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Monday, 7 November 2011
Page: 8322


Senator WATERS (Queensland) (14:25): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Senator Conroy. Tonight's Four Corners looks at the threats to the Great Barrier Reef from coal and coal seam gas ports, including those in Gladstone harbour. The Gladstone environ­mental disaster has seen vast numbers of turtles, dugongs and fish die and a three-week suspension of fishing in the harbour—all after two million cubic metres of dredging has occurred of the 46 million that has been approved by the minister. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has expressed extreme concerns about the dredging and has said that it would have an unacceptable impact on marine life and the World Heritage area. The minister's response was to impose water quality conditions, but dredging has had to be suspended three times already when turbidity has gone off the charts in breach of those conditions. Last Friday levels of heavy metals also breached federal water quality guidelines. When will the federal government suspend its approval for this largest ever dredging in the World Heritage area and act to protect the Great Barrier Reef?

Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:27): I thank the senator for her question on this topic. As she has noted, a three-week temporary fishing banned was imposed in Gladstone harbour and it was lifted on 6 October. The ban was imposed by Fisheries Queensland while tests were cond­ucted to assess reports of an infection outbre­ak in barramundi and other fish species. Water quality analysis and fish testing have confirmed that fish in Gladstone harbour are not a food safety or human health issue. Health issues reported by commercial fishermen have been investi­gated. No links were found to the fish disease or to water quality. Water quality testing has shown little change other than seasonal variation in water quality since dredging began.

The Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities is continuing to ensure that the dredging is undertaken in accordance with the stringent conditions of approval and the approved environment management plans. Contingency measures under the approved plans may include suspension or variation of dredging operations. The latest test results on further marine life samples taken from Glad­stone have confirmed a parasitic flatworm as the cause of cloudy eyes in barramundi and found no parasitic, bacterial or fungal pathogens on either species tested so far.

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Waters is entitled to hear the answer.

Senator CONROY: Fisheries Queensland is continuing to conduct further fish sampling in the Gladstone area and Biosecurity Queensland will continue to test samples submitted. In addition, toxicology testing on current samples to examine fish tissue residues of heavy metals, agrichemi­cals and hydrocarbons is in progress, with the results expected by late November this year. The state government has established a scientific panel to oversee the investigation to provide independent scientific and health advice to the government. (Time expired)

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (14:29): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Thank you for that half answer, Minister. In June, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee also expressed extreme concern about the impacts of the LNG export facilities in Gladstone and said that they may be jeopardising the World Heritage status of the reef. They called for a strategic assessment of all coastal development. The federal government says that this will not happen for another two years and that it will take about three years to complete, but nothing—no approval or application—will be suspended in that time. Minister, what will be left to assess in five years time when there are already at least six major port developments planned or underway?

Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:30): The independent scientific and health advice will be provided by a panel that is chaired by Dr Ian Poiner, CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. The panel will include independent experts in the areas of water health, seafood safety, fish pathology and ecotoxins. Red skin discolouration and abrasions are being found in other species, including sharks, in the harbour but these discolourations are thought to be due to parasites.

Senator Waters: Mr President I rise on a point of order. My question related to what would be left for the minister to assess once the strategic assessment concludes in five years time—I am across the water quality data.

The PRESIDENT: The minister is answering the question. The minister has 26 seconds remaining.

Senator CONROY: The discolouration of the sharks is thought to be due to parasites, and samples have been taken by Fisheries Queensland and sent away for confirmation. When the turbidity trigger values associated with dredging have been exceeded, action has been taken in accordance with the approved water quality management plan. Throughout the Queensland east coast, a closed season applies to barramundi from midday 11 November to midday 1 February.

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (14:31): Mr President, I will persist with another supplementary question. UNESCO's World Heritage Committee rebuked the federal government for failing to notify it of the approvals for those LNG projects in Gladstone Harbour in advance. But it is not just Gladstone Harbour; there is a litany of new coal ports proposed up and down the reef which will entail millions and millions of cubic metres of dredging. Has the federal government notified UNESCO of the cumulative figures of dredging and offshore dumping up and down the coast in the World Heritage area, and if not why not?

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:32): I thought Cory was part of the coalition frontbench, but apparently not. I have no details on those particular issues. I will seek some information from Minister Burke and see if there is anything you would like to respond to.