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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Great Barrier Reef) Bill 2013
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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Moore, Sen Claire
Waters, Sen Larissa
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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
(Senate-Thursday, 23 May 2013)
CHAIR (Senator Cameron)
- Ms Garland
Content WindowEnvironment and Communications Legislation Committee - 23/05/2013 - Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Great Barrier Reef) Bill 2013
JEREMIJENKO, Dr Andrew Martin, Co-founder, Save the Reef
CHAIR: Welcome. Do you want to make any amendments or changes to your submission?
Dr Jeremijenko : I would like to include this extra information about the shewenella case—I do not think I have included it. I thought that would be what would most interest the panel. I know that you have had a lot of people talk to you about the coral loss and the threats faced by the Great Barrier Reef. I want to focus in this 10 minutes or however long we have on the patients that I have been seeing. As you may know, the Gladstone harbour was closed because of sick people. They closed down the harbour, stopped the fishing and investigated that illness. The Queensland investigation could not find a lot, but you must understand—I am an epidemiologist as well as a medical doctor—when you study clusters it is very hard sometimes to find the cause. What we know is that there were over 40 sick fishermen who were exposed to dredge spoil. They were blaming the dredge spoil for their illness.
I saw a patient—he was a fisherman—who came in with a swollen leg. I got him to see a dermatologist. He had come from Gladstone. He had heard me on the radio so he called me up. He said, 'I've got my leg. The doctors in Gladstone can't fix me.' He flew down to Brisbane and saw me. I got him to see a specialist dermatologist and infectious disease physician. We thought it was an infection, but we could not confirm anything on the swabs. He went home again. We tried some oral antibiotics, but they did not work. This went on for about a year and his leg slowly got worse and worse. At Christmas last year—this is a picture of his leg—he almost lost his leg. We almost chopped it off because we could not find out what the infection was. Fortunately there was a big boil there. We were finally able to get the bacteria out of that. It is a bacteria called shewenella. Shewenella is a rare bacteria; you do not get that many cases. There are maybe 50 cases a year in Australia. More often it is seen in refugees, in people who are on boats: the water is hot and they have dead fish at the bottom. Shewenella is a bacteria that infects fish. It was actually found in a lot of the sick fish in Gladstone harbour. What happened in this man's case is that he had been brewing the shewenella inside and we could not identify it for almost a year. Fortunately, we were able to treat him with strong antibiotics. He was admitted to the Mater hospital for three weeks. He had strong intravenous antibiotics and was reviewed by the surgeons. The decision was made to hold off for another week to see if we could fix it with antibiotics and he was lucky to save his leg.
There has been another infection that I know of in Gladstone—I did not treat it—who did lose his leg. In that case it was a vibrio infection. The study by the government is a fairly superficial one. In my view it did not follow up these patients for long enough. This person was written off as an undiagnosed case—just a swollen leg. It took a year to find out what he had. A friend of his, John, also had shewenella. So we have had a number of shewenella cases.
Shewenella is very interesting because it is associated with heavy metals. In fact, if you have a site contaminated with heavy metals, an anaerobic environment, it can chew up the metal and clean up the site for you. I think that what has happened in this case is that the dredging has pulled up all these bacteria along with the metals that we see in the dredge spoil. It has made the shewenella bio-available and that has caused the infection in these people. I know of three cases. It is extremely rare to have a cluster of three cases. It is not statistically significant, so you cannot actually say that this is a statistically significant increase—you would need more cases than that to call it statistically significant—but it is certainly an aberration that needs to be investigated.
Senator MOORE: It comes in through the skin?
Dr Jeremijenko : Yes, it comes in through the skin. Interestingly, this was only in one leg. This gentleman chops off shark fins for a living, then he pushes the body of the shark away and wraps up the fins and sends them to Asia. The shark has had all that disease on it. The juice was falling on to his left leg, which is the leg that got infected. This is what we call a zoonosis: he got an infection most likely from the dirty shark and the dirty water associated with it. The other case was a fisherman who got it from washing his boat out. He had to go down into the water to adjust the pump and got the infection there.
What this demonstrates is that dredge spoil is more dangerous than people are making out. They are saying it is quite safe to go and dump the dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef. But imagine if you were taking your daughter to dive on Holbourne reef and instead of coming back with a picture of turtles you came back and her leg had been chopped off because she got an infection. It would not take many cases like this with tourists to suddenly change the Great Barrier Reef from a tourist attraction to a potential health hazard that you need to avoid. So dredge spoil is not as harmless as the companies sometimes make out. It changes the microbacteria and the algae, it provides more sediment and more nutrient, and that obviously damages the coral. I will let the marine biologist talk to you about that, but it also exposes humans to bacteria they are not normally exposed to.
I have a strong belief that we should not be using the Great Barrier Reef as a dredge spoil dump zone. It is a hazardous material, especially the stuff in Gladstone, which is known to have high-total metals associated with it. Because of this case I watched the turbidity carefully. I think you may all have seen these pictures: this was Gladstone Harbour before the dredging; and this is Gladstone Harbour after the dredging. The fishermen say they would drive in here and the fish would get sick as they came into this dirty area. People like Matt Landos also believe that metalloids have had an impact on fish.
