Abbot Point: A line in the sand

2013-04-24 04.49.50 am

NICK CATER

Published in The Australian, February 4, 2014

A NON SEQUITUR is a figure of speech that signals when an environmental activist has lost the argument.

“Would we throw three million cubic metres of rubbish around the foot of the Sydney Opera House?” asks Greenpeace’s Louise Matthiesson in an article on the ABC’s The Drum website.

Clearly Matthiesson has not had the pleasure of wading knee-deep through detritus on Bennelong Point at first light on New Year’s Day or she would know the answer to her question.

Experience tells us, however, that Matthiesson is not trying to elicit facts, but to avoid them.

Her claim that Environment Minister Greg Hunt has approved “a coal-driving, coal-shipping superhighway” through the Great Barrier Reef has a ring of implausibility.

Indeed, upon examination, the story is somewhat less rip-roaring. After 16 environmental inquiries North Queensland Ports Authority has been given permission to increase capacity at Abbot Point to export coal from the Galilee Basin.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has approved the dredging of three million tonnes of sand and will allow it to be deposited 25km northeast, 40m below the surface. The deposit will be spread over 40ha of silty seabed, which amounts to 0.0001 per cent of the entire marine park.

Nevertheless, Friday’s announcement sent the catastrophists berserk.

“The Abbott government is hell-bent on turning Australia into a reckless charco-state,” wrote Alexander White in The Guardian.

“Coal versus coral,” proclaimed The Sydney Morning Herald’s front page on Saturday.

In a press release with a picture that implied that it was a bad day for pandas, the World Wildlife Fund accused the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority of “environmental vandalism”.

“Out-dated practices like dumping dredge spoil in reef waters must stop now,” it declared.

Dredge spoil – or sand, as we used to call it – is the stuff we put in children’s play pits. It has never been considered a threat to the reef in itself.

Two years ago, a comprehensive study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science concluded that storm damage had caused 48 per cent of the damage to the reef, 10 per cent was due to bleaching, and the crown of thorns starfish was responsible for the rest.

The sand on the seabed at Abbot Point is well within international limits for heavy metals and other contaminants as established by the London Convention and the Commonwealth Sea Dumping Act. Indeed it is considered clean enough to replenish beaches if there were any in the vicinity that needed bulking up.

The relocation of sand will be restricted to the period between March and June to protect the growth of seagrass in which dugongs like to wallow. Every imaginable precaution will be taken to avoid inconveniencing the green and flatback turtles, dolphins, leopard sharks and olive-headed sea snakes.

Depositing the sand offshore will avoid any disturbance to the Caley Valley wetlands close to the port. Naturally occurring acid sulphate soils can be kept moist to avoid the chemical reaction that would occur if they were deposited on land.

The sediment that is damaging the reef is the nine million tonnes or so a year washed down from the Burdekin and Don catchments containing residual herbicides, pesticides and nutrients.

North Queensland Bulk Ports will be required to offset the sand dredged from Abbot Point by funding schemes to reduce the amount of contaminated fine sediment entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.

It means the waters lapping the reef are likely to be purer once the development is complete than they are now. The environmental movement stubbornly refuses to recognise these measures, let alone enter into partnership with government and industry in an attempt to achieve even better agreements.

It remains locked in the thinking of the early 1970s, insisting that there can be no accommodation between industry and nature.

In the past 40 years countless billions of dollars have been directed into environmental science. Our knowledge of the impact of human activity on the environment and the mitigation techniques that can be employed has improved vastly.

Paradoxically, however, the environmental movement is seeking to restrict even further the limits beyond which developers cannot venture.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority was charged by Malcolm Fraser’s government with responsibility to set reasonable limits for human activity within its various zones. Its chief purpose was to stop Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government issuing permits for drilling and coral mining.

It was never intended that mankind should be excluded altogether from an area larger than Victoria and Tasmania. Yet those are the rules the environmental movement now seeks to enforce.

In the end, this is not an argument about sand or coral. It is a campaign about coal, with Abbot Point caught in a proxy war between mainstream Australia and the eco-fundamentalists who see the extraction of fossil fuels as akin to murder.

Their rhetoric may be aimed at the Coalition government, but the previous federal Labor government was no less committed to the development of the Galilee Basin and other untapped reserves in Queensland.

To hear the counter argument made, one has to venture beyond the platforms of the major parties to the Greens or the websites run by the ABC. In a passionate opinion piece published recently, the ABC’s online environment editor, Sara Phillips, argues that the downstream effects of the coal passing through Abbot Point should have been included in the environmental impact study.

“Sure the port is only the transit lounge for coal destined for faraway power stations, but it is a key link in the chain,” she writes. “The intertwining of the operations of this enlarged port and climate change are impossible to ignore.

“Coral bleaching may seem unrelated to the departure of a shipload of coal heading to China, but the connection is undeniable.”

Sentiments such as these cannot be appeased. It makes little difference if the dredged sand is dumped in a marine park, as landfill or on the Environment Minister’s house.

The aim is not to stop the Abbot Point expansion; it is to shut the whole damn thing down.