November 29, 2014

Water rorting

It hasn't been a good week for water resources. El Salvador's remaining unpolluted drinking water supplies are under threat by mining company OceanaGold – one of whose largest investors is Australian Mutual Provident. And from California has come further proof of the contamination of precious aquifers by fracking poisons.

Closer to home, the drip-drip erosion of Queenslanders' democratic and human rights by the LNP state government took another turn for the worse this week. The unchecked, solitary Legislative Assembly passed the Water Reform and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014*, which reduces the assessment and regulation of the water taken by large mining projects.

Resource companies will now have a statutory right to just take water for their activities rather than go through a water licence approval process. This is such a retrogressive step – described by the Environmental Defenders Office as 'a shockingly risky move' – it's made me depressed. And extremely angry. I can only imagine the impact its passing has had on rural communities, especially those facing the prospect of a third consecutive dry Wet.

The EDO spokesperson added:
In the recent Alpha Coal case it was established by the Queensland Land Court that Hancock had not adequately studied the hydrological characteristics or impacts of their proposed mining operations on the groundwater outside of the mining site. The Land Court held that consequently the mine project should be refused, or approved on the condition that the mine undergo assessment and successfully obtain licences under the Water Act.
I attended the Land Court most days during that case, and was pleased to hear Member Smith's considered, precautionary and unprecedented conclusions. There followed a deafening silence on the part of the relevant ministers – of Environment and Mining. Now the full extent of their response has been revealed. Instead of implementing more regulation of the water requirements of mines, the government first removed the rights of landowners or the public to object to risky big mining not directly on their land (see This despicable government, September 2014), and followed it up with this water 'reform'; thus neatly rendering the Land Court's recommendations largely redundant.

Minister Cripps pronounced:
We won't be using the principle of ecologically sustainable development as the purpose of the water act in the future. But what we will be doing is using [it]… for the productive and responsible use of water resources which [sic] balances the competing interests across the use of water resources in Queensland. 
At a time when ecological sustainability has to be the prime mover of all legislation and economic development, this extraordinary position taken by a minister of state displays a remarkable, if not criminal, abrogation of responsibility, and a denial of long-established global consensus and scientific evidence. It truly beggars belief. Where is the outrage, Queenslanders?

Cripps trumpets the fact that make-good agreements are also statutory now. But the onus will be on landholders to prove that mining has impacted their water supplies directly, an expensive business. And 'making good' practicalities will be subject to negotiation, which 'maximises flexibility' according to Minister Cripps but in reality offers the mining companies huge scope for prevarication and, ultimately, avoidance of their responsibility.

I have noticed increased activity on the corners of major intersections in my constituency as LNP supporters make their presence felt in readiness for the state election in a few months' time. If you meet your MP on the corner, please ask them what the hell they think they're doing with this state's most precious resource. And in case you're in any doubt about the importance of this issue, I quote Paola Cassoni, co-owner of Bimblebox Nature Refuge in the Galilee Basin, who concluded her evidence to the Land Court last year with these words.

Finally, my last word is a tribute to our water.
As a prerequisite of life, water is hardly an optional extra or a luxury of personal choice. Loss of water, or significantly degraded water quality, isn't an inconvenience, it's the end game for the Desert Upland rural communities.
We treat water with reverence and grace. We don't over-extract, and we marvel that even in a year of drought like this one, water still comes to us in our bores, and we know we will be able to survive this dry landscape once again. But for those who have never been short of water, they can't understand our anxiety. We will be living our next 30 years or more, knowing huge voids will be continuously draining our precious water supplies.
By nature's good fortune, we are able to keep the bulk of our water conveniently stored away in shallow, life-giving arteries. With a water supply protected from the drying atmosphere, the Desert Uplands is a gift to the world and to the few who make it their home.
photo credit:
This post was last edited on 4 December 2014

November 28, 2014

Brisbane taken by storm

Early this morning it was 20 degrees or so, a wonderful relief after the last few weeks of record-breaking high temps and lethargy-inducing humidity. Thousands of Brisbane residents, however – on the south side of the city in particular – awoke also to damaged roofs, smashed windows, fallen trees, dented cars and no power.

