Another little bird
I used to have a theory, based on little evidence, that to work in payroll it must be hugely advantageous to have a name beginning with I. There seemed only ever to be an Ingrid, Irma, Irina or Ivanna. Even more empirically lacking is my latest proposition: that silks or barristers acting for big mining companies are a bit too clever-clever, possibly with greased hair, a slightly florid complexion, and a massively over-inflated sense of superiority combined with an inclination to petulance and pedantry. They are accompanied by forests' worth of paper in white folders stacked on vertical trolleys, wheeled by female assistants who are noticeably aloof, overly tall, and clad in black, with few exceptions. Yesterday's example of the latter wore an extraordinarily bright, sticky-outy skirt that one felt obliged to make room for in the lift.
I returned to the Land Court to hear the case against Adani's Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin, potentially the largest coal mine in Australia, and one of the largest on the planet. There seemed to be almost unanimous agreement about the main issues in the case, if different emphasis on their order of importance.
• The economic benefits of the mine
• The financial viability of thermal coal exports
• The mine's contribution to climate change
• Groundwater modelling
• The Waxy Cabbage Palm
• Black-throated Finches (BTFs)
• The mine's impacts on groundwater-dependent ecosystems
Adani's counsel, Peter Ambrose QC, outlined the issues first, followed by Saul Holt SC, representing respondent Coast and Country Inc. Mr Holt described the fundamental dilemma posed for the community by mining, which can provide economic rewards but at the same time result in considerable environmental costs. Of significance to this debate about the $6-billion-plus Carmichael mine are the facts that it is so large an operation and that the market for coal has changed since the mine was first proposed.
Many times during the first day of the case yesterday I was reminded of issues raised 18 months ago when Galilee Basin landholders objected to Hancock's Alpha mine (see Farmers vs Big Coal, September 2013). In particular: the conceptualisation of geological formations and hydrogeology disputed by experts; the impact of the drawdown by a water-hungry mine on Artesian resources essential for farming; the inadequacies of modelling, whether it be input-output economic modelling or numerical groundwater modelling; the extent to which offsetting might mitigate environmental harm; and, where critical habitat destruction is inevitable, the proposed but unproven 'relocation' of threatened species to an alternative, ecologically improved offset site that constitutes an 'aspirational condition' of approval.
The development of the Carmichael mine site will put at risk the ecologically important Doongmabulla Springs; the world's most important population of vulnerable Waxy Cabbage Palms, and the endangered Black-throated Finch. A flock of up to 400 Finches was spotted in the Moray Downs within the Mining Lease Application area in 2013 by Stanley Tang, a PhD student from James Cook University who was part of the BTF Recovery Team (see more here) reporting to Queensland's Co-ordinator General.
This was significant because the southern sub-species of the BTF used to range from the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland to northeastern New South Wales, and west as far as Alpha in west Central Queensland. Unfortunately, since the 1970s, this smart little bird has rarely been seen south of Clermont. What amounts to a 50-80 per cent reduction in its range means the BTF is now classified as Endangered. It has, of course, also been reported recently on Bimblebox Nature Refuge northwest of Alpha. Bimblebox is at risk of obliteration by a different mega mine, Waratah's Galilee Coal Project.
The Co-ordinator General approved both mines despite the BTF figuring prominently in EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) submissions.
Today the Court has flown to visit the proposed mine site, and will not resume in Brisbane until next week. There will be up to five weeks of expert witness hearings and deliberations in this crucially important case for climate change, Australian biodiversity, energy policy and the protection of water resources.
I love the idea of plans for a $6-billion-plus mine being brought to a halt by a tiny bird that has come to symbolise the questioning of society's values and the efficacy of the democratic process itself. Long may it congregate in grassland and woodland waterholes.
Image courtesy of Stanley Tang
This post was last edited on 28 April 2015