As luck would have it, two of the species threatened by Adani's Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin don't have the simplest of names, especially for repeating often during cross-examination in the Land Court. The Black-throated Finch has long been affectionately known as BTF; and now, thanks to familiarity on the part of Coast and Country's Senior Counsel, as well as in true Aussie linguistic style, the Waxy Cabbage Palm (above) has become 'Waxie'.
Queensland's Waxy Cabbage Palms stand out dramatically in a semi-arid region. It is a single-trunked, fan-leaved palm that can grow up to 20 metres tall. The lower surface of the leaf blade is covered in a thick white wax. The Palm lives in precious few colonies on 'benches' alongside streams and gullies in the Burdekin River catchment: the streams are often braided (multi-channelled). The habitat is described as open woodland along sandy water courses that may be in flow for only part of the year, and by permanent pools adjacent to flood plains. Waxies like alluvial soils derived from granite.
The Carmichael River Waxie population is the most significant population in the world, and is considered necessary for the longterm survival of the species. It is a shallow-rooted plant, and how it might cope with a massive mine down the road is largely dependent on hydrogeology – and a huge dose of speculation. The base flow* of the Carmichael River is derived from the Doongmabulla Springs. If they dry up, the River's flow will be seriously disrupted and the Waxies, a classic drought-avoiding species, may die. Already classed as vulnerable**, the Waxy Cabbage Palm is at greater risk than ever.
What has become obvious during this case is that, in this arid region of Central Queensland, knowledge about a whole range of subjects is, at best, scanty. That knowledge has been increased by the findings of experts-in-their-field engaged either by Adani or Land Services of Coast and Country. In each case, the experts report singly, then hold a conclave that results in a joint report for the Court's purposes. The Environmental Impact Statement for the mine was produced long before these experts put their heads together.
But there is no irrefutable evidence for why the Waxies are where they are. The fact that they occur by the Carmichael River downstream of the Doongmabulla Springs but not upstream suggests a hydrogeological correlation.
There remain 'knowledge gaps' in both the assessment of the potential impacts of the mine on its surroundings and the offsetting measures proposed by Adani for the last-resort scenario, if environmental harm cannot be avoided or minimised to an acceptable level. Inadequate knowledge hinders the environmental valuation of the site, reduces an accurate calculation of the risk of harm, and increases doubt about the capacity of offsets to prevent a net loss of biodiversity.
Of even greater concern is that the Biodiversity Offset Strategy (BOS) stipulates that monitoring and mitigation – the backbone of offset management – kick off only just before, or coincident with, phase one of the mine works. There was a kind of lightbulb moment – as the Court was considering the plight of the Black-throated Finch – after numerous references by Adani's expert witnesses to 'not at this stage', or measures being put in place 'at a later stage' when asked about an offsetting programme: LSCC's Counsel, and the rest of those of us in the public gallery, became aware of the reason for the delaying tactics. The costs of extensive research into how Waxies might fare in an offset area in reality, desirable as that might be before Adani gets its licence to mine, would add considerably to an already sizeable outlay. I would suggest, in fact, that the whole biodiversity offsetting management procedure is geared for the convenience of resource exploiting companies rather than the protection of compromised ecosystems.
We know that the water table where the Waxies grow densely is at about three metres below the surface. Since the Waxies thrive, their roots must reach at least that far. (For comparison, eucalypt roots extend 30 metres down.) Offset strategies are even more assumption-based than experts' reports. If there are smaller Waxie populations away from the Carmichael River, on Cabbage Tree Creek for example, it is assumed by the BOS that others could be accommodated there. Translocation of seedlings or juveniles wasn't mentioned specifically, but how else could they make the move? The Waxy Cabbage Palm regenerates episodically: seedlings germinate after rainfall or surface flow during flooding.
Field botanist and ecologist Dr Mike Olsen, for Coast and Country, was scathing about offsetting, however. He has 40 years of landscape assessment and management to his name, particularly with reference to Queensland's fauna and flora. He pronounced: 'Offsetting defies the basic principles of population biology'; adding, 'the Australian landscape is littered with offsetting failures'. He sees no evidence that the proposed offset areas have any capacity for Waxie population growth, and neither does he acknowledge that existing populations are being negatively impacted by weeds, feral pigs, cattle and bush fires, the management of which is proposed for the improvement of the habitat value of the offset areas.
Dr Olsen explained a bit more about population biology: that a healthy, well-established plant community functions at an optimum level within its ecological niche. If you introduce more trees, for example, optimum conditions will gradually re-establish themselves, despite anyone's best efforts to alter the landscape in one way or another. Some trees will die off; or seedlings will not develop. Nature knows best, you see; my words, not Dr Olsen's.
At times in Court, when an acknowledged, even world-renowned, expert faces a barrage of nitpicking questions, not designed to enlighten but to undermine, to defend the indefensible in fact, it makes you seriously question an approvals process based on conjecture rather than research, and a legal system that can only recommend rather ensure the protection of Australia's rich biodiversity.
Image courtesy of EDO QLD
* The dry-weather flow in a stream or river resulting from groundwater seepage and not runoff from precipitation
** A vulnerable species has to have an environmental impact assessment under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999)
This post was last edited on 29 April 2015