Australian Greens – Additional Comments
The Australian Greens set up this inquiry because the Great Barrier Reef
is facing its gravest threat since scientific records began. The science is
telling us that the health of the Reef is in decline, and without immediate
action we will see drastic changes and the end of the Reef as we know it within
The latest threat of rapid industrialisation of the Great Barrier Reef
coastline, largely due to massive coal and gas port expansions, could be the
last straw. The biggest ever dredging, dumping and shipping program in the
Great Barrier Reef's history threatens its integrity directly and also
indirectly by facilitating fossil fuel burning to worsen climate change, and
will seriously reduce the Reef’s resilience.
The Reef is a wonder of the natural world, and a place of surpassing
beauty, but it is also a vital economic asset for Australia. It provides more
than 63,000 jobs and contributes $6 billion each year to the Australian
economy. Aside from this direct contribution, the Reef provides many other
‘ecosystem services’ such as protecting the Queensland coastline from dangerous
tropical storms, the value of which has not been calculated.
The Reef has lost 50% of its coral cover in 27 years.
The latest science in the recently released Outlook Report 2014 compiled
by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, states that the outlook for
the Reef is poor, and is deteriorating. The pressures the Reef faces are
climate change, poor water quality from land-based run-off, impacts from
coastal development including ports, and some remaining impacts from fishing.
All levels of government and all sectors of the community in Australia must act
to arrest this decline.
We welcome the Senate Committee’s report and recommendations, but they
fall sadly short of the action we so urgently must take if we want the Great
Barrier Reef to survive this century.
Ban dumping in the Reef
Dumping of port dredging spoil offshore in the Great Barrier Reef World
Heritage Area seriously threatens the health of marine life and corals
including by degrading water quality, mobilising legacy pollutants, including
heavy metals found in ports and harbours, and smothering flora and fauna.
While offshore dumping is meant to be a last resort option under our
current domestic laws, it is a frequent occurrence. There is inadequate
consideration of alternatives to offshore dumping and no independent cost
benefit analysis of alternatives is done by the regulators. They merely accept
the claims by proponents that it would be too expensive to dump dredge sludge
onshore. The fact that it is cheaper for the ports and big miners to dump
sludge into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, which makes it politically
attractive to the big parties, does not make it the right option for the Reef’s
health. The science is clear, dumping sludge in the Reef’s waters is damaging,
and this natural wonder of the world should not be a rubbish tip for the
financial convenience of the big miners.
The evidence is now overwhelmingly in favour of an immediate ban on
offshore dumping in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. As a step
towards that necessary outcome, we welcome the Committee’s recommendation for a
temporary moratorium on dumping until the work of the expert Dredge Panel is
complete, and the recommendation that the Minister should examine whether a cap
or a ban on dumping should be introduced. It is clear that such a ban is needed
The evidence received during the inquiry and expressed by internal and
former GBRMPA scientists justifies an immediate ban on dumping. Those views
have been expressed publicly on ABC’s 4 Corners program and internally in
documents obtained via freedom of information laws and under a Greens-initiated
Senate order for production of documents.
The Reef should not be a rubbish tip for dumping dredge sludge. No new
offshore dumping within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area should be
approved. As Professor Pandolfi of the Australian Coral Reef Society stated:
We are over the limit. Once you are over the limit, how can
you justify putting more on? We have a problem. We have to reduce it, we can't
add to it.
Under sustained community, scientific, international and political
pressure, Environment Minister Greg Hunt has attempted to claim he agrees
offshore dumping should not occur. However, the so-called “line in the sand” he
says he has drawn under dumping in in the Reef is so full of holes as to be
meaningless. The Minister excluded dumping from maintenance dredging, and
confined his commitment to the Marine Park (not the larger World Heritage
Area), and said it would apply to ‘future’ projects without specifying whether
that includes projects which have been applied for but not yet approved. The
enormous dredging projects planned for Trinity Inlet at Cairns and the
Townsville port expansion have already been applied for, so Minister Hunt must
clarify whether the livelihood of those local communities in tourism, fisheries
and the associated industries will be safe from dumping. If Minister Hunt’s
commitment excludes any dumping application that has already been applied for
(but not yet approved), it is a meaningless commitment. The damaging projects
that UNESCO have expressed such concern about are those that have been approved
or already applied for. It is hard to countenance that there would be any
geographic room (or any economic viability) for additional “future” offshore
dumping applications, hence Minister Hunt’s ‘commitment’ is designed to sound
good but mean absolutely nothing in practice.
