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Thursday, 6 October 1983
Page: 1464

Mr MILTON(4.03) —I have much pleasure in supporting the appropriation of $153m for the Department of Home Affairs and Environment which has been made for 1983-84. The increase of $20 1/2m over the 1982-83 expenditure, a 15 1/2 per cent rise in the allocation, is an indication of the deep commitment which the Federal Labor Government has to the preservation and conservation of the natural and built environment. It is particularly pleasing to note the large increase which has been made in the grants and contributions to conservation organisations and historical societies.

In a recent fact finding tour of north Queensland and the Northern Territory the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation, of which I am Chairman, had the opportunity to talk to a number of conservation organisations and was made fully aware of the considerable funding problems which those organisations were experiencing. It is particularly difficult to attract funds on a dollar for dollar basis, as is frequently required by government, for voluntary organisations in the more sparsely populated areas of northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. Governments at both the State and Federal level should be made aware that voluntary organisations in such areas often have pressing environmental problems facing them but do not have large metropolitan populations to sustain funding on a dollar for dollar basis. Governments must recognise the need to provide a bigger proportion of government funding for voluntary organisations based in cities such as Townsville, Cairns and Darwin.

It was drawn to my attention that the present matching grant formula means that conservation groups are heavily involved in fund raising efforts rather than carrying out their most important function of protecting the environment. I know that the Minister for Home Affairs and Environment (Mr Cohen) is aware of this problem and the increase of over $3m to $20,509,000 is, to an important extent, a recognition of the difficulties faced by such groups. It was, I regret to say, particularly disturbing to meet with one historical society which had suffered a withdrawal of its funds in one year because it had made a recommendation to government which was not in line with that Government's views on a particular conservation issue. I think that such conduct from a government towards an independent voluntary organisation is reprehensible. The only reason I have not named the government concerned is the fatal consequences it could have for the valuable work and continued existence of the organisation concerned.

I turn to the increase of a little over $1m to $3,665,000 in the allocation for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. I am most gratified to note the strong support for the Authority which is represented by the increase. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation recently toured the Great Barrier Reef. All the members of the Committee were most impressed by the dedication and professional and administrative efficiency displayed by all the officers and rangers of the Authority. We were particularly interested in the joint Federal-State management of this important and valuable world heritage area. It was clear that a close working relationship had developed between the officers of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and those of the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service. The administrative arrangements by which the Authority develops broad policy and the Queensland Parks Service undertakes the day to day management appeared to be working most effectively and enjoyed the full support of the Premier of Queensland. In my view, the administration of the world heritage areas of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory and the national parks of South West Tasmania could be modelled on a similar Federal-State relationship. Such a model could ensure the permanent protection of world heritage areas from the avarice of the extractive industries and their supporters.

At this point I mention my concern on hearing that the condition of the Queensland rainforests has reached a critical level. I advocate that research be directed, perhaps by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, towards the development of systems for logging outside rainforest areas, such as the rehabilitation of old farm sites by the planting of rainforest species. Pressure needs to be exerted on the Queensland Forestry Commission to establish native plantations and to reafforest hillsides which could be a worthwhile job creation project. The national tree program could be directed towards the rehabilitation of degraded hillsides in the region.

The funding support for the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service has been increased by $1,800,000 to $5,948,000 which, again, is an important increase for a service which impressed me on my visit to Kakadu National Park, with the determined and professional approach of the National Park's officers and rangers towards preserving Kakadu for the enjoyment of present and future generations. There is no doubt that the whole area has an enormous potential as a tourist attraction. With improvements in roads, access, camping and other accommodation facilities there is no reason why the park could not provide a valuable resort area for visitors. At the same time, the natural beauty of the Alligator Rivers region would be preserved. It must be remembered, of course, that a significant part of the Park is leased to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service by the traditional Aboriginal owners and their interests must be balanced against the interests of park management. It must be recorded that the Northern Territory Government would like to control Kakadu National Park completely. However, it was pleasing to note that a co-operative attitude was developing between the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory and the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service. That co-operation was particularly noted between the rangers on the ground.

One problem has been the high level of radioactivity which has been found to be present in mussels in the area. Following a request from the Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs and Environment advised:

Preliminary and very recent results indicate that mussels in the Region contain high levels of radium, and also high levels of other radioactive isotopes.

The Supervising Scientist has brought these observations to the attention of the appropriate Northern Territory health authorities for consideration of the need for action to alert the public of any possible health hazard.

On the question of origin, the present research has demonstrated that high radium levels exist in mussels from sites widespread in the Region including areas 20 km upstream from Ranger and quite unaffected by mining. Analysis also shows that one abundant radioactive radium isotope found in mussels is not due to the radioactive decay of uranium but of thorium, an element not found in significant quantity in the Ranger orebody. For these reasons the preliminary conclusion is that the current high levels of radium in mussels are a natural characteristic of the Region and unlikely to be associated with uranium mining.

Another problem which was raised with the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service was the report of seepage from the radioactive tailings dam into the groundwater system at the Ranger uranium mine. Again I quote the letter from the Secretary to the Department:

On the question of seepage from the Ranger tailings dam the Supervising Scientist has advised that in June 1982 Ranger Uranium Mines informed the Northern Territory authorities and the the Coordinating Committee for the Alligator Rivers Region of rising groundwater pressure in monitoring bore-holes adjacent to the north wall of the tailings dam. The dam is designed to contain the contaminated waste from the treatment plant at the Ranger mine.

Investigations subsequently carried out by the Northern Territory Supervising Authorities, Ranger Uranium Mines and its engineering consultants, and the Supervising Scientist supported by the Department of Housing and Construction and the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation have confirmed the existence of a rock layer of higher than desirable permeability extending under the foundations of part of the north wall of the dam.

The existence of this aquifer has resulted in increased ground-water pressure below the dam wall, suggesting some degree of a permeable connection to the head of the retained water in the dam. However, there is no evidence yet of significant contamination of water in the aquifer. Since June 1982 the situation has been monitored very closely by the Northern Territory authorities and the Supervising Scientist.

One thing which is very clear from the investigations conducted by the Supervising Scientist is that the operation of uranium mining is quite incompatible with the preservation and conservation of national parks. In this respect it is particularly welcome that the Jabiluka and Koongarra uranium mines , the mining operations of which could have caused irreparable harm to the world heritage area, are not to go ahead as a result of the implementation of the Federal Australian Labor Party's anti-uranium policy.

One regret that I have is that the Minister was unable to persuade the Cabinet that the creation of an Australian coastal management council was an urgent priority. The Cabinet had obviously taken the view that the increase in funding for environment and conservation matters was very generous at a time of economic stringency and that funds for an entirely new council were just not available. However, I am heartened by the response of the Acting Minister for Home Affairs and Environment (Mr Barry Jones) to my question of yesterday, as he has indicated that coastal management has been identified as a project high on the list for consideration in 1984-85. In this respect, the people of the Gold Coast should be aware of the waste of public money resulting from the decision of their local State member, Mr Russ Hinze, on the building of groynes to prevent beach erosion. Having inspected the groynes, it is clear to me that thousands of dollars have been wasted, as all that the groynes have caused is the transfer of erosion problems from one portion of the beach to another. I congratulate the Minister for Home Affairs and Environment on his advocacy of conservation issues and the consequential large increases in the funding for his Department.