A few weeks ago I was discussing the need for 'hail-proof' shutters for our weather-fronting west windows, and claimed I'd never seen proper hailstones in five years; only piddly little things on the turf during a storm at The Gabba. My time came yesterday afternoon, between 4 and 5.

The storm appeared to be missing us at first, moving west to east but south of my suburb. It suddenly appeared to change direction, more south to north, and what looked a bit like fog or low grey cloud approached rapidly and amorphously. The most noticeable characteristic, however, was a roaring sound. I ventured outside the front door, despite frequent fork lightning and crashing thunder, to try to identify the escalating sound. There was no green sky – said to presage a hail storm – and it dawned on me only slowly what was happening. The first hailstones hit our metal roof with startling ferocity. As others bounced off the windows, they created a flatter sound, tinnier. They found their way in through louvred windows that I hadn't closed in time; they littered the balconies and whitened the road. In the turmoil, I could scarcely distinguish between next door's giant palm fronds beating against our wall in the squalls, the hail or the thunder; between natural sounds and possible impact damage. I was alone with my imagination, and scared out of my wits.

We won't know until the weekend, when my friend can go up and have a look, whether any of the newly installed solar panels, or the roof itself, has taken a hit. He's already noticed that the anemometer on our weather station – something he's wanted for ever but only recently acquired – has been damaged. Water gushed into the house in the usual place, a quirky metal louvred opening that makes for a lovely 'inside-outside' room on glorious winter days in this part of the world but provides a spectacular water feature during summer storms.

We were fortunate, however, compared with other parts of the south side and the CBD. And we only lost internet, not power.

A weather man explained on the ABC that two storms had combined to form a supercell, which happens here but is trickier to predict. Such a joining of forces may quickly result in rising, rotating air whose moisture is cooled rapidly, creating hail and wind gusts that yesterday exceeded 140 km/hr. That is a category 2 cyclone wind speed, by the way.
There have been complaints that there was insufficient warning of such a monster heading for the city; that people didn't have time to evacuate, get off the roads, move stuff to higher floors. In my experience, severe weather warnings are usually timely and informative. I think the Bureau of Meteorology may have been caught out, rather like it was about rainfall amounts heading for Toowoomba in January 2011, but storm formation is not always an exact science and BOM does its best.

I'm afraid my picture of hailstones on the front door mat is the best I can do. Despite five years' experience, I still haven't mastered my fear and stress to the extent that I can rush outside with a camera during the terrifying storms that happen here. In any case, in my current house I'm usually too busy mopping up. But I wish yesterday I'd snapped the storm when I first noticed the dramatically darkening sky. Here you can see the photograph that I would probably have died to take:

Today residents are frantically putting in insurance claims (already in excess of $110 million as I write); the Premier is claiming it was the worst storm in 30 years; and Energex are busy costing their engineers' overtime rosters. There are two factors of Queensland life that continue to baffle us: the first is the flimsy nature of construction, of homes in particular, in a region that is prone to devastating cyclones; and the second is above-ground power lines. But hey, when the Newman government 'leases' the power network, it could reduce the revenue it takes from the arrangement and make the deal conditional upon the placement of all wires underground. Then, if you were caught out by an extreme weather event – and, trust me, they will become more frequent – you'll only have to contend with flying roofs and branches, and baseball-sized hailstones, not writhing live wires.

Postscript: I am pleased to report the solar panels are unscathed

* by 2 December this figure had risen to $304 million
This post was last edited on 2 December 2014

November 25, 2014


I've been away. And spending time with a dear friend; and my nearest and dearest. Hence the hiatus.

While I was in beautiful Far North Queensland, the G20 – and the hottest November temperatures on record – came to Brisbane. Like me, a lot of people escaped. I didn't want to hear about the already eroded human rights of Queenslanders being disregarded further by vastly outnumbering, multiple-weapon-wielding, US-styled police. I didn't want to know about the voices of outrage being smothered by a News-Corp-dominated media. I would, however, have liked to have gone to the pub with Angela Merkel, or the University of Queensland to observe what real leadership looks like.

