June 30, 2012

Bimblebox 4: June update

This month saw UNESCO express serious concerns about Great Barrier Reef management; Federal plans for the extension of marine parks; continuing disquiet about water quality in Gladstone Harbour; and a once-and-for-all decision about the dingo and the baby, putting the spotlight on the conservation vs tourism debate.

Within hours of posting Bimblebox 3: May update I heard the first rumours of the imminent approval of the Alpha Coal Project. On 29 May, Queensland's Co-ordinator General OK'd (with 29 conditions) this $6.4 billion plan for an opencast mine producing 30 million tonnes of coal a year for 30 years for Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting and India's GVK Coal. The Alpha mine is just a few kilometres from Bimblebox (35 kilometres northwest of the town of Alpha).

This was the first of nine proposed Galilee Basin mines to be approved and did not bode well for Bimblebox. Just as I was imagining a domino effect, however, there began a spat between the Queensland State Government and Tony Burke, Federal Environment Minister, whose final permission is required before construction can begin (with an operational start planned for 2016). Mr Burke was incensed: the State had not considered Federal environmental regulations – concerning matters of national conservation significance – which they were supposed to do under a bilateral arrangement, and had thus produced a deeply flawed and 'dangerously deficient' approval. Instead of conforming to Premier Campbell Newman's desire to cut 'green tape', the process now required Federal intervention as well as the final green light.

We can only speculate how much politicking was going on here: Newman's action-packed fast-tracking of revenue-generating projects vs Burke's demonstration of what may be the last vestiges of Labor power.

The Queensland government reacted to being rapped over the knuckles by insisting on the 30-day limit for the Minister's final go-ahead, as stipulated under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Mr Burke responded by stopping the clock on the approval process. As tempers flared, the State Environment Minister, Andrew Powell, and Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney (who is also Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning) flew to Sydney to meet Mr Burke to sort out their differences. In the meantime, back in Queensland, Campbell Newman addressed business leaders and environmentalists on one of his favourite topics, green tape. 
'Our position continues to be that we are here to say "yes"', he said.
By the middle of the month, the Federal and State governments had allegedly revised the approval process, ostensibly to the satisfaction of both sides (and the mining companies?). As far as I can work out, the Feds will continue the processing of the Alpha Coal Project approval.

Dr Chris McGrath, senior lecturer in environmental regulation and litigation at the University of Queensland, believes the Queensland State Government has not got to grips with the approval process (see http://theconversation.edu.au/federal-green-tape-myth-for-alpha-mine-7499). He is not the first to describe the naivete of the Newman government.

Much more worrying, however, given the extended timescale of the approval process, is the very real possibility that the Labor government will fail to win the next general election, which must be held by the end of November 2013. May all your gods help the environment once the LNP is in power nationally and in all resource-rich states of the Commonwealth.

Meanwhile, every few days I check Current EIS Projects on the Queensland Government's website (http://www.deedi.qld.gov.au/
cg/coordinator-general-projects.html) to see if there has been any change of status of China First Coal – 'Supplementary report to EIS being prepared by proponent'. The efficacy of the approval process having been so undermined in recent weeks, are there any safe hands in which to place conservation management? 

This post was last updated on 1 July 2012

June 22, 2012

Off road: Conondale NP

Your expectations of some places are so high you are almost bound to be disappointed; other times, you go somewhere on a whim, with little or no information or recommendation, and you get a wonderful surprise.

