December 11, 2013

Dredging and dumping

Not a single person in this land can be surprised that Federal Minister 'for the Environment' Greg Hunt has approved expansion plans for three new coal exporting terminals and a gas liquefaction plant on the Queensland coast within cooee of the Great Barrier Reef. Outraged perhaps, but not surprised. Hunt is, after all, a member of a right-wing LNP government committed to streamlining the approval process for resource development projects so that they can proceed as quickly as possible to revenue generation. Environmental safeguarding was never rigorous enough even before this rookie government got to work promoting the best interests of big business.

It doesn't matter however much environmentalists hope against hope – from the Tarkine in Tassie to glorious Gloucester in the Avon Valley of New South Wales to the wild rivers of Queensland's Far Far North – nothing is safe from mining (and related industries). The 'strictest conditions in Australia's history' have allegedly been attached to Mr Hunt's latest approvals, but that wouldn't be difficult, would it? I have black dust in my house (and probably my lungs) that I suspect comes from uncovered coal trains trundling into the Port of Brisbane. Not long ago there was coal-seam-gas-induced spa-bath bubbling in the Condamine River. Do the fishermen of Gladstone Harbour have their livelihoods back yet? And what of last week's spill in Kakadu after a tank of radioactive slurry burst? Must do better.

There are 95 conditions attached to the coal terminals and 53 to the gas plant on Curtis Island. I am sure they are considered and well-intentioned. But millions of tonnes of sediment will be dredged and then dumped, well, not sure exactly where yet but it will be within the GBR Marine Park. What about the monitoring of these conditions, I would like to know. Who will make sure the conditions are adhered to; how often will spot-checks be made or surveys conducted; and what will be the penalties for non-compliance? Big rich companies are adept at dodging their responsibilities – just ask communities in the Hunter Valley or on the Darling Downs – and those who will be most affected by these projects are probably the least able to make their voices of concern heard above the noise of machinery and the bluster of LNP politicians braying for more jobs for Queenslanders and dollars in the coffers. Will the Federal Government take responsibility for potential disaster many years down the track, for example?

This week the Abbott government amended the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act so that it cannot be challenged in the courts by community groups for failing to consider expert advice. This outrageous restriction was modified by a Labor amendment so it only applies to approvals made until 31 December this year. Suddenly the timing of Hunt's decision about Waratah's Galilee Coal Project (China First) becomes critical.

Despite plans for nine huge coal mines in the Galilee Basin, the Environmental Impact Statement for each proposal deals only with the impact of that one mine. There has long been a call for modelling of the cumulative impacts of several mines on life-giving groundwater in the region. Graziers and settlements are almost wholly dependent on bores: the mining companies will drain aquifers to reach the coal deposits and use vast quantities of water during extraction and processing. Neither is there a study of the potential impact on the Great Artesian Basin, which isn't far away. In the Land Court in September* groundwater experts confirmed the need for much more research on cumulative impacts.

A couple of hours ago I called Greg Hunt's office to ask when the Minister was planning to announce his decision about China First. The person who answered the phone had never heard of it. But a very helpful lady just called me back, and confirmed that the Minister is intending to announce his decision before Christmas.

That's almost certainly one unwanted Christmas present, then...
* landowners vs Hancock Coal (Alpha Mine)

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