While Barack Obama succeeded in highlighting climate change at UQ just before the G20 kicked off, Tony Abbott failed to grasp the nettle in respect of any of the tricky issues. There was little shirt-fronting in the end but lots of koalas and sausage sizzles. He just isn't up to the job of international statesman. Even his BF Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM, got in line with the rest of the world and is at least considering donating to the Green Climate Fund. Poor little lonely Tony No-Mates.

What are Abbott's speech-writers and senior advisers doing with themselves these days? First there was the 'coal is good for humanity' nonsense as he opened the Caval Ridge Mine in Central Queensland. Then he wittered on in his opening address to G20 delegates about his $7 fee for GP visits, stopping the boats, road-building and other domestic issues. Even though I deplore the duplicity and the policies, his excruciating performances long ago ceased to be amusing. Instead, I cringe with embarrassment on his behalf. Along with millions of Australians I suspect.

Climate change was not mentioned only by Obama. The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, reaffirmed his commitment to supplying electricity to all his country's people, but not by a means that causes 'our glaciers to melt'. Increasingly, both China's and India's plans for their future energy generation undermine the once almost-certain role for Australian coal exports in the coming decades. This has resulted in an awful lot of jitters back here, especially in the state that prides itself most on its coal business – Queensland. Mike Seccombe reported in last weekend's The Saturday Paper that, 'according to analysis by the usually bullish global energy research consultancy Wood Mackenzie, half the coal mines in the world now face [commodity] prices below their costs of production.' Mine closures and layoffs are no longer uncommon or isolated in Australia. Glencore, the largest coal exporter, have announced they will shut down operations at all their mines for three weeks over Christmas to avoid producing another five million tonnes of coal for sale in a depressed market.

The current lack of progress of the Galilee Basin's mega-mines may not be music to Jeff Seeney's ears (Queensland's Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning), but for those of us campaigning to prevent the obliteration of nature refuges and other so-called 'protected areas' by these follies, economist and climate change expert Professor Ross Garnaut's prediction that the upward pressure on fossil fuel prices will not be seen again – largely as a result of China's shift away from coal – has reinforced the distinct possibility that economics will prove biodiversity's saviour rather than conservative ministers 'for' the environment.

Queensland's unpopular premier, Campbell Newman, has had the spotlight taken off him at the moment, so the rather unlikeable Seeney has announced the stuff of implausible nightmares. Having spent a lot of money finding out what Queenslanders wanted of their state government, and learning most emphatically that it was not the sale of state assets, the government recently announced that some assets will be 'leased' instead. I doubt a different word has pulled the wool over many eyes. And now comes Seeney's outrageous proclamation that revenue generated will not go to building more hospitals, schools and roads but bolstering flagging coal infrastructure construction in the Galilee, as one after another private investor pulls out.

Last week saw the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) World Parks Congress take place in Sydney. This event happens once every ten years, and the emphasis is firmly on protected areas and the threats they face. Delegates came from all over the world. This year's Australian venue was doubtless chosen long before this country acquired climate-change-denying, environmental-red-tape-cutting, miners' crony Tony for a leader. I have it on good authority that some delegates would have preferred not to attend under the circumstances, especially as there was a significant mining presence lobbying at the event. Those same delegates were shocked to learn about what is happening to protected areas that are in the way of coal and coal seam gas development in this land. Friends and colleagues who attended the conference spoke with disappointment and disillusionment of unrealised potential.

To be honest, it was great to have a break from environmental consternation and political befuddlement for a while. When will Australia's governments realise they have to change tack? Reminiscences following the passing of Gough Whitlam back in October only served to highlight the yawning chasm between the political commitment of his era and the blatant self-interest of today.

I love Far North Queensland. Especially north of Port Douglas, I find peace and solace in the lush vegetation and stunning beaches. Here are some of those moments.