We fancied a couple of days away last Easter but not the whole long weekend. Knowing we would be able to stay for just two nights (many accommodations insist on 3- or 4-night-minimum bookings on holiday weekends), in a comfortable cabin in beautifully peaceful surroundings, we returned again to Coolabine Ridge near Mapleton. We also wanted some off-road practice, having not long since acquired a 4x4. I'd found Conondale National Park, barely half an hour or so from Mapleton through the beautiful Obi Obi Valley to Kenilworth and then south seven kilometres on the road to Maleny. You could visit in a day from Brisbane, leaving the Bruce Highway for Landsborough and Maleny – with great views of the Glass House Mountains along the way – and then taking the Maleny-Kenilworth road.
Either way, you pass through the lovely Mary Valley before turning off into Booloumba Creek Road. Don't be deceived by the sealed surface: the creek soon prevents further progress for those without higher ground clearance.
The rugged Conondale Range has a variety of magnificent forests that are home to many forms of wildlife, some of them threatened and only found here (Cascade Treefrog and Red Goshawk). We didn't see either, needless to say, or the seldom seen Yellow-bellied Glider. But the remarkable Bell Miners were something else. We passed in and out of forest areas where their crystal 'tinking' was loud, mesmeric and magical. We could see them flitting about but not close enough.
We chose the Booloumba Falls walk, which wasn't hard-going (about 3km return; two hours), through fairly open forest and alongside a very picturesque creek, with cascades, waterfalls, rock pools and the junction of the Peters and Booloumba creeks by what is called The Breadknife rock. I couldn't see the resemblance. 
Back on the track, the dappled forest delights continued.
We'd planned to complete a circuit by joining Sunday Creek Road and heading back via the Imbil State Forest to the Maleny-Kenilworth Road. But Sunday Creek Road was closed to the right, so we turned left in the direction of Jimna. Once we were off the DERM National Park map, it was down to satnav and a way-too-small-scale road map of Southeast Queensland, on which there's a great big empty space to the north of Conondale National Park.

Being an off-road newbie, I was ever so slightly spooked by not really knowing exactly how we'd get across to Imbil. After Jimna, in which nothing stirred, it seemed an awful long way north on the Murgon-Kilcoy road before we could turn east, in the right direction for 'home'. Eventually we did, but was the rough and bumpy track going anywhere except an out-of-way station? We couldn't see any signs of habitation or livestock, and for a while no other traffic. I didn't even photograph the wild until I was feeling more reassured that the satnav knew the way.
The following day, emboldened by having made it back from nowhere, we headed north from Mapleton deep into the forest. The track was almost rocky in places: 'we could have never done this in the Audi' became a mantra. We came across my favourite blue grass by the Cooloolabin Dam; an impressive view of the Sunshine Coast hinterland from Point Glorious viewpoint (it was); and a plant my friend randomly named Poison Dwarf's Beard. 
The Murgon-Kilcoy road was the track we were unable to take on our return from the Bunya Mountains at the end of last year, although I didn't remember it at the time. We couldn't do it then, but we can now.

June 19, 2012

The trouble with Gladstone

Courtesy of Friends of the Earth Brisbane
I went to Gladstone years ago. I flew from the furthest reaches of Brisbane's domestic terminal in a prop plane that was far too small and flew far too low for my comfort zone. I stayed in a cheap motel on a main-ish road: I could see the huge aluminium refining plant but little else of note. I went to kill some time in a green area I can't remember where but it had a lake with small turtles that excited me briefly. But then I walked through a mosquito cloud. That evening I nursed my bites and missed my boyfriend and my football team playing an important match in the European Champions League. The fact that they won was small consolation in such a miserable place.

The following morning it was an enormous relief to sail away to an idyllic coral cay 70 kilometres off Queensland's Capricorn Coast where I watched newly hatched turtles run for their little lives while seagulls waited for lunch. Several days later I flew back to Gladstone in a helicopter. From above, the coal heaps in the harbour were blacker than the darkest moonless night sky: matt, unreflective and totally black. I was early for my flight to Brisbane, having flown from the island rather than sailing, but I bided my time in the small, quiet terminal building. No more sightseeing in Gladstone. I have never been back.

I've heard much about the place since living in Brisbane. Its harbour is notorious, currently for sick fish and a sacked chairman of the Ports Corporation. And dead seagrass beds. And dredging and the development of Curtis Island LNG-exporting port. I won't be going back.

James Cook sailed past in 1770 but it was another 30 years before Matthew Flinders found this large natural harbour. It was a short-lived penal colony (Port Curtis) before settlers arrived in the 1850s. Development was slow – a meat works was established at the end of the century – but in the 1960s an aluminium replaced meat, and Gladstone never looked back. Today it is Queensland's largest multi-commodity port.