I was looking closely at the turbidity data; they were going over the data on many occasions. I sent the data to UNESCO, and when UNESCO talks about reduced water quality from dredging this is what they are talking about; the dirty water. They talk about inadequate independent scientific oversight of monitoring water quality—we saw they were going over the turbidity limits and they were not being stopped. It was not being enforced. They had these limits placed and they actually adjusted the limits. They said, 'This limit is too hard; we cannot comply with it; we want to adjust it to a higher level.' So they used pre-dredging data and post-dredging data so that they could make the water dirtier and not get in trouble. But even those higher levels were not policed. We saw them, on multiple public holidays, going over the limits; on Christmas, Easter and Australia Day they were over the turbidity limits, and they were exposing people to these sorts of bacteria that can cause the loss of a leg. I was very concerned about that and I raised my concerns about this.
My point to the Senate committee is that dredging and dredge spoil is more hazardous than it is made out to be. It is not just the effect on the coral; it is also the effect on the micro-organisms in the marine environment. It has the potential not only to hurt the Great Barrier Reef and the coral, and to cause crown-of-thorns starfish which eat all the coral away, but also to destroy our tourism. A few cases in Chinese tourists, German tourists and children of these sorts of infections and you could very quickly get a very bad name for the Great Barrier Reef. I plead that you do not use the Great Barrier Reef, especially places that are close to diving spots, to dump dredge spoil, because it is quite hazardous.
CHAIR: Thanks, Dr Jeremijenko, for coming here at such short notice. I have a question for you that I have been asking of everyone: do you support this bill as something that fixes the problem?
Dr Jeremijenko : I think there is a number of things that need to be done here. The bill is a good start, but I noticed when I was looking at the high turbidity the enforcement by the environmental agency here in Queensland was very lax. How do you ensure that the governments ensure that their departments are doing their jobs and keeping these companies in line? It is really important that we look at enforcement issues. We know that the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection has had its staff slashed. When I called Shane Gaddes he said, 'I've got a thousand projects to manage here,' and Gladstone was not on his radar at that stage. I said, 'This is one you are going to have to look out for.' So not only having the laws but also making sure the laws are enforced is really important.
CHAIR: So you see the bill as one way to do it. You are in support of the bill.
Dr Jeremijenko : Yes, I am supporting the bill. The other thing is that the dredge spoil laws were changed in 2009 by the federal Labor government. They used to say that contaminated stuff could not be dumped in the Great Barrier Reef, and I think that was appropriate. That was changed; that was taken out. They also used to have zones in which you were allowed to dump spoil and marine areas in which you were not allowed to dump spoil. That has also been taken out of those laws. I would like to see those provisions put back in. I think the whole issue of dumping dredged spoil and treating the Great Barrier Reef like a dump site is really very wrong. In fact, I looked at the supplementary report on Abbot Point just recently on how they are going to dump on Holbourne. They said, 'We are going to investigate some other areas to dump this spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.' They have not defined an area. They are asking Tony Burke to give approval without defining where they are going to dump this spoil.
CHAIR: The Queensland Resources Council submission says that, if you support this bill, you are driven by a political anti-resource agenda, that it is a populous or emotive reaction and it is emotive ideology. You are showing a lot of emotion, and that is perfectly understandable.
Dr Jeremijenko : Well, I treat patients, so—
CHAIR: Yes. Do you fit these descriptions by the QMC?
Dr Jeremijenko : My last job was Chief Medical Officer of Woodside, which is a major resource company in Australia. I have worked closely with them for years on improving health in the Pilbara. The company that I run, called TeleDoctor, has for three years supported QGC and Origin Energy. I take calls from patients in Chinchilla and Roma and I fix up their health problems. As a doctor, I do believe in climate change and I am concerned about the potential effects that industry is having, but that is what my specialty is. My specialty is an occupational and environmental medicine specialist. I work with companies and I identify health risks. Climate change is a health risk. Dumping dredge spoils, in my view, is a health risk. I let companies know about these risks and try to ensure that they manage those risks so that they do not become a problem like this.
We have done dredging in Woodside for many years to open that harbour, but we have not seen infections like this. There are ways to do dredging safely. You can use things like silt curtains. You can use closed containment systems. You can now suck out the spoil from underneath the top area and that can protect you from having all the tides washing up the turbidity. So there are safe ways of doing this, but they cost more money. With Abbot Point, they said that they looked at onshore disposal, which is the preferred method for acid sulphate soils, and they found that it was too expensive; it was economically prohibitive.
CHAIR: I want to come back to the issue you have raised. I can just imagine the press are here and the headline might be, 'Major health problems with dredging'. What discussions have you had with colleagues in the medical area? Where is that heading?
