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Environment and Communications References Committee
(Senate-Wednesday, 23 July 2014)
CHAIR (Senator McEwen)
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Senator IAN MACDONALD
- CHAIR (Senator McEwen)
Content WindowEnvironment and Communications References Committee - 23/07/2014 - Great Barrier Reef
COATES, Mr Josh, Marine Program Coordinator, Cairns and Far North Environment Centre
MOORHOUSE, Ms Margaret Jeanne, Spokesperson, Alliance to Save Hinchinbrook
CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you both very much for appearing before the committee today. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has your submissions and I invite each of you to make a brief opening statement and then the committee will ask you questions.
Mr Coates : The Cairns and Far North Environment Centre—CAFNEC—is the peak environment organisation for the reef from Cardwell north to Torres Strait and from the coast west to the Gulf of Carpentaria. CAFNEC is a not-for-profit organisation and we have been operating for more than 30 years with the aim of encouraging the community to value, protect and restore the natural environment. I am very, very pleased that this inquiry is taking place, and I appreciate the opportunity to be here today. You have heard from a number of other people on many of the issues that I have raised in the submission from CAFNEC, so today I am going to focus on the issue of Cairns port and the proposed dredging there, and also make a few observations on broader reef management and the role of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
I will start with the Cairns shipping development project, which is very, very concerning to CAFNEC, particularly in the context of the poor state of reef health, the localised impacts of the proposed expansion and other port expansion proposals along the Queensland coast. There is serious concern within the community, and this is evidenced by the large turnout that we had to our Save the Reef rally last April. Unfortunately, there are some sections of the community that to date are not well aware of what is proposed and there is a lack of education and information for the community on what is going on up there. It is flying under the radar to an extent. I note recent changes to the proposal, including the pushing back yet again of the release of the environmental impact statement for public comment. This indicates to me that there are serious concerns and serious problems coming from Ports North, who are putting together that environmental impact statement for public comment. They have changed the amount of dredging that they propose to do. The figure is now down to 4.4 million cubic metres of capital dredging proposed, which is still an absolutely massive amount, and I note that 3.5 million cubic metres of that is potentially acid sulphate soils. I hope the committee is aware of the importance of that information.
There are very questionable economic benefits from this proposal, and absolutely no justification has been put forward at this point by Ports North for the economic benefits they are projecting. I have questioned them on the workings of those calculations, which they mysteriously bumped up by $200 million quite recently without any justification for why they are predicting those economic benefits. I note the large projected cost to the taxpayer of $70 million to $80 million for this project, including an increase in the ongoing spending that will be required for the increased maintenance dredging. So the environmental impacts of that will be increased and also the cost to the taxpayer, noting that Ports North is wholly state owned.
I believe this is a real slap in the face for our farmers. We have had feedback via our local marine advisory committee and from farmers that I have talked to that they are really, really concerned about this. There has been some great work that has gone on for many, many years to encourage our farmers and our other land managers to do the right thing and reduce sediment and other land based impacts on the reef. There is a real perception in that community that, in one fell swoop, this proposal could make all of that good work essentially relevant. I think this is a very, very serious concern, and undermining the good work that is going on is not a desirable outcome.
I believe there is a serious risk to both our tourism and our fisheries industries. I point the committee to the Gladstone example, with which I am sure you are very familiar. I invite you to imagine the impact a fish kill in Cairns port of the scale and size of what happened after dredging at Gladstone would have on a largely tourism reliant economy. It is a very serious risk to our local environment. It is also a very serious risk to our local economy. It is an unnecessary proposal. In talking to Ports North, I have been informed that there is absolutely no demand for increased size of cargo shipping in Cairns port. There are no proposals on the horizon at all for an expansion of the Navy base there. The only justification that has been put forward for this development is to allow larger cruise ships to enter the port. We have an existing solution for those larger cruise ships. We have a facility at Yorkeys Knob where passengers transferred to shore by smaller boat. They can participate in the tourism activities of the region, and the region still gets the economic benefits. This is particularly important in the context of the projected benefits that are coming from Ports North. These are benefits that can and will come to the Cairns economy, regardless of whether or not this project goes ahead. So there are very serious concerns that.
