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Environment and Communications References Committee - 22/07/2014 - Great Barrier Reef

GERLACH, Ms Virginia (Ginny), Director and Coordinator, Keppel and Fitzroy Delta Alliance


CHAIR: Welcome. I believe you have been given information about parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence. The committee has received your submission. Thank you for that. I invite you to make a brief opening statement and then the committee will ask you questions.

Ms Gerlach : On behalf of KFDA, the Keppel and Fitzroy Delta Alliance, I would like to thank the Senate committee for this opportunity. By way of introduction to our alliance, I would like to provide a bit of detail about my own background. I have lived in Yeppoon for 21 years and much of that time has been spent as a small business operator and owner operator and also in the marine and construction industries, including construction and operation of Keppel Bay Marina at its inception, years as a charter boat operator and manager, skipper and also owner-operator of a small charter sailing school business. I have been a committee member of the GBRMPA Local Marine Advisory Committee and also the recreational boating representative for the GBRMPA Tourism and Recreation Reef Advisory Committee.

KAFDA's large supporter base is spread over thousands of similar local community members, with diverse community and business backgrounds, together with special interest groups such as recreational fishing, shell collecting, historical societies and so on. Our organisation also has bipartisan support from our elected representatives in federal, state and local government. We have support in our efforts to protect the Fitzroy Delta, North Curtis Island and Keppel Bay from industrial port development. We also have support in seeking long-term protection for this economically, environmentally and culturally significant area.

KAFDA's submission outlines our grave concerns with regard to the health and management of the Great Barrier Reef. I would like to take this opportunity to emphasise to the committee some major concerns of our community. The Fitzroy Delta requires urgent, long-term protection and definitive regulation that it is not included in the priority port development area of Gladstone. The overwhelming number of reports, research and documentation collected by the government, GBRMPA, research scientists and the World Heritage Committee all conclude that this unique and sensitive estuarine habitat requires vital protection.

The most recent World Heritage Committee decision states that the Australian government had made a commitment to do so. We ask: why has the government not followed through on that promise? We ask: why is the proposal for the Mitchell Group's Fitzroy Terminal Project lapsed at a state level, yet still remains a controlled action under the EPBC Act?

We ask: why this proposal, which is clearly identified by GBRMPA as posing extreme risks, was declared a controlled action in the first place and then allowed to resurface again here at Hay Point when trans-shipping of coal in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is not a permitted activity?

Our community does not understand why the iconic Great Barrier Reef is not able to be protected by the very agency specifically set up to do so. It seems that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has no authority. As community members, why are we asked to provide submission after submission, to submit report after report, yet we see no action plans? Instead, we see more reports, requesting more studies and more reports, such as the Queensland Ports Strategy, which has no spatial definition of boundaries in it as yet. We have some vague promise that there may be spatial definitions in the future. We have a strategic assessment report of the Great Barrier Reef but no definitive action plan, when the dire state of the reef is acknowledged by all. There are more reports coming but no immediate action and, apparently, no capacity for compliance monitoring or impartial decision making.

With the federal government's devolution of control of matters of national environmental significance to the state, the community are feeling fed up and our local elected representatives know this. Boundaries of protection areas, marine parks and World Heritage areas do not align, jurisdictional issues have ambiguity and the key habitats that feed into the Great Barrier Reef, such as the Fitzroy Delta, crucial to the functionality of the reef, are left exposed and unprotected.

Over two years ago our community was necessarily drawn into the fight to protect the Fitzroy Delta, as it was threatened by two coal port proposals and a significant strategic plan from the Gladstone Port Corporation to develop the area, including North Curtis Island. As it now stands, Glencore Xstrata's project has been withdrawn and the Fitzroy Terminal Project has lapsed at a state level. However, with these two proposals off the shelf, the Delta is still not protected. Ironically, the area would be safer if it were declared a state national park than it is currently as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the World Heritage area.

The community could still have to face the impacts of another round of port proposals for that area, with its attendant impacts on the economy in the tourism and general local economy, which it has already experienced over the last two years. The reef needs immediate action to reverse the current damage and protect crucial areas such as the Fitzroy Delta. We respectfully ask this committee: what immediate action can be taken and will be taken to do so?

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I return to your statement that designation as a national park would give the delta better protection. Why would that be the case?

Ms Gerlach : From our experience in a community context, when the proposals for port development in the Fitzroy Delta came about, the overwhelming response that we received from the community when we were explaining the story to them was, 'No, couldn't possibly happen. It's the marine park. It's the World Heritage area. They can't do that.' That was the feeling—that is the belief system of the community. As a state managed national park, the land that the port infrastructure would have to be laid upon would be protected, whereas, as a marine park, it is not, and as a World Heritage area, as evidenced by what has happened down in Gladstone, it is obviously not.

