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


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  2. I think as long term resident of the Gladstone Region, that in typicle form of a journalist, you know nothing, i repeat nothing about Gladstone.
    What you would of seen from your motel, was not the Aluninium Smelter, it is Queensland Alumina. Boyne Smelters is some 25 kms away from Gladstone. The green area you so happily bagged, is the Gladstone Botanic Gardens, built from scratch by residents and now run by the Gladstone Regional Council. As for the problems in the Harbour, we may never know what caused them, but i invite you to return to Gladstone at any Easter to witness the Gladstone Harbour Festival, any then go back and report clearly on a community. Your comments are very narrow minded and biased, and I'm sure many other residents of the area will also feel this way.

  3. Kathy
    I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the blog, and I apologise for the mistake about the aluminium plant. I have corrected it: I thought that's what I was told at the time, but I should have double-checked.
    I research my posts very carefully in fact, and have been complimented by many readers on the information in them. This was never intended to be a travel post, my anecdote about the town being merely an introduction to a serious environmental issue. Since I am not in the employ of Tourism Queensland to promote Gladstone, I could be honest. My one and only visit was pretty grim, but it was a good few years ago.
    I don't think I am narrow-minded. I may not have enjoyed my visit but I feel a genuine concern for what is happening in Gladstone Harbour and the potential risk to the Great Barrier Reef. I have listened to many accounts from people who live and work there. I acknowledged that no conclusion has been reached about the cause of the diseased wildlife but obviously it is a serious problem, not least for the fishermen who can no longer make a living.
    I am indeed biased, in favour of environmental protection. I hope you will agree that care of Queensland's wonderful coastline is something we should all be working towards.

  4. " It denies that the arsenic damaged the Harbour environment or put human health at risk." - if I was to deny anything in this situation I'd rather denied that any arsenic was released ;-) You don't have to be a master of (eco)toxicology to know that arsenic is extremely potent.
    I'm also quite surprised that only recently dissolved metals in this region have been monitored. I'd think it doesn't take any special environmental higher policy to concentrate on what is mined there.

  5. To Kathy,
    (sorry, the "reply" button doesn't work)
    I'm obviously writing on my own behalf but reading this post at no time was I inclined to think that the people of Gladstone aren't a great community. I'm sure your festival is a fabulous event.
    Whatever is the cause of the recent environmental problems, one is pretty much beyond discussion - it is manmade and 99.9% a result of mining and transportation of what is mined. Even if the port shouldn't have dredge, it's little consolation to me. It just means that a huge amount of toxic crap lying at the bottom should have been left alone. Still there.
    I also don't think that the state of the environmental matters is the responsibility of the community. Maybe I'm cynical but I recon that the real decision makers (who are responsible for environmental impact) don't really give a damn about the local community. I'd be rather surprised to learn that any of them actually live in Gladstone themselves.
    I just wanted to say, that in my opinion this post was not about your community.

  6. Emilia, you are right in that I didn't wish to imply that blame for the state of Gladstone Harbour lay at the door of the people of Gladstone. And i agree with you that those who make decisions about development of the Harbour often
    pay little heed to the local inhabitants and how that development will impact on their lives and livelihoods. And that is the case whether it be new coal mines or coal-seam gas wells or multi-cargo port facilities.

  7. ...and yes, stringent water-quality monitoring has come very late considering the proximity of such a globally significant natural wonder