The mystery of the fish, with their exploded red eyes and suppurating pink skin lesions, is particularly disturbing. The trouble began last September, when fishing in Gladstone Harbour was banned by the State Government after commercial anglers reported catching barramundi and bream with cloudy eyes and skin sores. Biosecurity Queensland were called upon to investigate. In early October the ban was lifted but the fish were still sick. Soon there were sick salmon and whiting and catfish too, and there was great concern for the traditional seafood industry. Dead turtles, dolphins, dugongs and bull sharks were also reported. Some fishermen suffered skin irritation themselves.

The debate rages on about the cause of the dead and dying sea life. The Ports Corporation has been dredging since June last year in order to accommodate large container vessels for exporting LNG all over the world. Fishermen are sure the dredging is responsible, as old contaminated sediments are stirred up and turbidity levels rise. A Fishing Queensland report blamed the wet summer, during which the Awoonga Dam overtopped, sending 30,000 barramundi over the spillway into the Boyne River. This increased competition for food and the physical stress levels of all fish. Some industries on the harbour exceed permissible discharges. The multinational chemicals manufacturer Orica currently faces fines of at least $250 million for 250 breaches of the Environmental Protection Act in January and February this year. It discharged water containing arsenic into Gladstone Harbour. The company is a repeat offender – and was in trouble in Newcastle, New South Wales, last year, when its ammonia plant leaked. It denies that the arsenic damaged the Harbour environment or put human health at risk.

Last November the State Government appointed an independent scientific panel to conduct more research into the Harbour's problems. The panel requested that the Ports Corporation make their metal tests in the water more rigorous. For the first time, dissolved metals such as aresenic, cobalt and aluminium will be monitored. The Department of Environment and Resource Management and Fisheries Queensland continue to monitor fish health and water quality. Yet conclusive evidence remains elusive. Premier Campbell Newman's reaction to Gladstone's woes has been to sack the Labor-appointed chairman and board of the Ports Corporation earlier this month and install the head of an investment fund he set up while Mayor of Brisbane. Mark Brodie may have a proven track record of running a successful business, but I wonder how much he knows about seagrass?

This week comes an independent report commissioned by the local fishing industry and produced by James Cook University who claim that toxic dredging sediment is drifting 35 kilometres out to sea. That's more than half way to the nearest coral reef, which will go down well with UNESCO (see UNESCO to the rescue of the Reef, June 2012). This will strengthen desperate fishermen's claims for compensation and increase the clamour of all those concerned that ever-greater economic development of the Queensland coast seriously threatens the marine environment for which Australia's east coast is renowned. Gladstone today; Bathurst Bay* tomorrow?

Last November the ABC's Four Corners produced Great Barrier Grief which you can still watch at http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/
2011/11/03/3355047.htm. On the same page is a link to an interview with Associate Professor Jon Brodie, Water Quality Scientist at James Cook University. His un-emotive factual assessment of the state of the Reef, the effects of climate change and what's happening in Gladstone makes sobering listening. Perhaps Mark Brodie should start with this.

* about 150 kilometres north of Cooktown on Cape York in Far North Queensland
This post was last edited on 28 June 2012

June 18, 2012

6 pelicans 6

A pelican is a majestic sight, whether idling on water or perched on a lamp post. Last week I was cycling home along the river keeping an eye on a fishing boat making slow progress downstream. At a discreet distance behind it was a stately pelican, an opportunist biding his time.
Behind it was another fishing vessel, accompanied by more bird activity. Not only was there an egret aboard the second boat, but also lots of seagulls behind it and a gang of five pelicans. I have only ever seen pairs of pelicans on the Brisbane River before.
The Australian Pelican is a large bird, but in pelican world it's a pretty average size. Its distinctive pale pink beak and throat pouch, however, is huge by pelican standards: males' are larger (naturally). The bill is sensitive which helps to locate fish in murky water, and the pouch is used as a sort of fishing net, to scoop up food and water – it can hold up to 13 litres. After emptying the water out, by drawing the pouch to its breast, the pelican uses its beak to manoeuvre prey until the head is pointing down the gullet. The pelican then jerks its head to swallow.

