Abbot Point approvals under the spotlight: FOI documents reveal flawed process

Feature Story - 11 March, 2014
Recently, we revealed that the Federal Government ignored advice by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to not dredge and dump on the Reef. Our Research and Investigations team look into how this dreadful mess happened.

Overview

The Queensland government owned North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation (NQBP) has plans to expand the Port of Abbot Point. If the expansion goes ahead, it will become the largest coal port in Australia. Up to 3 million cubic metres of seabed will need to be dredged to deepen the port, creating berths for up to 6 extra coal ships. NQBP has received approval for dredging this material and dumping it within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The project has received key approvals from Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt and from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).

Revelatory documents released under Freedom of Information legislation have cast a new light on these controversial approvals. They show that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) advised the Department of the Environment to reject dredging at Abbot Point and was prepared to refuse a permit for sea dumping in the Marine Park. Instead, both were approved raising serious questions about the Australian Government’s stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef.

Since the FOI documents were released the Environment Minister and the Chair of GBRMPA have tried hard to justify GBRMPA’s turnaround. Yet Greenpeace analysis, outlined below, shows that their claims do not hold water.

What is the approval process?

To go ahead, the dredging and dumping required three key approvals:

  • approval under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act for the overall project from the Department of the Environment; 
  • approval to operate a dump site in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (from GBRMPA);
  • a permit to dump dredged waste at sea in the Marine Park (also from GBRMPA).

The EPBC Act is Australia’s central piece of environmental legislation. It is designed to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places. As a result of this legislation the Department of the Environment has the power to approve or reject projects with a major environmental impact. Within the Great Barrier Reef, the GBRMPA advises the Department of the Environment on the assessment of these projects. The GBRMPA also regulates activities such as sea dumping that may impact upon the Reef.

Reef authority was ready to reject dumping

GBRMPA’s powers to control dumping stem from the Environmental Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981. This law enshrines Australia’s international commitments under the London Protocol (an international treaty on the prevention of marine pollution by dumping of wastes and other matter).

It requires precaution and the application of principles of least-harm to be central when assessing the environmental impacts of a proposed dumping action.

If there is uncertainty about the environmental consequences of an action, or viable alternatives to dumping exist, then a permit for dumping should not be given.

GBRMPA considered the consequences of proposed dredging and dumping were unknown (the offsets and dredge plume modelling were disputed) and that viable alternatives existed to dredging on the proposed scale. Clearly grounds for rejecting a sea dumping permit.

As such, GBRMPA’s own 74 page draft permit assessment, still active in August 2013, reveals that it was preparing to refuse to issue both a Marine Parks Permit and a Sea Dumping Permit.

The document states that granting a permit for sea dumping in the marine park where “appropriate opportunities exist to avoid this option, would be inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under the London Protocol and the Environmental Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981”.

Despite this, on the 31 January 2014, GBRMPA approved a Sea Dumping Permit: for the same activity, in the same location.

This raises serious questions about independence and veracity of the GBRMPA permit assessment process. So what had changed?

GBRMPA tries to explain away their turnaround

When the revelatory material was made public, GBRMPA reacted with a statement from its Chair Russell Reichelt asserting that “no political pressure was brought to bear [impacting on GBRMPA’s decisions]” and that “[a]ll of the documents released under this FOI are preliminary working drafts which were never submitted to the delegate, the senior manager responsible for GBRMPA’s decision, for consideration. As such they do not represent the views of the agency.”

This is not supported by available evidence. The delegate who approved the dumping permit, Mr Bruce Elliot, was copied into an email where the Department of the Environment was told of GBRMPA’s view that “most of the impacts can be avoided if the port is developed with a long term plan and extending trestles and the next best option is land disposal”. The message included a table effectively describing disposal in the marine park as not best practice and labelling it the least recommended option.

The reality is that throughout 2013 GBRMPA repeatedly advised the Department of the Environment to reject the proposal or force it to be modified.

GBRMPA viewed rejection of the 3 million cubic metres of dredging and dumping as a necessary precedent given the number of dredging projects planned and the Reef’s poor health. The Authority was prepared to send a strong signal that only best practice sustainable port development was good enough, believing that such a move would show the Federal Government and GBRMPA’s commitment to halting and reversing the decline in water quality in the Great Barrier Reef .

Clearly, the Department of the Environment was not prepared to accept these options. It even mooted offshore dumping of the material in the Coral Sea as a workaround .

