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Climate change and environmental impacts on coastal communities

CHAIR —Mr Mitchell, thank you for your attendance at this public hearing. You would be aware that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts and the Minister for Climate Change and Water have asked the committee to examine the environmental impacts of coastal population growth as well as the impact of climate change on coastal areas and strategies to deal with climate change adaptation, particularly in response to sea level rise. The committee has also been asked to look at existing policies and programs related to coastal zone management, mechanisms to promote sustainable coastal communities and governance arrangements for the coastal zone.

Mr Mitchell —I am a shire councillor but I am not here representing the council today. I believe you have already spoken to the shire president. I represent a wildlife care organisation and just the community in general. I am a member of the Lions Club and am involved in a number of other organisations in Broome, so I suppose I am a community representative.

CHAIR —Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House itself. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to questions and discussion.

Mr Mitchell —I am happy to just go to questions. I did not prepare an opening statement. I am more interested in the information the panel is after. I am happy to answer questions, if you wish.

CHAIR —We got a presentation yesterday from Councillor Campbell and Mr Butcher from the Shire of Broome. As I understand it, you are the deputy mayor of the shire.

Mr Mitchell —The deputy president.

CHAIR —But you are appearing in a personal capacity?

Mr Mitchell —That is correct.

CHAIR —I would be interested in your own take on the level of community understanding of the impact of climate change. We have heard from a range of local environmental organisations this morning. Is this an issue that is generating some interest and discussion in the community? For example, the Roebuck Bay Working Group presented this morning. They are a very active local community based organisation. How widespread is the engagement and discussion about these issues in the community?

Mr Mitchell —I think there is substantial discussion. I forgot to say that I have just taken over as chair of KNRM, which is the Kimberley Natural Resources Management group in the Kimberley. We are concerned about climate change through temperature extremes, managing fire—a lot of environmental issues. A lot of the community are concerned about climate change and are looking at the mechanisms that could be put in place to ensure that climate change does not have detrimental effects on the local environment.

CHAIR —As chair of KNRM, is there much interaction between that body and the Shire of Broome? What we are finding in other parts of Australia is that there is sometimes a disconnect between the considerations of both bodies.

Mr Mitchell —The previous chair actually attended all the Kimberley zone meetings, which is the four shire councils in the Kimberley, and reported to those shires on issues affecting the Kimberley, mainly in relation to eco-fire and the range lands issues, like weed control, feral animal control, water management. Water is a big issue. There are a number of projects or areas that we would like to see more involvement in. Currently the Commonwealth has identified other priorities than eco-fire and other environmental issues. A lot of the priorities are going towards weed control through the Kimberley. We feel that the government should be looking at the great picture. Eco-fire is a massive concern in the Kimberley, and that it is to do with wildfire and things like that. We need proper management in place. With climate change, temperature extremes and water shortages, there will be substantial problems facing us. Some of the towns are having trouble expanding due to water restrictions. Halls Creek is a classic example. They have been told: ‘We don’t want you to expand anymore until we sort out where the water is going to come from.’ A lot of people are not really aware of the water issues affecting the Kimberley, even though it appears, if you fly over the Kimberley, that we have substantial water supplies.

Dr WASHER —One of the things is that fire is fascinating. I don’t remember flying up to this part of the world and seeing smoke clouds everywhere. When you say ‘ecofire’, do you mean fires that are started at random, by lightning et cetera? What is ecofire?

Mr Mitchell —Ecofire is more about controlled burning and ensuring the environment does not suffer through wildfire burning. By having controlled burns annually in different areas, you can control the amount of fuel out in the wilderness for when you do have a lightning strike. We do get a lot of lightning strike fires, but there are also a lot of fires that are probably started by human intervention, which burns out the Kimberley. By having controlled burns in areas, you can actually control how much of the area will get burnt at any one time, and by reducing the fuels you can try to make sure you are not going to have the extreme wildfires that we have, which virtually ruin the environment. They scar the environment to the point where it takes substantial time to regenerate.

Dr WASHER —You said these four shires meet on a regular basis. Basically, what is their policy? How often do you burn, or is it on a case-by-case basis, area by area? What is the policy in place?