Recommendation 1: Ban offshore dumping - The Australian
government must not approve any new offshore dumping in the Great Barrier Reef
World Heritage Area, including spoil from capital and maintenance dredging, and
including not approving any projects which have already been applied for but
not yet approved.
Overturn Abbot Point approvals
In December 2013 Minister Hunt approved the construction of the world’s
largest coal port in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
This expansion of the coal export terminal at Abbot Point would involve the
dredging and dumping of 3 million cubic metres of sludge just 8km from coral
reefs at Nares Rock and Holborne Island. Much of that dredge spoil would spread
far beyond the dump site.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has expressed concern and regret
that the Abbot Point approval was taken prior to any comprehensive assessment
of alternative and less damaging alternatives.
Recent scientific findings conclusively show that dredge spoil doubles
the risk of coral diseases, including the deadly white syndrome disease.
There is strong evidence that dredge plumes can extend much further than
anticipated by GBRMPA during the assessment process for Abbot Point.
Furthermore, documents released under freedom of information laws and
Greens-initiated Senate orders for the production of documents have shown that
GBRMPA’s own internal staff and scientists held serious concerns about
approving the Abbot Point project throughout 2013. One GBRMPA staff member told
the Department of Environment that the proposed 150% water quality offset,
which was trumpeted by Minister Hunt, was ‘unachievable’. However, a
non-scientifically trained GBRMPA bureaucrat then approved the offshore
dumping. The Greens believe that politics trumped science.
The Abbot Point decision has sparked an unprecedented but entirely
justified public outcry. In the week immediately preceding the publication of
this report, the proponent of the project, North Queensland Bulk Ports, has
indicated that they will seek an alternative to offshore disposal. We welcome
this, but it should not be a voluntary choice by companies, the government
should mandate a ban on offshore dumping in the Great Barrier Reef World
In this age of climate change, the world’s largest coal port should
never have been approved, let alone in the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef.
Even if the dredge sludge is dumped onshore, the climate impacts which the port
will facilitate, the increased shipping traffic with its increase in likelihood
of accidents and other impacts, and the dredging required for this port are all
unacceptable. It is shameful that both the Queensland and the Australian
governments approved this project, and the approval should be revoked
Recommendation 2: That Minister Hunt immediately revoke
the approvals for the Abbot Point coal port expansion and the associated
offshore dumping of dredge sludge.
A strong and independent Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA)
The Greens believe that a combination of funding cuts by the Abbott
government, staff redundancies driven by those cuts and resignations, which may
well have been due to decisions like Abbot Point; political pressure to
facilitate the fossil fuel export industry; lack of scientific expertise on the
board of GBRMPA and the presence of board members with links to the mining
industry is compromising the independence and effectiveness of GBRMPA.
The Greens support the work of GBRMPA and want to see its capacity and
its independence strengthened.
Recommendation 3: Funding and staffing of the GBRMPA
should be increased in order to ensure that they can provide independent,
world-class management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Recommendation 4: The GBRMPA should review its staffing structure
in order to ensure that it is acting in an independent manner.
Recommendation 5: The GBRMP Act should be amended to
ensure that GBRMPA is truly independent of the Environment Minister and not
vulnerable to political pressure. Anyone with coal and gas interests should be
precluded from serving on the board of GBRMPA.
The evidence is clear that climate change is the most significant long
term threat to the Reef. Rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification can
literally dissolve the physical structure of the corals which support the
incredible diversity of marine life on the Reef.
Without ambitious, global action on climate change, Australia risks losing the
benefits the Reef provides.
The Outlook Report, which was supported by the expert scientific
witnesses at hearings, identifies climate change as the ‘most serious threat to
the Great Barrier Reef’.
