Archive for November 21st, 2012

Setting the record straight on the Great Barrier Reef

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The Federal Environment Minister recently criticised GetUp’s latest effort in the ongoing campaing to protect the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Before we address Minister Burke’s points one by one, it is important we cover go over the background of this issue.

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is Australia’s most iconic natural asset and a major long-term economic driver. It generates up to $5 billion dollars in tourism revenue and supporting over 60,000 jobs[1]. Yet, for the second time in recent history, it’s threatened by the fossil fuel industry. Over the last year, more than 100,000 GetUp members have been taken action to help protect the area from this latest threat – but it is our latest advertising campaign focused on CSG and coal developments on Curtis Island and Gladstone Harbour which has finally got the attention of Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke.

In the mid-1970s a major political stoush broke out between the Federal Whitlam Government and Queensland Bjelke-Petersen Government. With the price of oil booming Jo Bjelke-Petersen wanted to open the Great Barrier Reef up for the exploitation of gas and oil. Gough Whitlam fought him and created the Great Barrier Reef marine park and which then led, in 1981 to the Reef being listed as World Heritage Site. This listing in effect gave responsibility to the Federal Government to ensure the “effective and active measures are taken for the protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory”[2]. Since then, Australia’s management of the World Heritage site has largely been seen as an example of best practice.

That’s until Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke approved four major coal seam gas-processing plants on Curtis Island within the World Heritage Area — including the largest dredging operation ever undertaken in Australia, and leading to the dumping of millions of cubic metres of dredge spoil at sea. Not long after the dredging started, locals began to notice diseases and deformities appearing in marine life[3]. There were even reports of fishermen getting sick after coming into contact with the Harbour water. It is still not entirely clear how far the impact of the dredging and dumping of spoils may spread. Research conducted by James Cook University for the Gladstone Fishing Fund observed high turbidity levels caused by the dredging 34 kilometres from where the dredging was occurring[4], and diseases and deformities have been reported in a wide range of marine species[5].

UNESCO, the UN body in charge of protecting world heritage sites, was greatly alarmed by these developments and at their annual meeting last year the World Heritage Commission expressed their ‘extreme concern’ and sent a team of scientists to investigate. Over 10,000 GetUp members – from scientists and tourism operators to people who want the Reef protected for future generations – made detailed submissions to UNESCO’s investigative team. Members of the GetUp team recently spent time in Gladstone, meeting with locals he told us of their first-hand experience in seeing the damage the dredging has cause to the harbour. These concerns are backed by a number of scientists, including Dr Matt Landos, who features in GetUp’s advertising campaign.

Dr Matt Landos, director of Future Fisheries Veterinary Service, is as an expert in aquatic animal health with 12 years experience including 5 years as the NSW Government’s fish veterinarian and is a leading veterinarian supporting aquaculture businesses around Australia. His comments are based on evidence he has seen from the impacts on marine life in Gladstone Harbour. Dr. Landos’ research suggests that the immune systems of harbour animals are being overwhelmed by multiple stressors, like noise, turbidity and mixtures of heavy metals from the dredging operations[6].

Minister Burke has claimed that the sickness in fish and fishermen are due to freshwater entering Gladstone Harbour following floods. In response, water quality expert from James Cook University Associate Professor Jon Brodie has said[7]:

“Well, they have no evidence of that at all, that’s all I can say. There was a major flood. We had major floods in Queensland last year all along the coast. True, some barramundi fell over Awoonga dam and that would have damaged them and stressed them a bit. Does that explain why crabs have diseases? Why shrimp have diseases? Why lobsters have diseases? Why sharks have diseases? Why rays have diseases? And other fish besides barramundi? I don’t think so.”

Furthermore, if freshwater was the cause of the fish diseases then the problem would be occurring everywhere as freshwater plumes occur in all estuaries from time to time. However, there is evidence that suggests other causes driven by the dredging of the harbour development project are highly likely to be the cause. The biggest change to the Gladstone Harbour Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is the western basin dredging and disposal project.

UNESCO presented their report to the Wold Heritage Commission meeting in St Petersburg and called for an independent scientific review into developments and dredging in Gladstone and concluded that the developments were damaging the World Heritage Site. In UNESCO’s own words[8]:

“The mission considers that developments and operations in Gladstone Harbour and on Curtis Island impact on the outstanding universal value (OUV) of the property. An independent review of the environmental concerns of the developments in Gladstone Harbour and on Curtis Island is essential and recommendations from the review need to propose measures that will ensure future management, development and operations in the harbour and its surroundings are consistent with the high standards for conservation of the Outstanding Universal Value as applied in other parts of the property. Resulting recommendations and measures need to have the confidence of stakeholders involved and be in place prior to consenting further developments. The mission also notes that developments on Curtis Island are not consistent with the leading industry commitment to not develop oil and gas resources in natural World Heritage properties.”

GetUp’s advertising campaign backs in calls by the World Heritage Commission, UNESCO, scientists and locals for there to be an independent review into coal and coal seam gas developments in the World Heritage Area. As Colin Hunt, Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland puts it, the review needs to be independent “given the massive economic and tax benefits to both state and Commonwealth governments of LNG developments, there is a conflict of interest when these same governments make environmental assessments.”[9].

We have previously sought a reply from Minister Burke’s office to confirm whether the Government will deliver this review. We have expressed to Mr. Burke that GetUp would welcome and congratulate such a review, and that we will withdraw our advertising campaign if an adequate review is delivered.