Mr Mitchell —The organisations involved are the NRM, the DEC—Department of Environment and Conservation—and FESA. They have a policy in place. They are working with station owners. Not all station owners are involved. It is more of a voluntary type situation with the station owners, and we are encouraging more station owners to get involved so that we can do proper controlled burns in areas. Some stations just do their own burns, but unless it is really well controlled you have the chance of fires getting out of control and continuing on to other people’s pastoral properties and things like that. It is more the DEC and FESA that are driving the fire management, with Rangelands, but the shires are involved as to where the burns are going to be and if there are issues close to some of the towns and communities.

Mr MURPHY —Apart from fires, what are some of the other serious potential impacts of climate change on the coastal community of the Broome shire?

Mr Mitchell —I am led to believe that, if climate change increases water levels, the tides will rise, so you will end up having localised flooding. More specifically in cyclone times you might have an increase in flooding. Even two or three centimetres of tidal rise is going to have some impact on areas, so it is one of those issues that we are all concerned about. Even though most people have built in areas where we are not expecting floods, some areas can get inundated. The last thing we need is to see rising sea levels affecting the local communities.

Mr MURPHY —What sorts of plans do you have in the event of storm surges or cyclones?

Mr Mitchell —The local emergency management committee has regular meetings. We have tabletop exercises and things like that to address those issues. There is a tsunami plan already in place and we are working on other plans, I suppose you would say, in respect of that sort of stuff. Every time we have a cyclone, we have to worry about whether there could be a tidal surge or flooding. We have plans in place and we have maps, so we do know what areas could be inundated by flood, but we have not had it happen yet. We are very mindful of it and we want to ensure it does not occur, and that is why it is imperative that residential buildings are not put in areas of risk. Even though there are areas which you would say could be subject to one-in-100-year floods, I suppose you have to weigh up the odds on that. If you did that with most of Australia, you probably would not build in a lot of places. You have to be mindful of all those issues.

Mr DREYFUS —How long have you been on the council?

Mr Mitchell —So far, it has been 17 years.

Mr DREYFUS —Congratulations. That is a long length of service.

Mr Mitchell —I know. It amazes me sometimes.

Mr DREYFUS —But it is good because it means you are in a position to comment on what I am about to ask you about. I wanted you to comment on the level of involvement of each of the three spheres of government in relation to coastal management. To take each in turn, is local government, particularly the shire of Broome, which you are a councillor of, taking action in respect of planning controls for Broome in relation to possible climate change impacts. I am not asking you to speak on behalf of council; I am asking you to give us some observations about what is occurring.

Mr Mitchell —I fully believe that we are looking at those issues. We make sure that future developments should not be impacted by climate change or flooding and things like that. It is something that the council has taken on board and is mindful of. I am dead sure we are going to ensure that new subdivisions are not released where there is more chance of flooding, even just through the normal wet season floods or a tidal surge. That is our biggest problem with a cyclone. Most times that we get a close cyclone it is usually at night time and it is usually on the top of a king tide or a full spring tide, which means that the tide is going to be at the highest level along the coastline. Usually there is the possibility of a one or two metre tidal surge on top of that if the cyclone comes into the town. We have been very fortunate. The last one we had was Cyclone Rosita. We expected about a metre or a metre and a half tidal surge and it did not eventuate. That saved a lot of problems because we would have found out what areas do get flooded. Also, our drainage system along the foreshore has been improved, so it should stop a lot of the high tides coming into the town. It allows for substantial drainage during the wet.

Mr DREYFUS —What about the state government? Do you think the state government has been providing the guidance or assistance that you would be looking for in the area of managing the coast?

Mr Mitchell —We just had a LandCorp forum last week on Broome North, which is our new subdivision of about 3,000 blocks. There was substantial community input into that. From the way it all worked well, I believe the state government is ensuring that that is taken on board. But it is a matter of getting all the respective agencies involved and talking to each other as well—the likes of DEC, LandCorp, the water authority and even Horizon Energy and all those sorts of agencies. Some of them will want to put things in certain areas and others will say, ‘No, we are going to put it over there.’ So it is a matter of them all working together.

Mr DREYFUS —Lastly, what would you be looking for, if anything, from the federal government in terms of managing the coast?