Most Aussie pellies weigh between 4.5kg and 7.5kg, although heavyweights can reach a whopping 13kg. Wingspan ranges from 2.3 metres to 2.7 metres (7.5ft to almost 9ft). All in all, they never look as if they're going to achieve flight when they are taking off, rather like swans. According to my bird book*, they soar and circle in thermals to a great height (commonly 1000 metres) and then glide for long distances with only occasional slow flapping. The book describes them when not in flight as fishing or 'loafing', which is a nice idea.

Although pelicans are found throughout Australia – in freshwater lakes and waterways, swamps, rivers, estuaries, marine wetlands and islands off the coast – I'm always impressed when I see one. I especially like the fact that you see them quite often on the busy Brisbane River. The gang was fairly close to the demolition of the Cutters Landing Wharf but remained unperturbed.

Because I love them so much, here are some taken earlier (on our travels).

* Field Guide to Australian Birds by Michael Morcombe

June 17, 2012

Busways and big deficits

This weekend the Northern Busway Open Day (prior to its opening on Monday) was in true Aussie style: families and sunshine and sausage sizzles. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman cut the ribbon, but unfortunately I arrived too late to hear him claim any credit for this 2.5-km addition* to Brisbane's public transport infrastructure, built alongside part of the soon-to-be-completed Airport Link. He and Minister for Transport and Main Roads, Scott Emerson, provided some interesting numbers and busway facts: one busway lane can carry the same number of commuters as nine extra lanes on the Gympie Road (a main arterial road nearby); at peak times you will be able to catch a bus every three minutes, and off peak every 7-8 minutes; this new stretch of busway cost $444 million, took three and a half years to complete and employed 450 people; it combines 1.5 kilometres of tunnel with with on-road dedicated bus lanes, and has two new stations and 8 new bus stops.

We walked from Lutwyche Road station through a cut-and-cover tunnel to Kedron Brook. The stations in particular are well designed, spacious and pleasing on the eye.
When we first moved to Brisbane we marvelled at the profusion and high standard of public amenities: new bridges, a tunnel beneath the river and excellent ferry services; wonderful riverside walkways; public picnic areas, children's playgrounds, and facilities for fishers and fitness fanatics alike in green and pleasant surroundings. It appeared that no expense had been spared, and now it turns out it hadn't been. The new LNP state government has just announced details of an audit that suggests Queensland's economic health is in pretty dire straits – currently $62 billion in debt.

Queensland lost its triple A credit rating in 2009. The former Labor government spent beyond its means in order to improve education, health and infrastructure as revenues fell during the GFC. And then came natural disasters to put further strain on the public purse. 

The audit is being carried out by former LNP federal treasurer Peter Costello, and he and state treasurer Tim Nicholls wore very grim faces as they announced their interim findings. (A full report on the economy will not be published until next February: why so long?) Combined with Campbell Newman's sensationalist analogy the other day of his and the treasurer's task of piloting a nose-diving plane (the economy), they were laying the groundwork for their disaster capitalism** styled plans for this state over the next few years.

The worst of the doom-sayers this week compared Queensland's debt with that of Greece, which is preposterous. Even if the LNP's debt projections haven't been embellished, this state has more than enough projected income from mining to furnish its debt, however undesirable that may appear to voters, who seemed pretty pleased with their new busway yesterday.

 * Brisbane's busway network extends for 27 kilometres. The Inner Northern busway goes from the CBD to the Royal Brisbane Women's Hospital; the Northern Busway stage 1 from the Women's Hospital to Windsor; this new busway (stage 2), from Windsor to Kedron Brook; and in the planning is a further stage from Kedron to Bracken Ridge. On average, a busway can carry more than 12,000 passengers an hour in each direction. Up to 50 million fewer car trips are made on Brisbane's roads a year as a result of busways being used instead: effectively, they halve the pollution that buses would normally produce if they were stopping at and starting in standard traffic conditions (these figures from the Queensland Government's media statement and busway brochure)