The CAFNEC position is that more studies on dredge spoil components and their individual, combined and cumulative impacts are needed prior to any more approvals. The provision of timely public access to information, including scientific studies, related to dredging and other coastal development impacts has to date been woeful. Massive improvement in this regard is necessary to contribute to the restoration of public and international confidence in processes.
CAFNEC advocates a ban on new non-maintenance dredging and dumping in the World Heritage area effective immediately. Such a ban should not be withdrawn until conclusive evidence can be presented that the resuspension of sediments from capital dredging programs can be undertaken with no impacts on World Heritage values. The use of offsets should not be an alternative. There has been no evidence of the benefits these provide. An offset approach also cannot replace loss of intrinsic natural or outstanding universal values. This ban should be implemented with a concurrent review of the impacts of maintenance dredging with a focus on implementing practices that lead to a drastic reduction in impacts.
Moving onto some of the issues with the broader reef management, I am going to focus on CAFNEC's area of direct interest. I emphasise the good health of the reef north of Cooktown, as indicated in the recent draft strategic assessment. Great Barrier Reef health is considered to be much better north of Cooktown than south of it, particularly for inshore reefs. It does not take a genius to identify that the key difference between these areas to date has been the absence of large-scale land based activities adjacent to the reef. There are now a number of concerning development proposals for this area, including mining proposals, agricultural and pastoral activities and associated devolution of legislative powers to local government and the state government. Of particular concern to us is the Wongai coalmining proposal, which if approved will involve trans-shipping of coal in a particularly sensitive area of the Great Barrier Reef. CAFNEC puts forward that maintaining northern reef health should be a priority to maintain existing ecosystem values and function and provide the basis of recovery for southern reefs. Prevention is of course more effective and less costly than later attempts to restore an ecosystem.
CAFNEC is very concerned about the issue of underwater noise, but I understand that you have heard extensive information on that area, so I am not going to elaborate on that right now. We do have serious concerns regarding some of the information that has been put forward by the mining industry and the Queensland government in the form of Reef Facts really focusing on the crown-of-thorns starfish, cyclones and coral bleaching as problems. I invite the committee, if you have not already done so, to have a look at the AIMS paper that is the focus of that spin campaign, I would have to call it. Read the very second sentence of the very first paragraph of that paper, which does point out that dredging and dumping is a serious threat to the reef and really consider the broader picture. They are the causes of damage to coral, but the underlying problem is the resilience of the reef, its rate of recovery. That is intrinsically linked to water quality, which is of course intrinsically linked to a range of factors, including dredging and dumping.
We need to see more focus on the cumulative impacts, both in legislation and in planning. We also have very serious concerns about the current trend in Queensland of approving projects with conditions without adequate consideration or knowledge of the effectiveness or the practicality of the conditions, combined with a lack of political will and resourcing for the enforcement of these conditions. Similarly, we are concerned with the move towards offsets as a solution to environmental damage, offsets that are unrealistic, have inappropriate time lines, are not enforced and are not backed by credible science. They will not achieve the stated goals and are not an acceptable justification for allowing damaging coastal developments.
I will briefly touch on the Queensland Ports Strategy and its inadequacies. The time line is of particular concern. A 10-year time line is clearly inadequate, particularly when you look at the time lines for the rest of the planning that is going on; there are 25-plus year time lines. The fact that the Cairns port is exempted from this really makes a mockery of the intent. That is a strategy that is not achieving its stated goals, a very large proposal for dredging and dumping outside of one of those priority port areas, in the form of the Cairns port shipping project, is still on the table.
CHAIR: I will have to hurry you along there, Mr Coates.
Mr Coates : Certainly, nearly finished. This is symptomatic of the overall business-as-usual approach of the Queensland government reflected in documentation that repeatedly points to one or another plan, strategy or other document without proper consideration of their effectiveness. That is a criticism of their draft strategic assessment documentation as well as a number of the other planning processes.
We have serious concerns regarding the one-stop-shop approach. The Queensland government is either a vocal supporter of major economic developments or the actual proponent, as in the case of the Cairns Port expansion proposal. We believe that delegating the assessment of projects that may significantly impact the reef to the Queensland government will result in a conflict of interest. We have little confidence that the Queensland government will allocate the resources or have the appropriate culture to impose or enforce the conditions necessary to protect the reef.