Mr Mitchell —Probably, strong leadership direction, an input into what can and cannot be done and their getting feedback from local people about the issues. There is a perception, especially up here, that we are so remote from everywhere else that if you do talk to people in Canberra we are often likened to a northern suburb of Perth. Then when you say that we are 2,000 kilometres it is like, ‘Oh, okay.’ It is frustrating. Our remoteness and isolation is our biggest issue. We are so far from everywhere else. We are actually closer to Asia than to Perth and Sydney and places like that. I think it is a matter of the substantial powers realising where we are what the effects of that can be here. That is the case especially with floods during the wet season because a lot of the country is isolated. You cannot get into a lot of the areas during the wet season. Isolated communities have to be supplied by helicopter.

One of our biggest issues is that there is something like 290-odd Aboriginal communities all through the Kimberley. They do not seem to be getting any less; they seem to be increasing and they are all expecting certain infrastructure from local, state and federal government. It is a matter of the state and federal government recognising what is an actual community, and that is one of the issues we have faced of late. The state recognises a community as something like 500 people, but most of these 200-odd communities are probably 20 or 30 people, yet they all expect power, water, roads and all that sort of stuff. There is no money available and there needs to be some sort of—not government intervention, but something to say: ‘Look, the major communities are the communities. If you want to live in an outstation with a house, you’re not going to get roads supplied and things like that.’ Government needs to address those issues because all of those people are expecting services and it usually falls back on local government, even though local government is not funded to service any of the Indigenous communities.

Mr DREYFUS —We were told by some other people who have come before the committee today that quite a lot of those small Aboriginal communities are along the coast.

Mr Mitchell —That is correct. A lot of them are one- or two-family communities, they are not big communities. A lot of them are trying to get into ecotourism type ventures. Through the emergency management committee, we are trying to come up with a risk management plan for the whole of the Shire of Broome at this stage so we can address what resources are required by all of those communities in case of flood, fire or other emergencies. Fire is one of the biggest risks. We had a house fire up at Beagle Bay late last year. It took two hours for the local bushfire group from here to get there, so by the time they got there the house was gone. Through FESA and DEC, they are looking at ranger systems where the young people are trained as rangers in all sorts of areas—fire management, emergency management, even tourist access and things like that. That is a positive thing that is happening. There is a lot of work to be done on it, but, again, it also comes back to the amount of money available to implement those programs.

Fisheries are involved in a program at One Arm Point, which is on the top of the Dampier Peninsula. That was a joint project with Customs and Fisheries to do a sea ranger program to do patrols all through that King Sound and outer coastal area. They were actually doing other work for other agencies, like stopping introduced species and things like that for the ag department and monitoring of turtles for DEC. So there are a lot of things they can be doing, but it is a matter of funding. That is the biggest issue. And training. The training is there, it is available, but it is not something you can just set up overnight.

We had a really excellent program happening last year. It was a horticultural project through the TAFE and the ag department, which got a lot of the Aboriginal people involved in setting up community—more so to do with gubinge plantations, which is a plant that produces a really high amount of vitamin C. They went for a couple of years to help them get set up, and just as they were getting set up the funding was stopped and the whole program has now fallen over. The biggest issue in the Kimberley region is this: there is always money available for training, but there is no money there for ongoing support and mentoring. Without that, most of them are set up to fail straight away because you cannot just train them and say, ‘There it is there, go and do it.’ Once you walk away, it just falls over. That is a big issue, providing ongoing support and mentoring until they are at the stage where they are self-sustaining.

Mr DREYFUS —Just on these coastal communities that are in the shire, what services is the Shire of Broome able to provide to a one- or two-family community?

Mr Mitchell —Very little. Djaradjung-Lombadina has a police post; Bidyadanga has a police post. We are working closely with both of those to set up a subcommittee for emergency management. So if a cyclone is coming, those subcommittees can ensure that all of the outstations are advised of what is going on, so there is open communication. The biggest problem is communications. We cannot get up to the peninsula in under two or three hours, unless you get a helicopter or something, so to try to warn all of those people through the coastal settlements is pretty hard, so we have to ensure that the main communities have the ability to advise the small outstations. One of the issues though is there is a great amount of movement between those outstations and town all of the time. Unfortunately, some people liken them to the beach holiday shack. They are in town for the week and they go there for the weekend, so it is not really a community as such. But the major communities, there are always people there, and most of those are going very well.