CHAIR: So you are saying there would be a legislative basis?

Ms Gerlach : That is correct. There would be more legislative bases, and certainly there are real issues with all of the layers of protection that are supposedly in this area. If you had the time to look at a map of all of those layers of protection, you would say, 'My goodness, why could anything be done there?' and yet the proposals were clearly legal to be progressed.

CHAIR: You have given us an explanation of your background. As a community resident and a small-business person, would that be the situation with most of the people that you are here to represent today?

Ms Gerlach : That is correct. Our organisation was formed purely at the request of the community when they were concerned about these port proposals in an area that is basically pristine. There is a very small loading facility for dangerous goods in the delta, but there is no other port activity. The shoreline of the delta, which has over 100 kilometres of estuarine shoreline that is mangrove lined and not developed, was at risk. So our organisation was formed purely to protect that and it was done at the request of community members just like me.

CHAIR: You said there is a small port facility at the moment for dangerous goods. How long has that been there?

Ms Gerlach : Historically, a very, very long time, but it is very shallow draft, so vessels of greater than five metres in draft cannot access that facility. It has operated for many years quite successfully for its purpose, with very little environmental impact.

CHAIR: I think you said that the delta is not included in or excluded from the Gladstone development proposals.

Ms Gerlach : The Queensland Ports Strategy did not clearly separate out the Fitzroy Delta from the PPDA, which is the priority port development area of Gladstone. It was indicated in the World Heritage Committee's report that there had been a promise to do so, and the World Heritage Committee had certainly identified that the Fitzroy Delta was too critical a habitat to proceed with any port development in that area. We were expecting to see some delineation of that area and there was none. There is no clarification, and we certainly have put that in many of our submissions.

Senator WATERS: On that point, we asked the Queensland government yesterday: where are these priority port development areas? How do you know what is in and what is out? They confirmed that there are no lines on maps yet. I recall that they did say those would come and I asked whether Port Alma, the jetty with two berths that you have referred to, would be included within that. The first guy said, 'No,' and the second guy said, 'It hasn't been decided yet.' Thank you for reminding us that the World Heritage Committee have relied on an assertion by the Queensland government that the Fitzroy Delta will not be developed. We will be taking that up with them in questions on notice to remind them of that commitment and keep an eye on what rolls out.

Can you please take us through what the World Heritage Committee has said about the importance of the Fitzroy Delta, whether they have expressed concern about any particular projects and what they have recommended in relation to this area?

Ms Gerlach : For the last three years, all of the decisions from the World Heritage Committee have identified quite clearly that the Fitzroy Delta is ostensibly a greenfield site, with the exception of that small existing facility, and they consider that it should not be developed. They have also clearly identified north Curtis Island is part of that area and there have been a lot of semantics about the Fitzroy Delta. Every different map you look at seems to define the delta differently. As a community group, we have had to be very definitive about how we describe the area we are talking about, which does include the existing Port Alma facility, all of the area in the Fitzroy Delta including north Curtis Island and the southern portion of Keppel Bay, which is not protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park because there is a dividing line between that port limit and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. They have clearly defined that that the entire Fitzroy Delta north Curtis Island area should not be developed. In my visit to speak with UNESCO and World Heritage Committee delegates, clearly I was given the indication that they considered that this area should be sacrosanct, that it should not be developed at all.

Senator WATERS: Can you tell us why the Delta is so special?

Ms Gerlach : It is the largest and last undeveloped estuarine system which feeds into the Great Barrier Reef. It is critical to the functionality of the reef. It is connected. I am not a scientist; I am a community member who, over the course of this, has learnt a great deal about the delta and the connectivity between the river system. The catchment is twice the size of Tasmania and river flows down into the delta and out into Keppel Bay and the reef—it is a continuous thing. You cannot draw boundaries and say, 'This bit's okay and that bit's not.' Part of the problem is the protection mechanisms draw distinct boundaries. Also, the delta functions as a colander, in layman's terms. It sieves out what comes down the river system and acts as a first line of defence for that catchment to protect the waters of Keppel Bay and the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator WATERS: Why were you concerned about the transhipping proposal which was on foot in the Fitzroy, which has now lapsed? Can you reflect on that, particularly given that same method of transporting coal from one ship to another is now proposed up here at Hay Point?

