Dredging the Reef to export coal

I try not to spend too much time on politically divisive issues here on Green Path but some are just too close to me, for one reason or another, to pass over in silence. GBRMPA’s recent decision to allow dumping of dredge spoil in Great Barrier Reef waters is one such.

Like many others I saw it as a betrayal of all that GBRMPA is meant to stand for. The very first sentence of the Authority’s self-description is, “The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is responsible for managing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park so it’s protected for the future.”  Similarly, the “Chairman’s message” on the site begins, “Our fundamental obligation is to protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the World Heritage Area. We do this by striving to ensure all human uses of the Park are ecologically sustainable and that the ecosystem’s natural functions, especially resilience, are maintained,” and it ends, “Key issues for the Reef now are the effects of climate change and declining water quality, commercial and recreational fishing pressures, ports and shipping [my emphasis] and coastal development. Our challenge is to assess, advise on, and implement policies to ensure the cumulative effects of all these issues are not leading towards a long-term decline in the environmental quality of the Great Barrier Reef.”

Accordingly, we should all be able to expect GBRMPA to do everything it can to protect the Reef and feel entitled to some level of disappointment when it fails.

But it was more personal than that for me, since I signed up as a volunteer at Reef HQ Aquarium several years ago, and the Aquarium is not just a tourist destination but the educational outreach facility of GBRMPA:

As the National Reef Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Reef HQ Aquarium will open your eyes to an amazing world filled with thousands of charismatic marine creatures. … Reef HQ Aquarium was the vision of Dr Graeme Kelleher, a former chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). Dr Kelleher’s objective was to create the Great Barrier Reef on land, making the reef accessible and affordable while at the same time spreading the reef conservation message …”

Stepping down in protest

When GBRMPA gave the go-ahead for the dredging I saw no alternative but to resign from the volunteers’ programme. I gave my reasons in a letter addressed to the volunteers’ manager (with whom I have never had a disagreement) and cc’ed to senior management at Reef HQ and GBRMPA. It outlined the specific issues as clearly as I could manage and I see no reason why I shouldn’t cc it to the world, so here it is:

Dear J-,

I began working with Reef HQ as a way of doing my little bit to help the environment and I like to think that in my four and a half years I have made good use of my time, informing volunteers and, indirectly, the public about Reef science and the environment.

Over the last six months I have gradually become more and more concerned that GBRMPA was losing its integrity under pressure from the Abbott government. The weakening of guidelines on new port developments in October last year disappointed me and the associated allegations of corruption and conflict of interest at Board level worried me.

Then, in mid December, Greg Hunt approved the Abbot Point port expansion but set up GBRMPA to take some of the political heat by making his approval conditional on GBRMPA’s approval of the dredge spoil dumping.

At that time, we in Reef HQ were told very firmly that while we were wearing the uniform shirt we were to repeat the official line on Abbot Point and related matters. That also concerned me, since I do not believe that anyone should be asked to lie, or consent to being gagged, to cover up awkward truths.

GBRMPA has now given Hunt everything he so clearly wanted.

I realise that its terms of reference may have been extremely narrow, but at some point someone has to take a stand. If the terms of reference did not allow GBRMPA to address the real issues, GBRMPA should have made that abundantly clear to everyone, even while following good scientific practice and answering the question as given.

And what are the real issues? If the Abbot Point expansion goes ahead (as now looks all too likely), annual CO2 emissions from the Galilee Basin coal may be nearly twice Australia’s current total emissions, accelerating the climate change which is already destroying the Reef and the rest of the environment. The immediate impact on the Reef is comparatively (but only comparatively) trivial: run-off from the dredging and the port operations, and a constant stream of coal freighters through Reef waters. The dredging itself is the least of the problems and always was.

GBRMPA could have stopped all this, or at least made it clear that it opposed it. Instead, Russell Reichelt merely said, according to the ABC (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-31/abbott-point-conditions/5231484), that the organisation was not pressured to approve the proposal and that the decision was based on relevant scientific data. “We do it quite dispassionately on the effects on the reef and we avoid being drawn into some of these misconceptions that I think do drive a lot of the public opinion,” he said.

I simply cannot continue to work within an organisation which is willing to trample logic, common sense and its own core responsibilities to whitewash such a disastrous decision.

I could say more and I will, but not here. I will take my skills, my knowledge and my undiminished passion for the environment to groups which are genuinely committed to minimising and mitigating damage to the environment and are not fatally compromised by GBRMPA’s submission to a rabidly anti-environment government.

That was submitted just over two weeks ago and I have seen nothing in the news since then to make me think my decision was unjustified.

On the other hand, I have seen the news that GetUp! is mounting a legal challenge to GBRMPA’s decision and I will support that here and now by commending their fighting fund page to my readers.

P.S. The Townsville branch of Wildlife Qld has just added an excellent post to its blog, sorting out the legal actions in progress to defend the Reef from this attack and others. It includes links to all the organisations involved, making it easy for readers to add their efforts to the campaign.

9 thoughts on “Dredging the Reef to export coal”

  1. What an excellent letter and good onya for writing and sending and sharing it and what a bitterly disappointing action on the part of GBRMPA. Almost unbelievable.

  2. I share your deep disappointment with GBRMPA. I know the pressure (explicit) to repeat the official line while wearing that uniform shirt, and the implicit pressure to believe the official line, to see only nice fresh whitewash and blue sky. At the while, we watch the GBR and World Heritage Area suffering from ever less effective protection. Malcolm thank you for your clear thinking, clear writing and most of all for maintaining your integrity under pressure.

  3. A recent Background Briefing from the ABC, online at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2014-03-09/5300560, makes some important points. It seems that the mine developments which drove the plan to expand Abbot Point are themselves uneconomic at this stage: “Late last year, in a move that went largely unreported here in Australia, Adani’s Indian house broker, Morgan Stanley, reported that Adani had no intention of developing its Carmichael mine until the coal price improved. Nonetheless, both Adani and GVK Hancock are pressing ahead at Abbot Point. If everything goes ahead, they’ll be paying North Queensland Bulk Ports (NQBP) to dredge three million cubic metres off the sea floor at Abbot Bay, which will then be dumped into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. NQBP spokesperson, Mary Steele, says Adani and GVK will decide when that dredging begins, but that it probably won’t be before 2016.”

    That’s all to the good, as far as I’m concerned, since the coal will stay in the ground at least a few more years. By 2016 there may be more reasons not to go ahead, too. Let’s hope so.

    1. Thanks, Pen. It seemed the best thing to do at the time (and still feels that way) and I’ve had lots of positive feedback about it, like yours, and especially from other Reef HQ volunteers. Some of them considered similar action, while many choose to continue working for change within the organisation, which of course is fine too.

  4. The latest news from GBRMPA, as of early October, is of an exodus of senior staff. An ABC Lateline report is headed, “The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority whose job is to protect Australia’s most stunning and iconic natural wonder has had its budget cut and is slashing 17 staff including five senior directors,” and it reveals a grave loss of organisational strength and expertise. The full report is here: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2014/s4101591.htm

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