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Below are Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke’s criticisms of this ad featuring Dr Matt Landos, and our responses.

Minister Burke: “The images of the marine life appear to be taken within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, but none of the heavy industry images are taken within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.”

The images used show some of the marine life which can be found in Gladstone Harbour, near Curtis and Facing Island, and the Great Barrier Reef marine enviroment where impacts from dregding and the dumping of dredge spoils is occuring. The impacts from dredging are not just limited to the site of the dredging itself.

Minister Burke: “The images of industry appear to be taken from Gladstone Harbour which has been an industrial port containing both a coal loader and an aluminium smelter for nearly 50 years.

That is exactly why we used that footage. The history of the area and the toxic legacy it has left is why caution is needed in dredging up toxins stored within sediments. The images also show the current impact from the construction of CSG processing plants on Curtis Island which were approved by Minister Burke.

The legacy of environmental damage in Gladstone Harbour should not mean new developments in the area are not properly managed and it should not mean industrial developments are allowed to damage the World Heritage Area.

Minister Burke: “the vet who provides commentary connects dredging to deaths of marine life – this is a view he has put previously but the vast majority of scientific advice concluded the main impacts on marine life in Gladstone were caused by a huge nutrient and sediment load which spilled into the harbour following the Queensland floods.”

There is virtually no evidence to suggest the fish diseases were caused by freshwater as the Minister suggests. However, if the Minister is so certain of this fact, why won’t he conduct an independent review as request by UNESCO and the World Heritage Commission?

Minister Burke: “the list of potential projects referred to are ones contained in a draft plan of the Newman Government, not the Federal Government and you don’t have to do much checking to know that Campbell Newman and I have very different views about protecting the reef.”

The Federal Government has a significant role to play in the management of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. This responsibility was hard fought for by previous Federal Governments. The projects listed will almost certainly come before the Federal Environment Minister for his decision on how they should be assessed, if at all, under the Enviornment Protection and Biodiverstiy Conservation Act given the fact those projects may impact on the World Heritage Area, threatened species and migratory species.

If you would like to view the ad and donate to the campaign please click here:

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21st November 2012

GetUp member stories: Paul’s shareholder activism at the Venture Minerals EGM

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In March this year I travelled to the Tarkine wilderness in North West Tasmania with GetUp members from across the country. As a Park Ranger I’m familiar with some of Australia’s most precious wild places. The Tarkine was breathtaking, the ancient rainforests are like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I felt really inspired to assist the campaign to save the Tarkine from the impacts of mining. I wanted the wonderful experience of being in the Tarkine to be able to be felt by future generations for years to come.

Paul Robb, second from right, with GetUp members (from left) Georgie, Rose and Tony, visiting the Tarkine earlier this year.

We were there because of contentious proposals to mine the area. One company, Venture Minerals wants to build three mines in the Tarkine.

Two of the mines are for iron ore and would only operate for 2 years, the other is for tin and would operate for around 8 years. The mines are being proposed in areas that:

- Have been recommend to be on the National Heritage List by the Australian Heritage Council.
- Were in the area previously covered by the National Heritage Listing, which expired late last year.
- Have been declared as having World Heritage values and recommend to be declared a World Heritage Area by Dr. Peter Hitchcock who was engaged to verify the values of the area as part of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Forests.

Two of the mines occur with the Meredith Range Regional Reserve, an area that was protected on the 27th of December 2000 by the Howard Government as part of the Regional Forest Agreement; and two of the mines occur within rainforest.

Last week I was privileged to be asked to represent GetUp by proxy at the Venture Minerals company AGM. I was there to help ensure that Venture’s shareholders are aware of why the mines they are proposing are not the right way forward for the company and would have a massive environmental impact.

The AGM was an interesting experience for me for a few reasons, including not used to being in a room full of expensive suits.I was a bit nervous as I stepped out of the lift on the 11th floor to be met by security guards who were stationed on the doors into the AGM, even though it was a small gathering in a small room.

The Chair of the Board was talking about mining the Tarkine as I entered and sat down, not knowing anyone in the room.

The Wilderness Society held a protest out the front of the venue and the coordinator of the Tarkine Coalition campaign, Scott Jordan, had just flown in from Tasmania for the AGM and asked a few questions of the Board. He asked whether shareholders had been fully informed of the proposed locations of the mines and the associated risks given the areas to be mined had previously received National Heritage listing and met World Heritage listing criteria. The Board said they were aware of all the risks including the expected public protest action. This fired up one old shareholder who told the Board to ignore the comments from Scott.

I asked the Board when had they informed shareholders of such risks and when was their Bankable Feasibility due to be released. The CEO said the Bankable feasibility study was completed recently. The night prior to the AGM I hadn’t seen it mentioned on their website- only a pre-feasibility study. The Chairman was not too keen to allow any more questions as it was obvious that tension was rising in the room between a shareholders. Sighs and sniggers were becoming increasingly louder.

It was a relatively short meeting and all the agenda items were passed with me holding up my proxy voting card, voting against all motions as directed by the shareholder I was representing, being GetUp. The Board members stared at me while I asked questions and voted against their motions. I couldn’t help but wonder whether they had ever been to the Tarkine or had any idea of the fate they were imposing on such an amazingly beautiful part of our country.

After the meeting the Chairman came over to shake my hand and thanked me for attending.

Paul Robb,
Western Australia

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21st November 2012