These impacts are already happening, manifesting in coral bleaching, more
serious tropical storms, and decreased resilience in the face of other threats,
and they will continue to increase in severity.
The government is living in a climate policy fantasy land. Current
climate policy is inconsistent with the government’s stated objective of
protecting the Reef. The current inadequate 5% greenhouse gas reduction target
by 2020 puts Australia and the world on track for global warming which would
see the Reef seriously degraded.
To safeguard the Reef, the current scientific evidence tells us that the
world must leave 80% of current known fossil fuel reserves, including coal and
gas, in the ground.
Confronting that challenge will be difficult, but the current government’s
policy of ignoring climate change while enthusiastically greasing the wheels of
coal exports is irresponsible in the extreme. As Dr McGrath observed at the
At the moment, we are in a situation like a fellow who is a
pack a day smoker, who has been diagnosed with lung cancer—I am not sure how he
could afford a packet a day. The doctor says to him: 'Look, you've got to give
up your cigarettes.' He looks the doctor in the eye and says, 'Doctor, I hear
you and I am going to smoke two packets from now on.' That is pretty well the
response we giving to climate change.
The coal and gas which Australia is exporting will eventually come back
to harm the Reef in the form of dangerous climate change.
Recommendation 6: That Australia adopts ambitious targets
to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and takes a leadership role in global action
to address climate change. This must include an acknowledgement that 80% of
known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.
Water quality and Reef Rescue funding cuts
Despite welcome gains in reducing agricultural runoff, the Reef’s
inshore water quality remains poor, which will only get worse with mass
dredging and dumping planned for the Reef’s coastline.
The Abbott and Newman governments are completely undermining the good
work of farmers reducing their Reef runoff, by allowing the big mining
companies to dump millions of tonnes of sediment directly into the Reef’s World
What’s more, the Abbott Government has cut $40 million in funding from
the federal program to reduce agricultural runoff, Reef Rescue, and put that
money into a thought bubble policy, Reef Trust, the details of which have not
been worked out.
Ripping money out of a proven program for an ill-defined experiment is
bad news for the Reef.
Degraded water quality from land-based run-off, especially in inshore
areas is a serious short- and long-term threat to the Reef identified
repeatedly in expert and community submissions. GBRMPA’s Outlook Report 2014
and the Australian Institute of Marine Science both observe that water quality
is directly affecting the Reef, but also severely limiting its ability to
recover from other pressures. In the words of Professor Hoegh-Guldberg, the
Reef is a ‘prize fighter’ who is getting too sick to bounce back from injury.
The Greens support the Reef Water Quality Program (previously called
Reef Rescue), but more must be done. The stated goal of the program is that, by
2020, the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef from catchment areas
has no detrimental impact on the health and resilience of the Reef, but it is
not clear that the government understands what will be required to achieve that
goal. That is why the Greens support the Committee’s recommendation that
explicit load reduction targets be established.
Many submissions to this inquiry as well as local residents, tourism
operators and fishers raised the issue of water quality, and pointed to the
hypocrisy of allowing ports and the mining industry to dump its waste products
in the Reef’s waters while closely regulating other industries such as tourism,
and while spending public money on schemes to reduce agricultural run-off.
Recommendation 7: The Australian Government should
immediately reverse cuts to the funding for the Reef Water Quality Protection
Gladstone Harbour dredging and dumping
In relation to the Gladstone Western Basin Dredging and Dumping project,
the Committee heard deeply disturbing evidence about serious and ongoing
environmental harm occurring in the context of inadequate regulation and deeply
inappropriate conflicts of interest.
Extensive criticisms were also levelled against the consultant ecologists
contracted to monitor the dredging project. Outside of this inquiry, each of
the Queensland Auditor-General’s report, the federal ANAO report and the bund wall
inquiry initiated by Minister Hunt all discussed below reveal serious failings
in our environmental regulatory system. It is clear that the environmental
regulators at a State and Federal level are failing and have lost the trust of
As reiterated throughout the hearings, the dredging and dumping at
Gladstone Harbour caused an environmental disaster, with mass dolphin, dugong
and turtle deaths and outbreaks of fish mutilations. Under pressure, Minister
Hunt established the Gladstone Bund Wall Review, which found a staggering
failure of regulation, from poorly drafted conditions of approval, to
inadequate monitoring and enforcement.