To finish off, I will make a couple of comments on the role of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. There is a lack of community confidence in the decision making around Great Barrier Reef protection. It is at a real low point, and we need to see huge improvements in consultation, research and policy to ensure that the problems that have come to light around the Abbot Point decision and Gladstone dredging are not repeated. My final point is one that has come through very clearly from my consultation working with the local marine advisory committee and talking to some of our local commercial fishers. We would like to see a lot more involvement of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in fisheries management. It is a very important aspect of reef conservation and is something that probably has not got a lot of attention in this inquiry to date. I would really like the committee to take that on board. Thank you.
CHAIR: Ms Moorhouse, do you have a brief opening statement?
Ms Moorhouse : Yes. Thank you for inviting me. Alliance to Save Hinchinbrook covers from the top of the range up to the outer reef. We have had to extend our area a little further north because of the amalgamation of shires, so we go basically up to Innisfail and down to the bottom of the southern end of the channel. I have some comments about the very top of the problem; the rest is about what is happening on the ground and the processes and why it keeps on happening.
It is really important to understand that when you are faced with let us call it near extinction, at this point, whatever you are looking at, it is really important that you stop all impacts on that thing. It is no use thinking you can just ease up on one or two and the rest will take care of themselves. It does not work like that. When we do not know what the future is we have to do everything we can—and it is an obligation under the World Heritage convention. The other thing is that we are in for a degree of climate change. A lot of the coral is going to die. This does not mean that there will be nothing out there. There will be some other ecosystem. We should be thinking about how to preserve what we have got in the best way we can to make that transition as best as we can, with a view to preserving as much biodiversity as we can, regardless of the shifts in coral and other things. It is not as if we have no responsibilities just because we have already let a lot of the corals die.
One of the fundamental reasons that protection of the World Heritage area is not working as it should is that it does not have the appropriate legislation and legislative intent. The preamble to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Protection and Management Act states:
It is the intention of the Parliament that the area should be established and maintained as a world heritage area of the highest standard.
The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area has nothing like that. That is a really inspiring statement for anybody dealing with the Wet Tropics area; they go to the act and there it is. It is a very proud statement of intent. There is nothing like that for the GBR. Why not? We have had all these years to have that corrected and it still is not.
On top of that, you have to look at the history of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to understand why they do not use the teeth they have got and why they do not use the precautionary principle and ecological principles rather than focusing on small individual items one at a time that cannot help you protect an ecosystem.
My own experience going back to the late eighties—I guess I have had dealings with almost every chair—is that most of the chairs have been disinclined to move on these issues. We just heard about why it took so long for the dispersal of sediment reaching the outer reefs to be followed up properly by the GBRMPA. In the nineties I presented a chair with some new information about this—studies had been done—and he waved one arm in the air dramatically and said, 'But that's only the inner reefs—it hasn't reached the outer reefs!' The chair would still not move on any measure that they had under their regulations. There are lots of things they could have done to have taken better action. It just did not happen.
This comes down to problems with the processes within GBRMPA. I have to say there are many, many wonderful people working for that organisation who are trying to do their best, often under very trying circumstances because of these obstructions over their heads and ultimately under political direction. The old culture was for a fun park, multiple-use area, a wise use culture. It would be worthwhile if the committee were to look at the 1987-88 annual report. The chair at the time was Graeme Kelleher. You see their good intention but that they were struggling with lack of information and what to do about the lack of information and the assumptions made.
We have come from a dark hole of not having enough information. It was actually very difficult to get studies done. This is partly a matter of funding. The funding problem for GBRMPA has not improved. I do not think I have put it in my submission, but their field management unit is essentially underfunded. They do have annual fixed funding, but this means that they have to drop off staff each year and perhaps cut back on boat use, because as costs go up they only have a fixed amount to cover it and they need many more vessels than they have. They have been told, 'Go and find the money elsewhere if you want any more.'