Ms Gerlach : Firstly I would say that it has elapsed at a state level; we are yet to see it removed from the controlled action at a federal level. That is of grave concern to us because it could rear its ugly head again in the delta. I do not know whether the committee has had a description of the method, but basically to transfer coal from stockpiles on the shoreline onto shallow-draft barges—which means less dredging, it does not mean no dredging because there would still need to be facilities built to accommodate those vessels and obviously turning room and all those sorts of things—would involve continuous barge shipping of the coal out into exposed waters of the reef and into the deeper parts of the reef. So the logic of being able to take shallow-draft vessels out rather than have to dredge and dump sounds like a great idea, for sure. The problem is that you are still dredging and you have constant shipping traffic going in and out of the very delicate and sensitive estuarine system, with marine mega fauna. Things like the snubfinn dolphin, which Mr McCabe was speaking about before, and the Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin are affected by that sort of traffic.

The barges are taken out through the sensitive estuarine system. The barge would then be attached to a transshipper, which is attached to a ship that is anchored. So you would have three vessels, and possibly four if there is another large vessel coming along waiting, all tied up to one vessel that is anchored with one anchor in exposed deep waters in the Great Barrier Reef. This technology has never been used in exposed waters before. So it is using the Great Barrier Reef as a crash test dummy. We consider that to be totally inappropriate.

As a marine skipper myself, I know the risks of all of those vessels tied together—the wind exposure in those conditions. On many days a year the proponents would have to stop operations at some point during the day because of the wind strength—not the average wind. At some point in the day they would exceed wind limits or wave height limits. It just did not add up economically. We could not see the safety requirements that would be necessary to make this sort of activity appropriate within the Great Barrier Reef. And there was grave concern from the community with regard to health concerns about coal dust. There were multiple layers of concern—spillage, dust in the air, marine incidents. The list was endless. It was in a very exposed location, and the location here at Hay Point is not dissimilar.

Senator WATERS: You mentioned that you were formerly a charter boat operator and ran a sailing school. Can you share any perspectives on the effect on tourism operators of these sorts of proposals, particularly if they do go ahead?

Ms Gerlach : I can certainly share my experience and the experience of those that I have spoken to in our local region. When the resources boom was at its height and all these proposals were screaming forward at a terrifying rate, we all suffered consequences in our local region. In Gladstone, with the dredging and dumping and the crisis that was going on down there, my business was directly impacted. It was what triggered me to become the coordinator of this campaign to protect the area. There was no point in me running a business in that region and having to sail around in excluded zones or avoiding shipping traffic. It would not have been attracting the number of clients that it had done previously. There was a choice: watch your business go down slowly, or stop and fight to protect the region that you love.

CHAIR: If you believe transshipment is not the way to go—and presumably dredging to bring big ships closer to shore is also not the way to go—how do you suggest we get the coal onto the ships?

Ms Gerlach : We have excess capacity in the existing ports. These extra proposals that surfaced two-odd years ago, and the Mitchell Group moving their application to Hay Point, are just an opportunistic grab to have more infrastructure and have a foothold while it was potentially financially viable to do so. But when they sat down to have a look at it, it was not financially viable to do so. What we see now is that the existing ports have the capacity to handle the flow-through of the commodities. I believe that the energy and effort should be put into doing that at the highest possible standards—protecting the environment by not dumping dredge spoil in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. I am a sailor. I am a marine person. That is what I do. That water out there is precious. The quality of the water is critical to the life of the reef, to the tourism industry. It is the reason why people choose to live on the Queensland coast, just as I did 21 years ago.

Senator RUSTON: The area of the Fitzroy delta and Keppel is your major concern. But obviously as a boatie you are talking about the whole area.

Ms Gerlach : And certainly it is my experience in tourism and recreation, as the recreational boating representative on the Tourism and Recreation Reef Advisory Committee, that it was whole-of-reef.

Senator RUSTON: Some of the comments that are made here—in the submission you say, 'Prohibit all industrial port development and largely undeveloped areas of the Fitzroy River delta and northern Curtis Island', and then you go through a whole heap. Those comments only relate to that area?

Ms Gerlach : Our organisation is specific to that area.

Senator RUSTON: That is fine. I was thinking, from a wider perspective, it is probably—but it is just that. You comment on the excess capacity that currently exists. What happens if that excess capacity is taken up and additional capacity is required? What is your response to that?

Ms Gerlach : Our organisation, if I am speaking for the Keppel and Fitzroy Delta Alliance—

Senator RUSTON: You can speak any way you like; I do not mind.

Ms Gerlach : Speaking for the Keppel and Fitzroy Delta Alliance, our organisation has always focused on the fact that there was no need for port development in the Fitzroy delta because there was capacity still in Gladstone. In the long term the capacity—if you look at the numbers in a blanket lump, people go, 'But we'll need more capacity'. In actual fact, that capacity, if it comes out of the mines at all, comes out in a staged and managed process anyway because the mining companies do not just put all of it out all at once. When we started trying to understand this as a community group and we added up the numbers, we were saying, 'It's not physically possible for them to pull that much coal out all at once'. So although one thing is online, another thing may fall offline, and in the future the whole emphasis may be on a different commodity. Stripping the whole of the Great Barrier Reef—or in our case the Fitzroy delta, the shoreline of it—and turning it into ports just made no sense when we knew there was excess capacity. I am not a resource economist; I cannot really answer all your questions.