Mr ZAPPIA —Mr Mitchell, we heard yesterday that the population of Broome has increased quite dramatically over the past decade or so. In your opinion, as someone who is obviously very familiar with this region, do you expect the population to continue to increase? If so, what do you think are the drivers in creating that increase?

Mr Mitchell —Firstly, I believe the population will increase. We know already that the population numbers reported by the bureau’s census were not correct. A lot of the Kimberley population was not recorded. I believe it could be out by somewhere up to 20 per cent. The figures are slightly misreported. With the resources industries happening in the Kimberley region, the population will expand. With the Ord stage 2 and $400-odd million happening up there, the population in Kununurra is going to expand considerably. With the proposed LNG plant happening up the coast from Broome, that will have a major impact on Broome and that is why the shire is working at further land releases so that we have the potential to address the need for accommodation. The last thing we want to do here is follow the same mistakes that have happened elsewhere, and that is why the state government is doing a social impact study on Broome already so that if and when the LNG plant goes ahead we will be able to cover those areas of concern.

One of the big issues up here is the FIFO—fly-in fly-out. Government seems to support FIFO, but it is one of the biggest impacts on community that is around at the moment. Most of those people live in a city or an outer suburb of a city. They fly in, they work at a mine site for two weeks, four weeks or whatever, so while they are away from home that community suffers by not having those people around to be involved in community. They are not living in the community up here, so they are not having any positive impact on our community—they are not buying products or things from the towns—and it is increasing the rental values of properties because some of those people want to stay here all of the time, so they see that as an investment. To get infrastructure, you need to have population. But to have population, you need infrastructure. It is a catch-22 situation. We talk to the resource industry companies and say, ‘Why don’t you move your people here’, and they say, ‘You haven’t got the infrastructure’. You talk to government and say, ‘We need the infrastructure’, and they say, ‘You haven’t got the population’. You cannot win. It is one of those chicken and the egg syndromes, so what do you do? We are planning for that, and that is where this Broome North will help out a lot as well as the future relocation of the airport and things like that.

The shire is mindful of the impacts of what probably will happen with the LNG happening as well. Our concerns are that with some of the other resource industries that are happening in the Kimberley that there is potential to have a second port somewhere in the area where some of this resource product will be shipped from. We are concerned they might set up another port, which will then have an impact on Broome or Wyndham. Derby has problems because it is a tidal port and you cannot come alongside 24 hours a day, whereas you can at Broome and Wyndham. But there has been speculation about another port to ship coal out and things like that.

Mr ZAPPIA —I want to follow up on the FIFO population. Can you put an estimate on what percentage of your population that would represent?

Mr Mitchell —No-one is able to give us that. We have asked for figures like that. When the LNG plant goes ahead, they are talking about a setup crew of about 3,000 workers. To start with, they are saying that most of those people will fly in and live on a camp set up near the proposed site so they can build the plant. There is potential for locals to be involved, but I do not think they have worked out whether people are going to live on site or travel back and forth to Broome and things like that if locals want to be involved.

Mr ZAPPIA —But that is a new plant, I am talking about currently.

Mr Mitchell —Currently it is really hard to say. I know the airport is experiencing vast increases in the number of planes coming in every day, but most of those are going out to the rigs and stuff like that. We have something like seven helicopters out there now, which are constantly transporting crew back and forth. It is increasing all the time. One of the worries for the town is the location of the airport. The town has expanded, there is an increased amount of traffic coming in all of the time, and with the increase in the number of flights and stuff like that then you have the potential of some sort of air accident where, if it comes down on Chinatown, we do not have the resources to handle an emergency like that. They are things we do worry about. The future is to relocate the airport just out of town, but that is all part of this Broome North proposal.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr Mitchell, for attending the hearing today. The secretariat will send you a copy of the transcript for any corrections that need to be made, and I would be grateful if you could also send on any additional material that you have undertaken to provide us with as soon as possible.

Resolved (on motion by Dr Washer, seconded by Mr Murphy):

That, pursuant to the power conferred by paragraph (o) of sessional order 28B, this committee authorises publication of the evidence given before it at a public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 2.37 pm