The difficulty of GBRMPA having to, seemingly, rely on Queensland and its processes and intentions for the GBR is a big part of the problem. All the stuff to do with fish is left to the fisheries minister in Queensland who has consistently and repeatedly, regardless of the brand of government, refused to stop gill netting where dugongs travel. That is in the face of scientific advice that said that the dugong population in the southern part of the GBR—it is a distinct population—had to have fewer than one human caused death per year to survive, and that meant the target for GBRMPA had to be zero. Even that did not persuade the Queensland government fisheries minister to stop gill netting. There is a campaign on at the moment from recreational fishers to stop gill netting for commercial use for other reasons which are to do with the fish stocks. I will not get into that but, again, the fish stocks themselves, as they refer to them, are being minded as a fishery rather than as World Heritage value.
On the issue of industry capture and conflict of interest within GBRMPA, I keep running into that. I once had a very interesting conversation with a senior staff member who is now retired. Over a bottle of wine one night we swapped names of people who were industry captured within GBRMPA. It is an old problem and it is always going to be a problem for all these sorts of departments, but the processes within GBRMPA have changed since those days and I would hope that that is not as much a problem as it used to be.
The sidelining of GBRMPA processes by the bilateral agreements between the state and the Commonwealth is another way in which GBRMPA is set aside. It has never really acted as an authority; it is just another agency and is very much under the control of the minister of the day. I would say most of the chairs, with some important exceptions, have been career bureaucrats who have got there by telling the minister what he wanted to hear. I have a further example of that here which I will pass up to the committee.
CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Coates and Ms Moorhouse. Mr Coates, with regard to the Cairns port, is there currently maintenance dredging there?
Mr Coates : Yes, there is annual dredging. I do not know how many of the senators had the opportunity to visit beautiful Cairns and have a look out over Trinity Inlet and the bay. It just takes one look for you to understand this is not a natural deepwater port: there is a constant battle versus nature. To expand that would be really unwise. It is a battle that cannot be won.
CHAIR: Does the current maintenance dredging cause problems?
Mr Coates : In my opinion it does. Our seagrass beds in the bay are currently at the worst state in recorded history. They have not recovered from Cyclone Yasi. They should have by now.
CHAIR: How long has that maintenance dredging been going on?
Mr Coates : Don't quote me but I understand it has been going on for a very long time.
Mr Coates : Yes, decades; since the first time the port was opened up unnaturally and deepened.
CHAIR: You mentioned that the cost to taxpayers if the Cairns port development goes ahead will be $70 million to $80 million and that will be levied on taxpayers. How is that going to happen?
Mr Coates : That is a very good question. Where is that money going to come from? There was an election commitment to $40 million of funding from the state government. The rest of the funds are as yet unaccounted for.
CHAIR: What is your estimate of that cost based on?
Mr Coates : That is not my estimate of the cost. That is Ports North's estimate of the cost.
CHAIR: Okay. So there is not an actual levy?
Mr Coates : It is unclear how they are planning to fund that.
Senator WATERS: Thank you both for coming along today and for your really detailed and useful submissions. Mr Coates, I have a question on that proposal to further dredge Trinity Inlet, which I have been to and I agree is beautiful and, in my view, not appropriate for almost five million more cubic metres of dredging. You mentioned in your opening statement, and perhaps you could elaborate on it, that there were alternatives to that proposal that could still see those larger cruise ships being able to get people to Cairns. Tell us more about that—how viable it is, and if it is being genuinely considered either by the regulators or the proponent.
Mr Coates : Indeed, these alternatives are already in operation. Larger cruise ships, when they visit Cairns, anchor off Yorkeys Knob. They transfer their passengers via smaller tenders to shore, where either they are bussed into town to enjoy some of the facilities there or they head further north so that they are actually closer to a lot of the tourist attractions, like the sky rail to Kuranda, or even head up to Port Douglas. So there is already an existing alternative. It has already been announced that that facility at Yorkeys Knob will be upgraded. And this kind of transferring of passengers from large cruise ships to shore is far from unprecedented; in fact, it is a very common practice in the cruise industry around the world. So, we have an existing solution. We actually do not need to do anything at all to address this problem; there is no problem.
Senator WATERS: So why do you think Ports North is insisting on planning to dredge almost five million cubic metres of spoil from Trinity?