Dr Jeremijenko : I have done a conference presentation about these cases. I went to Tasmania and we presented to the Society of Occupational Medicine about these risks. We were going to investigate an oyster farm and drink some wine down there, but they wanted us to give a talk that was relevant. The oysters had been uptaking metal in Gladstone harbour. We talked about oysters and the risk of cuts from oysters and then the potential for these opportunistic infections. I had been discussing this in a scientific forum. I did that presentation in March last year. I am planning to do more presentations about this case.
We want to present a paper on shewanella. I have been working with Jenny Robson from Sullivan Nicolaides, who has a number of cases. They are seeing that this is an infection that is on the rise. They want to write a paper about its increasing incidence and they want to use a few case studies. They were going to use this as a case study. So, yes, there will be scientific publications about these facts. Doctors do not tend to publicise as much or advocate as much. I try to do a bit of advocacy because I am concerned about the Great Barrier Reef. We have had over 40 infections and it has been investigated by the government here. We did not have a major scare occur. What we had was sensible discussion. I have talked to James Smith, who ran that, and I have given him this data about the shewanella, but he has not updated his investigation yet.
CHAIR: What about the Department of Health?
Dr Jeremijenko : James Smith is a public health physician for the Department of Health. We have been working together. He sent me his presentation; I sent him my presentation. We work together on this issue.
CHAIR: Are you saying this is under active consideration by the Queensland Department of Health?
Dr Jeremijenko : I think they want to close it off. The closure of Gladstone Harbour led to multiple problems.
CHAIR: Do they want to close it off or cover it up?
Dr Jeremijenko : I believe that they did not have good baseline data. You need good baseline data to start with. Baseline data is one of the problems we see with the fish as well in Gladstone Harbour. You need baseline data then you need to have post activity data. You can then compare the two and do a good paper. Unfortunately that baseline data was never collected. We cannot say with absolute scientific certainty that there is a 90 or 95 per cent confidence interval that this is a statistically significant change. That is one of the problems with epidemiology: you need to be so certain before you can go out and state with certainty that this is what is happening.
CHAIR: The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, in its information sheet on ports and shipping, lists 23 impacts of dredging and shipping in the Great Barrier Reef. They say some of these issues such as change to hydrodynamics including turbidity and resuspension, which can affect sensitive areas such as sea grasses and corals a long way from dredge disposal grounds, are not unknown. That is not exactly what you were saying but it is consistent I think. They say there are problems with the introduction of contaminants, the transport or suspension of contaminants and the pollution from port waste. Would that be consistent with what you feel is the issue?
Dr Jeremijenko : I think those are all important issues that they have raised. I have talked to Dr Russell Reichelt from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority about the seagrass issue because we are seeing the seagrass being affected by the dredge spoil. As another example, this is a picture of Gladstone Harbour after the floods. They were dredging at this time. Everyone knew that these floods were going to affect the seagrass. But, because of the way the dredging monitoring was set up, first they had to stay within their turbidity limit then they changed it to light monitoring and then they made it a seven-day rolling average. So because this had not reached seven days and they had not gone over the limit, they were able to keep dredging. I think what I was seeing there was they were using science to almost do whatever they liked rather than to actually protect the environment, which is what it was meant to be doing. When I talked to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority about that they said they use a seven-day rolling average because the seagrass needs seven days of darkness before it starts to be affected. But if you work seven days and the seagrass is now dying and then you put your controls in, you put your controls in too late. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is struggling with balancing science and making it fair for the resource industry while giving the seagrass and the environment a chance. There is a fine balance there.
Senator WATERS: Given that the Gladstone Harbour dredging program, which you focused on in your evidence today, came after the 46 million cubic metres of dredging had been approved and 11 of those for offshore dumping, are you concerned that we might see a repeat of what is happening Gladstone Harbour up and down the coast if these proposed ports go ahead?
Dr Jeremijenko : That is my concern. I believe that there is a chance that if you dump near reefs, near the places where there are recreational activities that there can be potential health effects. Holbourne Reef in particular, where people dive, is a great concern to me because a few infections could destroy a place's tourism. In places in Townsville, where there is lots of tourism, you need to be careful. We need to look at the environmental guidelines which say that dredge spoil should be dumped on land. Using economic reasons and saying that the project is not viable unless we dump it offshore is not a good reason to be allowed to break the rules. The rules from the environment department say that it is better to dump onshore than offshore. The Great Barrier Reef is a world wonder, it is a tourism icon, it is a national treasure and a scientific wonderland, and we should not be treating it like a dump zone.
CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Jeremijenko. Could I get a resolution from someone on the committee that I, as chair of the committee, write to the Minister for Health in Queensland, with a copy of Dr Jeremijenko's Hansard submission to us, and ask for his comments and what actions are being taken. The motion was moved by Senator Singh and carried. I am sorry, Dr Jeremijenko, but that is all the time we have. We have to have a short break as we have been going all morning.
Senator MOORE: If there is anything that you have published or put together, that would be really useful.
Dr Jeremijenko : In Mackay recently as well.
Senator MOORE: Thank you.
Proceedings suspended from 1 3:05 to 13:40