OPINION: Things worse than Obama thought for our reef

Felicity Wishart, The Northern Star, 3rd Decemeber 2014

As Obama identified, the reef’s future is a debate of international significance. Australian politicians know this, hence their churlish and defensive response that President Obama was not fully briefed on all the things they’ve been doing.

It’s probably true. In the last few weeks, Queensland has offered Indian coal mining giant Adani a subsidy for its mine-to-port rail line with yet-to-be raised taxpayer funds, thumbed its nose at international concern over mega-port development and told miners they no longer need licences to use gigalitres of groundwater.

The decision to create a slush fund for a mining billionaire’s train line, announced in the midst of the G20 excitement, is staggering. Economically, it’s madness. Adani needs a few billion for the rail line to connect the massive coal mine to the Abbot Point port expansion on the Great Barrier Reef coast.

The Abbot Point expansion has been rejected by many of the world’s biggest banks. Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Citibank and Goldman Sachs have all declined the investment “opportunity” to dredge and dump in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

But, belying their ideology of ‘letting the market decide’, the Queensland government has decided it will stump up hundreds of millions of dollars; seemingly to keep Adani keen.

READ MORE: Qld to help build rail line for Galilee Basin coal miners

Instead of investing in actions to protect the Great Barrier Reef and the $6 billion industry that relies on it, the State Government is investing in its continued decline.

Noting Queensland’s significant debt, where will these funds come from? Privatisation of state assets. And top of the list is the state-owned ports. Ports which the Queensland government is pushing to expand.

The driver for this investment is the hope that mines in the yet to be exploited Galilee coal basin will be a life raft for the Queensland economy. But when financial institutions raise serious concerns about the viability of these mines the life raft seems to be more of a colander.

To add to this madness, miners are now able to access unlimited groundwater without licences. In a new bill which passed the Queensland Parliament last week, the Newman government removed the legal requirement to adhere to ‘ecologically sustainable development’ in the use of groundwater.

READ MORE: Water bill passed despite reef and farming concerns

This decision was so rushed and ill-conceived that interests as diverse as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Resources Council expressed serious concerns.

Australia’s water resources are precious, limited and critical for any healthy natural system. Fresh water flows, above and below ground, are fundamental to the reef’s health. Large amounts of unregulated water extraction from reef catchments is yet another threat to the reef, already suffering from poor water quality, which in turn exacerbates crown of thorns starfish outbreaks.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the government also introduced new Ports legislation that fails to limit the current list of port expansions to be built on the Great Barrier Reef’s coastline.

Despite the rhetoric, this legislation will do nothing to stop the six new and expanded port proposals that stretch from Gladstone to Cape York Peninsula; and that will require further dredging and continued dumping of sediment in the Reef’s waters from those newly dug ports every time they get filled up after a cyclone or flood.

So much for heeding the concerns of the World Heritage Committee to limit port growth.

The government is pressing ahead to expand the Abbot Point port at a reckless pace, determined to commence works straight after Christmas, in the middle of the wet season. This race to the starting line puts us at grave risk of repeating the problems witnessed in Gladstone Harbour on the Reef’s doorstep where an environmental disaster unfolded in 2012.

There, the combination of fast tracked approvals, poor regulation, dredging of acid soils and spoil from the dredging for three new LNG plants and a coal terminal dumped behind a poorly constructed seawall that leaked was a toxic combination.

Gladstone Harbour experienced an unprecedented disaster: contaminated turtles, dead dugongs, sick fish, and the collapse of the fishing industry.

The Newman government’s response? They sought, unsuccessfully, to excise Gladstone Harbour from the World Heritage Area. Premier Newman said it was an industrial harbour and it should not be seen as part of the world’s greatest coral reef system. The southern gateway to Heron Island and the reef was to be lopped off like a wart.

More recently the Federal Government has felt the heat. After months of prevaricating Minister Hunt has agreed to ban dumping of capital (i.e. new project) dredge spoil in the marine park. This announcement was made at the World Parks Congress, just two days after the ALP made a similar though broader commitment to ban capital dredge dumping in all the reef’s waters.

It’s a start. But dumping in coastal areas like the stunning and internationally important Caley Valley Wetlands is not acceptable. It ignores that wetlands are the Reef’s natural filters and fish nurseries and a haven for shore birds.

And there are a few other problems that need to be addressed: like the other port expansions, the millions of tonnes of further dredging and dumping of spoil from maintenance dredging yet to come, and huge increases in reef shipping not to mention climate change driving water acidification, coral bleaching and storms that pile further pressure on the Reef.

So, our governments were concerned that President Obama was not fully aware of what they are doing to ‘protect’ the reef.

Imagine what he might have said if he was.