Mr Coates : Remembering this is a state government initiative, and Ports North is managing it and doing the EIS for it, I think back at the last election there was a bit of a frenzy for dredging. Everybody thought that seemed to be a good idea, and some members of the Cairns business community might have put their hand up and said 'What about us? Me too, me too!' without thinking through the long-term ramifications for the tourism industry and for the environment.
Senator WATERS: In relation to the Queensland Ports Strategy, which does not list Cairns as a proposed priority port development area, and therefore the port would not be covered by the limited restrictions on capital dredging, is it your understanding that given that this application is already on foot that plan will not affect the ability of the dredging to proceed? To put it another way, will the Queensland Ports Strategy and the requirements in that apply to this proposal?
Mr Coates : It is my understanding that they do not apply. It is also my understanding that that port strategy is ineffective in its goals for that reason and also the reason of the very short time frame in which it applies—only 10 years.
Senator WATERS: You have talked in your submission about whether you think we are currently implementing the World Heritage Committee's recommendations for the reef. Could you elaborate on what your view is?
Mr Coates : It is certainly my opinion and CAFNEC's opinion that that is not the case—that we are failing to address those recommendations on a number of levels, including that port strategy, including the broad range of things that need to be done to actually address the water quality issues of the Great Barrier Reef. And there are a range of other things. It is all there in the submission.
Senator WATERS: Unfortunately I cannot bring the part to hand where you had a nice summary of it. But I am sure everybody else has read the submission. Are either of you across the expose of the GBRMPA board of about six months ago whereby it was revealed that two of the board members had links to the mining industry? Can either of you speak about that?
Mr Coates : I am certainly aware of the existence of that controversy.
Ms Moorhouse : Not so much about the connection with the mining industry, but I am certainly aware of what I see as a conflict of interest. First of all, there is a structural one—that the chair and the CEO are vested in the same person, which is a bit like somebody making a recommendation and then sitting on the recommendation himself. I think it has always been like that. I do not know why. But it does not seem right. I presented further written evidence of conflict of interest involving the present chair, which is about his support of sea dumping for Keith Williams, and also articles that have appeared in an online publication. It might have been a paper publication too, although I have never seen it in paper. They were there for years, and I came across them by accident before the old website was pulled down. They were supporting, inappropriately—not the whole truth—Port Hinchinbrook. They were extraordinary things to find on the GBRMPA website. It is in that box of things that I was referring to before, about industry capture and conflict of interest.
Senator WATERS: We will take that up with Mr Reichelt. He is coming along this afternoon. Mr Coates, do you have anything that you could add about your understanding of the links between the GBRMPA board members and the mining industry?
Mr Coates : There has been massive undermining in the public perception of the role of GBRMPA and its independence as a result of that and other decisions, including the Abbot Point decision that has been made. A letter from the Cairns Local Marine Advisory Committee states:
GBRMPAs position as gatekeeper of the Great Barrier Reef has taken an enormous hit within the community both in Australia and internationally. The ramifications for the tourism industry that underpins our regional economies are not lost on anybody.
I refer you to the comments made by Wendy Tubman earlier today regarding the skill mix that is on the board of GBRMPA as well.
Senator WATERS: Thank you. We will take that up with them. Ms Moorhouse, you were just mentioning Port Hinchinbrook. I note in your submission you talked about the discharge licence for Port Hinchinbrook and some sulphuric acid discharge into the World Heritage area, which you say is above the level that was allowed by the Queensland government. Can you explain for us that example and what happened there?
Ms Moorhouse : All along our coast, shall we say, are acid sulphate soils. Once acid sulphate soils are disturbed and oxidised—and they can be oxidised in oxygenated water; any water that is not very deep and is readily on the move is likely to be oxygenated—they release sulphuric acid. One of our records for Port Hinchinbrook shows a pH of 1.78, which is incredibly strong. That is a lot stronger than what is in your car battery. More frequently it is around three or four. Neutral is seven. This is not a linear scale; it is a logarithmic scale. At six it dissolves metals. Metals are inert in the subsoil. As long as they are under the watertable everything is okay. If they are left alone there is no problem. But when you disturb them and the acid begins to be released—and it continues to be released; it is not a one-off process; it goes on for years—the metals are dissolved. Heavy metals are dissolved at a pH of six and below. They are then carried out in any flush of rain or other discharge from the tailings pond into the sea. When they reach the sea they are neutralised because seawater generally has a pH of eight or better. It draws the carbonate out of the water. That calcium carbonate is what is required for fish skeletons. The fishing organisations are very well aware of this problem along that coast. They are always very active when it comes to the disturbance of wetlands and so on because they know about this problem.
