New FOI documents show expert advice to not dredge and dump on the Reef was ignored

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Feature Story - 3 March, 2014
NEWSFLASH: A man is strongly advised by his doctor to give up smoking, or cause irreversible damage to his health. After hearing the news, he meanders down to his corner shop and buys a pack of 25s.

This sad little story echoes what the Federal government did last December when giving the go-ahead to dredging and dumping in the Great Barrier Reef. It did so despite strong, expert advice from the independent Authority charged with protecting the Reef that it was dangerous to the Reef’s health.

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Newly released internal documents clearly show that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority repeatedly advised the Environment Department to reject the controversial dredging and dumping proposal, to allow expansion of the Abbot Point coal port, because of the current health of the Reef and damage it would cause.

Greenpeace’s Investigations Unit has closely scrutinised a stack of briefing notes, draft approval documents and records of meetings released under Freedom of Information laws.

What we found is that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority:

  • was preparing to refuse permits to dump in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park because it considered the consequences of dredging were unknown and viable alternatives existed to dredging on the proposed scale
  • assessed the water quality offset plan put forward to the Environment Minister as ‘unrealistic’ and ‘unachievable’
  • considered dumping at sea would be inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under international treaties on the prevention of marine pollution.

One very significant document prepared by GBRMPA notes:

“The proposal to dredge and dispose of up to 1.6 million cubic metres of sediment per year … has the potential to cause long-term irreversible harm to areas of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park … in particular seagrass meadows and nearby coral reefs…”

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“The information… provided by the proponent does not adequately address the potential for further impacts to these recovering habitats. The dredge plume modelling provided by the proponent… has been found to be of limited value, deficient and unreliable.”

Since the news broke, the Minister for the Environment Mr Greg Hunt and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority have been desperately attempting to explain away why, at the end of the day, they gave the tick to this damaging development.

Both the Minister and the GBRMPA are clinging to the political life raft so often employed when projects are approved which risk harming the environment – a plea to not worry because ‘strict conditions’ will protect the Reef.

Minister Hunt, facing pressure from the community, looming court action and an economic environment in which companies like Lend Lease and BHP Bulletin are publicly withdrawing from risky coal projects, is keen on blaming past Labor governments.

GBRMPA is brushing off the significance of the FOI documents saying they were ‘preliminary working drafts’, a sidestep which is blatantly disingenuous.

How does this explain minutes of a meeting between the Environment Department and GBRMPA in June 2013 to discuss the dredging application which GBRMPA’s Chairman Dr Russell Reichelt attended?

The minutes show GBRMPA advised the Department of the Environment that 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. Two 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”.

The public deserves a clear explanation as to why the Minister and his department rejected GBRMPA expert advice.

What other interests was the Minister considering which got in the way of what should be his priority - the health of this World Heritage jewel?

The smoker who continues to smoke despite medical advice they should stop is a tragic figure, but ultimately they are responsible for their health.

The difference here is that the Great Barrier Reef is not itself able to reject or accept the rapid industrialisation that is making it sick.

This power rests with the Minister for the Environment as the Reef’s guardian.

Right now it appears Minister Hunt is willing to accept illness and death of the Reef as his charge’s unhappy future.

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