As the EPBC decision deadline loomed, GBRMPA’s view was reiterated. On 24 June 2013, internal emails show it advised the Department of the Environment that “most of the impacts could be avoided if the port is developed with a long-term plan and extending trestles and the next best option is land disposal”.

The GBRMPA reinforced this by adding that the “proposed offset in the PER [Public Environmental Report] for water quality appears unrealistic” .

The advice fell on deaf ears. The Department of the Environment prepared a decision brief and recommendation report for the Minister. These recommended approval of the project without extended trestles and onshore disposal but with the water quality offsets and the dumping of 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil in the Reef.

The proposed decision brief states: “[t]he department considers that the development of this proposed offsets program should deliver a net benefit for water quality” . It informs the Minister that GBRMPA “has expressed concern about the uncertainties of achieving a net benefit outcome in the Abbot Bay Region”. This was a clear misrepresentation of GBRMPA’s actual position that the offset plan was unachievable .

With a looming federal election the newly appointed Labor Environment Minister Mark Butler did not approve the project. Instead, his Department issued the first in a series of delays that would ultimately kick the decision into the newly-elected Coalition Government’s court.

Finally, in December 2013 after yet another delay, the Coalition government approved the project. This final approval came with essentially the same offset requirements as had been on the table in July, with no clear costings or feasibility studies to counter GBRMPA’s view that the offset plan was unachievable and no additional information showing that alternatives were not possible.

So was the new Coalition Environment Minister Mr Greg Hunt correct to claim at the time of the approval that the project was “subject to the highest environmental standards and conditions”?

Greenpeace analysis shows that the FOI documents make clear GBRMPA did not consider the proposed conditions, which closely resemble those ultimately signed off on, were sufficiently strict to protect the Reef.

This means it is disingenuous for GBRMPA Chair Dr Reichelt to defend his decision to issue the dumping permits by claiming that these ‘strict’ conditions reassured him that giving the green light was appropriate.

To prove his case Dr Reichelt highlights a condition requiring NQPB to offset the amount of fine sediment released into the environment by 150 per cent.

Yet the FOI documents show that in June last year Dr Reichelt was physically present at a meeting where GBRMPA told the Department of the Environment it “did not consider it practical or feasible to develop offsets of the magnitude required” to produce a net environmental benefit from the project in its current form.

Minutes note that two possible ways forward were discussed: “[A]dopt a compromised option” (i.e. trestle extension with dredging of 500,000 m3 and land disposal)” or “[a]pprove the proposal with conditions which are effectively unachievable”.

Other FOI documents reveal that at this time the 150 per cent reduction target on the table as the centrepiece of an offset program was essentially identical to that approved by Minister Hunt in December 2013.

So how did such an offset regime go from effectively unachievable to a lynchpin of approval? A leading reef scientist Mr Jon Brodie certainly has his doubts about the integrity of the offsets plan and Dr Reichelt is yet to offer a convincing explanation.

Dr Reichelt also attempted last week to defend GBRMPA against allegations of a turnaround by claiming that the draft dumping permit assessment recommending refusal was conducted “before stringent conditions” such as the offsets package were put in place under the EPBC Act approval by Minister Hunt.

The FOI documents show otherwise. The permit refusal document provides clear evidence that GBRMPA was provided an opportunity to review EPBC documentation which included a Recommendations Report outlining an offset plan which is essential identical to that approved in December by Minister Hunt.

Who’s protecting the Reef?

When the decision to approve a sea dumping permit was made in January 2014, GBRMPA was under serious pressure. The month before the Environment Minister Greg Hunt, against GBRMPA’s earlier advice to his Department, had already approved the dredging project without minimisation of its scale or direct impacts.

For the GBRMPA to refuse a permit in the wake of this decision would have been tantamount to accusing the Environment Minster – to whom it answers - of making the wrong decision.

What is clear from these new documents is that despite making a clear case for the rejection of sea dumping at Abbot Point, GBRMPA instead issued a permit.

Greenpeace analysis shows that none of the explanations Minister Hunt or the Chair of GBRMPA has made, subsequent to the release of these FOI documents, for what things had changed to justify the approvals can be substantiated.

This raises major doubts about the approval process and more broadly, poses serious questions about how seriously the Federal Government takes its role of guardian of the Great Barrier Reef.

Greenpeace Research and Investigations Unit

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