But longer term what happens to the metals? They have to come out of solution when they are in the seawater because the acid has been neutralised. They immediately bond chemically with clay particles that happen to have an oxide coating. Larger particles drop on seagrass beds and elsewhere and that causes its own problems. In some areas the problem called iron floc is well known where the metal in it is iron, but it can be cadmium, selenium, zinc or aluminium, which causes a bright blue colour. Anyway, the finer clay particles, the colloids, keep travelling on those currents, just as other sediment and contaminants do, and finish up on the outer reef. When the coral polyps take them in, they get rid of some of these metals by embedding them in their structures. That ultimately weakens the structures so they become more vulnerable in the next storm. So it is an insidious, hidden ongoing problem.
The other story is that the coral polyps and the benthic organisms around the seagrass and so on are the bottom of the food chain. The next thing you have is bioaccumulation and it builds up these metals in our table fish. As far as I know, GBRMPA cannot—or, at any rate, they do not—monitor that; that is left to DPI, and I do not think DPI are very keen on releasing that sort of information, because they do not want to scare the fish market. When I was working at the hospital here in Townsville, I noticed that, over a period of about six years, the pamphlets in the waiting rooms gradually changed from recommending that pregnant women and nursing mothers eat so many fish meals a week until they said, 'It's probably best you don't eat fish.' I do not know whether the standards themselves have changed or whether that is a reference to the changing levels in table fish that is on sale.
Regarding the question of the licences, these are the kinds of silent things that you will not discover because nobody is going to tell you about them, so you happen on them by accident. I discovered that the 2010 licence for Port Hinchinbrook was at a pH of six. Being issued only in 2010, it should have been up around eight; it should not have been at six pH. I have spoken directly with the Queensland environment minister about it and he said flatly that he was not going to review that. I said, 'Is this an indication of all the other licences along the coast?' which also go back. I understand there is a difficulty at the state level with changing the licence standards because it relies legally on having to demonstrate that it has done some harm. That is an impossibility in legal terms. They are not using the precautionary principle. All the evidence suggests that it is only a matter of chemistry. Everybody in the world knows this. The Queensland standards themselves set the same standards as the international standards and they are just not being abided by.
Then there was the question of the roadworks at Cardwell. Community people notified me and I went up there and had a look. There were piles of stuff that look like acid sulphate soil along the roadside. I took photos and got onto the department straightaway. Sure enough, that is what was happening. There again, it is that process problem of contractors employed by the government to do the work. At first they said, 'Yes, we're monitoring for acid sulphate.' I said, 'Yes, but where are you doing the monitoring?' It turned out they were monitoring it in the hole in the sea, where, naturally, it is not going to register anything, and then storing it alongside the road, where it was just going to drain away and start bleeding acid. It is things like that. So you start wondering, 'How far up the coast does this happen?' It is just a constant bleeding into the GBR.
It is the same thing with the unlicensed dredging called bed levelling. I do not know how many places along the coast are doing that. It is very difficult to find out. You would have to ring every little place along the coast to find out whether anybody was doing any bed levelling, because it is not licensed and you cannot go to any place and see where it is happening. You cannot get a list.
CHAIR: You do not have to apply for a permit or anything to do it?
Ms Moorhouse : No, you do not have to have a permit. I imagine most of this is happening within the smaller ports. I would think a marina, too, could probably do bed levelling without getting a licence.
Senator RUSTON: Mr Coates, for my benefit, regarding the proposed Cairns port Trinity development, are you saying that it could proceed without regard for the requirements of activities within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park?
Mr Coates : I am not sure I understand your question.
Senator RUSTON: Earlier we were discussing the ports strategy and it was mentioned that this actually occurs outside of the ports strategy. What latitude does this particular development get that, say, the Abbot Point development or developments that are covered within that strategy do not get? What benefit or free range does this get?
Mr Coates : I think my point was that this proposal is not consistent with the intent of the ports strategy and that the time frame of the ports strategy is insufficient itself. I am not quite sure what you are getting at, though.