Senator RUSTON: I suppose I am struggling a little bit with that as the argument, that is all. I would have thought that your argument would have been on the basis that it would not matter if there was a huge requirement for capacity; your argument still is that you should not be using that part of the—

Ms Gerlach : No; the Fitzroy delta is crucial to the functioning of the reef. It is the largest river system flowing into the southern Great Barrier Reef. It should not be developed at all.

Senator RUSTON: So port capacity requirement is not really irrelevant to your argument.

Ms Gerlach : No, we continued as a community group to be asked the question, 'Where are you going to put it?' We had to come up with the answer. When we were fighting to protect the environment there, we were told we had to come up with the answer. And when we started looking into the numbers, we realised that there was no need for development there because there is capacity.

Senator RUSTON: It does seem a pretty silly thing to ask you to do, I might say.

Ms Gerlach : I agree, but that is what people did. We fell into a battle that was beyond our comprehension.

Senator RUSTON: Fair call. On your comments about the dumping of dredge in the World Heritage area—disregard your specific area here, but this is as a boatie in the area—would you see that as the most significant issue for the overall operation of this area?

Ms Gerlach : Speaking as a boatie, the marine park has multiple stresses on it. If you were talking about—

Senator RUSTON: Can you prioritise them based on your opinion?

Ms Gerlach : Certainly. Dredge spoil dumping would be right up at the top there because it happens in inshore waters, it happens in the fish recruitment areas and it happens in areas that are already stressed because of water quality, which would also fall into the category of right up there. Water quality is stressed. We have got mine—

Senator RUSTON: Just a second: dredge spoil is attached to water quality.

Ms Gerlach : They are, yes. It is one of these human controlled things that is really, really easy to define. When you are dumping dredge spoil—I have not actually analysed this answer for you, because that was not what I was expecting to be answering—on top of already poor water quality with stresses already coming in, we saw the results of that in Gladstone. We have seen the results of that. In the case of the Fitzroy River, we are seeing mine water being dumped into agricultural run-off and all of the things that Mr McCabe was talking about before. And then, on top of that, if you do dredging then you turn the turbidity line or the plume line—it just goes further and further out into the reef area and it is affects more and more coral and it affects the fish recruitment; it affects all of the habitats. It also has a huge economic impact on tourism.

Senator RUSTON: What I am trying to work out is: with all of the evidence we have been getting about all of the various variables that are contributing to the issue, what are the priority ones? I would suggest that we need to triage to some extent.

Ms Gerlach : It is difficult for me because I do not know all of the evidence you have been getting.

Senator RUSTON: No, I just want hear what you think.

Ms Gerlach : Port development, where we are destroying pristine habitats—so new port development—on the shoreline, and its attendant dredging and the damage to the marine ecosystems.

Senator RUSTON: So it is not just dumping; it is dredging as well.

Ms Gerlach : Yes. If you are destroying a new area—we accept that we need to dredge occasionally to maintain the existing port facilities, but dumping should not be happening in the marine park or in waters near the marine park.

Senator RUSTON: Do not let me verbal you. It is dredge spoil dumping offshore.

Ms Gerlach : Yes.

Senator RUSTON: It is new port developments—

Ms Gerlach : And they are linked.

Senator RUSTON: and the associated dredging. And, obviously, the protection of existing pristine areas, so if you want to expand, then expand where you are at the moment; do not go somewhere else.

Ms Gerlach : And shipping traffic would be another one.

Senator RUSTON: What is your issue with shipping traffic?

Ms Gerlach : From a boating person's perspective, the quality of the shipping that is coming into Queensland waters.

Senator RUSTON: Okay, so substandard—

Ms Gerlach : Substandard shipping is a major issue. The qualifications of the masters of the vessels and the fact that there are not enough skilled pilots in Australia to mean that every vessel transiting the Great Barrier Reef has a pilot—so the resourcing in that area. They are probably the key issues. We have seen maritime disasters on the Great Barrier Reef—we talked about the Shen Neng 1—but there are so many near misses that we do not hear about. There is such a high level of substandard shipping and cruising transiting the reef that that is really a problem.

CHAIR: As there are no further questions, I think that is it. Thank you very much, Ms Gerlach, for your written submission and, most importantly, for taking the time to come and speak to the committee today. Your evidence has been very useful to us.

Ms Gerlach : Thank you very much.