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Conservationists angry over dumping of waste on Heron Island

DERRYN HINCH: Good evening, Australia. Good evening from on board the Rainbow Warrior - the new Rainbow Warrior here in Sydney Harbour - the replacement Greenpeace flagship for the peace boat that was sunk by the French in Auckland Harbour nearly five years ago.

It's a good name for a vessel that flies the seas with its crew, fighting for environmental causes. It comes from an American Indian legend which says: `When the earth is sick and the animals disappear, the warriors of the rainbow will join together to protect the wild creatures and to heal the earth'.

These modern-day warriors of peace are needed because, as I've said before, we do treat this planet like it belongs to somebody else. We burn the rainforests, pollute the skies, foul our beautiful rivers and beaches and the harbours, like this one; and we've punched a hole in the ozone layer.

You have to ask the question: what sort of a world are we leaving for our children and their children? The answer: not a very attractive one or, at least, not as good as we could, we should, we must leave them.

I'm Derryn Hinch.

This country is lucky to be the home of several wonders of the world: Ayres Rock or Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef, in fact, is the largest living organism on this planet. These days, it seems to symbolise all that is right and wrong with this place. On the plus side, its beauty, its amazing colourful coral, and its fish. On the minus side, Heron Island or what people are doing on Heron Island, right in the middle of the Reef, and they're doing it with Federal Government permission.

As Jane Hansen reports, the resort operators on Heron Island have a rare federal permit to dump their daily rubbish into the sea. Understandably, conservationists are angry.

UNIDENTIFIED: This is the most fragile, beautiful area of the whole of the Great Barrier Reef, these coral cays. They're fragile. They need to be looked after, most delicately.

JANE HANSEN: Heron Island is a wildlife sanctuary perched right on the Great Barrier Reef, off the central coast of Queensland. It is, as the advertisements suggest, `heaven on earth'.

UNIDENTIFIED: The Great Barrier Reef is the greatest marine park in the world, and we've got to look after it as well as we can, and dumping rubbish is just something you do not do.

JANE HANSEN: This is the other side of Heron Island the resort owners, the PO Group, don't want you to see. Each day a barge takes the resorts rubbish and dumps it directly onto the Reef. And what's worse, the have a permit from the Federal Government to do so.

UNIDENTIFIED: They're dumping half a tonne of food scraps a night, into the sea. We understand that some plastics are contained in that foodstuff, by accident, but these accidents are bound to happen; so there's plastic, non-biodegradable matter in there as well.

JANE HANSEN: It's a practice that's gone on for years, and despite the fact that the Heron Island permit only allows biodegradable scraps to be dumped, conservationists say it's throwing the delicate ecosystem into turmoil.

UNIDENTIFIED: The biodegradable foodstuff is eaten by the Silver Gulls, which have increased enormously in number and, as a result, those Silver Gulls are preying on the baby Terns and the Tern eggs; so, it's completely upset that natural balance out here.

JANE HANSEN: Very little research has been done on the effects of the Silver Gull on other forms of wildlife in the area, but conservationists agree, their main concern is the effect the dumping has on the Reef itself.

UNIDENTIFIED: The other threats out here have not been measured. They haven't been monitored. But elsewhere, it's been clearly shown that if you increase nutrient levels in a coral reef environment, that will impact on the coral and start to actually destroy the coral.

JANE HANSEN: Heron Island is the only resort on the Reef that's allowed to dump. All other resorts transport their waste back to the mainland to be disposed of properly.

Dr Ian Lorne(?) from the Heron Island Research Station does the same, and agrees the PO Group should follow suit.

IAN LORNE: The public will perceive the park as not being managed properly if dumping continues. If a way could be found to take that garbage to the mainland, I think that it would be worthwhile for all concerned.

JANE HANSEN: PO declined an offer of interview on the subject, but in a statement issued to us today, they claimed: `In the conditions of the permit is the requirement of a monitoring program to determine any impact is acceptable to the Department of Environment'.

UNIDENTIFIED: The documentation has already been done. There's no need for monitoring further damage. What needs to be done is the Island to stop the dumping.

JANE HANSEN: If dumping continues, what's the fate of the Island?

UNIDENTIFIED: Well, it's obvious that Heron Island will become known as the `Bondi of the Barrier Reef'.

DERRYN HINCH: How come, Senator Richardson? How come every other island carts its rubbish back to the mainland, but PO on Heron, they don't have to.