Senator RUSTON: It was simply a question on the basis of the requirements of any application for expansion, particularly in relation to dredging and disposal, which seems to be the major thing that we are pointing at in this inquiry. I was just wondering whether, because of that determination, there was anything that this particular development would be not required to do that other developments are required to do for compliance.
Senator WATERS: No, I think the point is neither of those projects are subject to the port strategy and that is why it is so pathetic.
Senator RUSTON: No, that is not my question. My question is: what would they be required to do if they were subject to the ports authority that they are not required to do?
Mr Coates : The approvals process is the same. Nonetheless this is not in the spirit or the intent of the Queensland Ports Strategy and it does not fit with what the Queensland government is telling international bodies like UNESCO and telling the world in restricting port expansions to those five priority port areas.
Senator RUSTON: So it is more of a perception?
Mr Coates : It is the reality that that is not consistent with the intent and public face of what that port strategy both sets out to do and what the Queensland government is telling UNESCO and others it is doing.
Senator RUSTON: You made a comment in your submission that there was a lack of community confidence in GBRMPA. I wonder if you could expand a little bit on exactly what you meant by that statement.
Mr Coates : There has been an undermining of community confidence that has come as a result of the Abbot Point decision in particular and as a result of the conflict of interest accusations that came to light recently as well, which we discussed earlier today. So there is a lack of community confidence in the independence of the board. There is also a lack of community confidence given that there is broad knowledge now that the resources that the GBRMPA requires to do its job are not being provided and, in fact, are being contracted. So there is a real perception that GBRMPA is not independent enough and that GBRMPA does not have the resources it needs to do its job. There really needs to be some improvement in that area. It is a really serious issue. GBRMPA has a job to do and we need to allow GBRMPA to do the job that it is there to do.
Senator RUSTON: To be more specific, is that the view of CAFNEC, that the lack of confidence is justified?
Mr Coates : Yes. We need to see more resourcing for the authority. We need to see a better mix of skills on the board. And we need to see, again, ability facilitation for it to be the independent advisory body that it set out to be.
Senator RUSTON: Are you saying that it is not funded well enough to do the job it has been asked to do, that it does not have the skill sets it needs to do its job—
Mr Coates : You are talking about at board level there.
Senator RUSTON: and that it is not independent enough for your liking?
Mr Coates : There is a perception that it is not independent enough.
Senator RUSTON: I am accepting your point about perception but I am asking you whether you accept that perception, whether in your opinion it is more than perception but actually a reality?
Mr Coates : I think some of the documents that came to light via freedom of information really showed that all the way up to the Abbot Point decision there was internally advice coming from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park experts that that should not be approved. However, at the last hour, it was approved.
Senator RUSTON: So are you saying the recommendations that have come out of GBRMPA that have gone to the minister, who to a large extent does not have a great deal he can do about those recommendations, have not gone through a process that would satisfy you?
Mr Coates : I am talking about the fact that internally the advice seems to have been quite different to what has gone to the minister in the end.
Senator RUSTON: Okay, that is a reasonably serious allegation, which, obviously, we should take up this afternoon.
Mr Coates : This is based on those documents that had come to light via the freedom of information application.
Senator RUSTON: On a really specific issue, in your submission on page 5 you refer to the management of impacts of agricultural run-off. You make a comment about how you applaud how agriculture is dealing with this, but notice the serious problems, particularly the lack of enforcement standards and inappropriate calculations of desirable nutrient loads for local conditions. One of the things we heard on Monday from a couple of the agricultural based organisations was that they were particularly concerned that a lot of the modelling and statistics that had been used to determine the quantum of the impact of run-off were really dodgy in the sense they were assuming that a chemical would be used every year when often it was only used every 15 years.
They were concerned that, if a chemical might be used in a particular area, the calculations went out over the total area of agricultural land that was being used for the purpose that this chemical might be used for and that they were being painted into a corner as being much worse perpetrators of the problem then they really were. Your comments here perhaps indicate to me that you have a contrary view.
