groups or single-purpose action groups, but there are many individuals who labour away, writing blogs or emailing ministers in an attempt to influence the legislative process to protect communities – of people impacted by mines or of animals at risk of habitat loss – or simply to establish the truth.
John Mikkelsen is a ex-journo and former editor of the The Gladstone Observer. Since 2011 he has been trying to bring the water-quality problems of Gladstone Harbour to the attention of the mainstream media and hence government. By the end of last year, The Australian was finally asking questions of the Port Authority who, it would appear, failed to reveal toxic leakage back in 2011, instead blaming the great flood of January that year for the sick fish. One wonders if they kept it quiet from local and state government also, not just the media. There are some relevant links here, here and here.
When approvals are granted for mines or port development they are accompanied by a raft of conditions intended to protect vulnerable ecosystems. The lists of recommendations are doubtless well-intentioned, but their efficacy will be reduced if they are not accompanied by adequate monitoring mechanisms. The Gladstone Port Authority knows full well it's not supposed to release the toxic components of dredged material into waters in which fishers fish and children frolic, but who monitors their practices and how frequently? How are environmental breaches detected and solutions put into place quickly in order to prevent an ecological disaster?
Would the GBRMPA currently be deliberating if it wasn't for the determination of an old journo who got fed up with walking his dog past dead dolphins? Shouldn't stringent enforcement have revealed the problem long before? The bund lining that caused the leak was actually on the wrong side of the wall. Shouldn't the construction have been checked and checked again? And inspected regularly so that some idiot might have finally noticed that it was an accident waiting to happen? Have heads rolled since? Will further dredging be put on hold until a full enquiry has determined the truth and made the necessary recommendations? Unfortunately, I doubt it.