November 6, 2014

Outback 2: Brisbane bound

We liked Moree, I think I mentioned that. In our search for a cafe open for breakfast on this Sunday morning, we came upon a yard full of shiny new monster machines ready for the paddocks of this rich agricultural region. I manoeuvred the camera lens through the holes of the mesh fence.
From Moree we took the Newell Highway northwest in the direction of Goondiwindi, which sits on the MacIntyre River just inside Queensland. North from Goondiwindi the Newell becomes the Leichhardt Highway, which almost brought us full circle. Some 225 kilometres further north, at Miles, we had turned off the Warrego Highway on to the Leichhardt on day one of the trip. 

Google reckoned it would only take about five and a half hours to drive from Moree to Brisbane, so I had a plan to linger awhile once we reached Goondiwindi. Increasingly there were wide cleared plains; high-intensity-green low crops in furrows (alfalfa?), the remains of cotton stalks, and blown cotton along the wayside; large advertising hoardings and the inevitable hamburger chain, last seen two weeks ago; elaborate overtaking lanes for taking out many trucks, several oversize loads, and more traffic generally. On the New South Wales side of the border is twin town Boggabilla, a small town with a big silo.

All the time, of course, I was still trying to capture my interesting farm pic, with limited success.
We meandered along the tree-lined MacIntyre River Walk for quite a while. It was lovely, on a beautiful day. There were plenty of birds: in fact, the name Goondiwindi derives from an Aboriginal word meaning resting place of the birds. Some of the Red River Gums are more than 100 years old. I spotted a Galah in a nest high in a hollow of one of them – plus a pelican, three species of cormorants, a darter, a Great Egret and a juvenile Whistling Kite. 
When explorer Allan Cunningham named the MacIntyre after the man who had supplied the horses and drays for his expedition in 1827, the river was little more than a series of ponds that were only connected after good rains. The needs of subsequent pastoral properties led to the construction of a weir to regulate the flow. There wasn't a bridge for a long time, however. All goods headed across the border had to be ferried across by punt and rope. The first bridge was built in the 1870s, and this was replaced by the current Borders Bridge in 1914. Thankfully, most traffic now uses a bypass around the town that was not constructed until 1992. The bridge is beautiful.
So many towns on our travels have a history of flooding, and Goondiwindi was no exception. Records go back to 1886, since when 60 major flood events have happened. In 1956, three serious floods – to heights of over 10 metres – occurred within six months, and this resulted in the construction of a levee to protect the town from an 11-metre level. By the Bridge is a monument that commemorates the events of that year. The MacIntyre broke all height records during the floods of 2011, however, reaching 10.64 metres.
From Goondiwindi, we took the Cunningham Highway to Warwick, a distance of just over 200 kilometres. It felt like a long way, I'm not exactly sure why. The agriculture changed: sheep grazed in what looked like cropped fields; there were olive trees and vines. Then the sheep gave way to cows, and we climbed up through tumpy country. We entered the Condamine catchment – familiar territory. It rained, briefly; and still there were dead roos by the road. A cop car was hidden down a track on our left, speed-trapping oncoming cars approaching downhill. Well and truly back in Queensland, then.

Mid-afternoon light complemented the outlying hills and valleys of the Main Range, and the climb up and over Cunningham's Gap was as lovely as ever, complete with the sound of Tink-Tinks (Bell Miners). For the first time we noticed the damage they've done to the forest. Their charming, mesmerising call is in fact a warning to other birds to stay away. Instead of removing insects that are harmful to the eucalypts, Bellbirds 'farm' them, removing their starchy secretions (called lerp) but leaving the insect to produce more food for them. If insect numbers increase enough, the tree dies. This we had learned from biologist Tim Low who has written a fascinating book called Where Song Began. The answer is Australia, whose birds changed the world, he claims. Yet another reason to diligently protect their habitats.
We had left just after dawn, and we arrived home just before sunset, 16 days and 5668 kilometres later. It had been the best trip so far of our grand Australian adventure. I can't wait for the next one.