Mr Coates : Not a contrary view necessarily; I do have concerns regarding the accuracy of some of the data coming out of the sector. The data that is used in our reef report card, for example, is very much based on modelling and there are some serious questions regarding the accuracy of that modelling. What I would like to see is more on-ground monitoring, actual recordings of things like erosion and pesticide loads, rather than relying on modelling to determine the levels of impact and that those impacts are being addressed.
Senator RUSTON: So you are not actually saying that they are better or worse than the modelling; you are just saying that the modelling potentially could be flawed.
Mr Coates : [inaudible]
Senator RUSTON: So they potentially could be a whole heap better than are currently being predicted.
Mr Coates : Yes, that could certainly cut both ways, I agree.
Senator RUSTON: Thank you very much.
Senator BULLOCK: I have to apologise are asking this question. I should have asked it yesterday of another witness but time ran out, as it tends to do on me. This does feature in your submission to a minor extent. It concerns the distinction drawn on heavily yesterday between capital dredging and maintenance dredging. I would have thought that where you have sediment coming down rivers which need to be dredged, that the sediment would be laden with agricultural spoil, spillages from ships and all sorts of chemicals from clean of ships going into the water and that maintenance dredging would be chock-a-block full of bad stuff; whereas digging up the seafloor it is relatively natural. I know you are shaking your head. I am displaying my ignorance. That is why am asking the question. I want to know the answer. Does that go to the acid sulphate thing we were talking about early or are there other factors that make digging up the natural floor much worse than the maintenance dredging?
Mr Coates : I think Margaret would like to speak to this one, but briefly, the acid sulphates are in the existing soils, so that problem applies to capital dredging, whereas some of the other problems you talked about do apply to maintenance dredging. But the big issues with maintenance dredging are the sediment suspension and re-suspension, as well as some of the toxins you mentioned. But they are more likely to build up over time so applying more—
Senator BULLOCK: You have to forgive me for asking. I know I am a dummy; I have to find out.
Ms Moorhouse : It is good to hear people asking for information. It is wonderful.
Senator BULLOCK: And by the way, thank you fear explanation on metals. I thought it was riveting.
Ms Moorhouse : Thank you. The question of what is in the dredge material does vary from site to site and that is something people need to understand. The make-up of the dredge material can be everything from sand with a small amount of other solids, to a very proportion of thyons, which produce all sorts of other problems. The sea bottom which has been consolidated and is then dug up for capital dredging contains all the heavy metals and whatever has come down out of the room rivers through mining history, from all the little old mines that everybody has ever forgotten about—mercury from Cape Bowling Green is in the bottom there—and it finishes up in the Hinchinbrook Channel. The Hinchinbrook Channel is a great trap for three of the great rivers. Its bottom is always on the move and it is very, very silty. It is called 'cohesive' because when you take it out of does not drain. It is not sand as you might experience in other places along the coast.
The maintenance dredging could be for of all sorts of things but it is often described as, 'Oh well, it is only the sand that is has washed in there in the last six or 12 months, so it can't be too bad.' But every time you dredge either maintenance or capital, you are re-suspending the solids and giving whatever is in them another life, another time to do damage and to be carried out further towards the outer reefs.
CHAIR: Just before we close, Ms Moorhouse, you spoke at some length about the ability that GBRMPA has to make decisions. Is it your belief that it has the legislative teeth necessary to make appropriate decisions or are you proposing any legislative changes?
Ms Moorhouse : No, I do not think it has what it actually needs. What I am saying is that it could have made much better use of what it had. For instance, clause 66(2)(e) allows it to make regulations for water quality. I was quite involved in that, back in the late nineties, over a prawn farm proposition for Armstrong Beach. To some extent, I was involved in that process of negotiating what would go into the regulations.
GBRMPA had the power to write regulations and they did, but they restricted it to aquaculture. That was because the local Queensland member—who, I think, was De-Anne Kelly—had no objection to that for the purposes of aquaculture, but she did not want any restrictions or any interference in the practices of her cane farmer constituents. I am saying that that is the sort of situation where they do not act as an authority. It has been very hit and miss.
CHAIR: Thank you very much for both your written submissions and for taking the time to appear before the committee today. Your evidence has been very useful.
Mr Coates : I commend you all on your participation in this inquiry. I really look forward to the results. Thank you for your time.
Proceedings suspended from 10:37 to 10: 51