The Australian National Audit Office report Managing Compliance with
EPBC conditions of approval has recently found that the Environment
Department does not have enough staff to enforce conditions, adding to the Bund
Wall Review’s finding that inadequate staffing contributed to the failures in
Gladstone. The Federal government’s recent Budget has cut a further 129 staff
from the division responsible for enforcement.
The Greens would like to thank the many local residents and other
stakeholders who made submissions and gave evidence, often recounting painful
personal circumstances, regarding Gladstone Western Basin project. We
understand that the Bund Wall Review’s narrow terms of reference precluded any
considerations of the wider impacts of the Gladstone Harbour dredging. In
establishing this inquiry we sought to give a proper airing to the many
outstanding issues. Unfortunately many submissions were accepted as
confidential and evidence taken in-camera. The issues surrounding the Gladstone
Western Basin project warrant a further comprehensive – and public -
Even though the Gladstone Harbour environmental disaster, which crippled
local fishing and tourism businesses, has not yet been comprehensively
independently investigated, approvals for dredging and dumping in the Great
Barrier Reef have continued unabated.
Recommendation 8: That the events surrounding
environmental harm caused by the Gladstone Western Basin dredging project be
comprehensively independently investigated.
Recommendation 9: That the Australian Government
immediately strengthen its capacity and willingness to undertake independent
monitoring of environmental approval conditions it imposes.
Reef Trust and environmental offsets
The Greens do not support the use of environmental offsets. They are
based on a fiction that the environment is replaceable, and they are used to
allow otherwise unacceptable projects to proceed. A previous Senate Committee
references inquiry established by the Greens documented a litany of failures on
the part of environmental offsets. The Greens acknowledge that offsets cannot
and will not ever work as intended.
In the interests of delivering a majority report we accept the Committee’s
recommendations 28 and 29 regarding offsets but note that it remains the Greens
view that World Heritage cannot be offset because all of it is precious and
irreplaceable. We also note the clear evidence taken in the inquiry that
offsets in the marine environment are even more difficult to both calculate and
The Greens support any program aimed at improving the health and
resilience of the Reef, but Reef Trust represents a serious risk of producing a
conflict of interest. At present, Reef Trust appears to be a re-badging of old
Reef Rescue funding to create the impression of progress. The government has
announced that it will source some Reef Trust funding from financial offsets.
Tying critical conservation funding to payments under financial offsets creates
a conflict of interest for GBRMPA. GBRMPA would rely on projects being approved
with generous financial offsets in order to continue its much needed work. As
the decision maker in those applications, GBRMPA would be faced with a
dangerous conflict of interest.
Recommendation 10: That projects within or impacting on
the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area which are unacceptable without
offsets be rejected outright.
Recommendation 11: That funding for future activities
under the Reef Trust not be sourced from existing Reef Rescue funds or from
financial offsets from proponents.
The inquiry into this bill has given the community and our best reef
scientists a critical opportunity to put to our nation’s leaders, and on the
public record, their serious concerns about the huge threats to the Great
Barrier Reef posed particularly by industrialisation of the Reef coast, and the
steps we urgently need to take to protect the Reef.
We would like to thank the Acting Committee Chair, committee members and
the secretariat for facilitating the inquiry process that allowed evidence from
the community, experts and industry to be presented and carefully examined by
There are innumerable experts, environment groups and community members
working hard across Australia to secure better understanding and political
action to save our Reef. We warmly acknowledge their tireless work and
invaluable contributions to this inquiry.
The Greens take the concerns of the Queensland community, our fishers,
tourism operators and reef scientists and the UN World Heritage Committee
seriously. That is why in the last Parliament we introduced a bill in March
2103 to implement the World Heritage Committee’s recommendations to keep the
Great Barrier Reef off the World Heritage In Danger list, namely to rule
out new ports, to stop port expansions that would damage the overall universal
value of the Reef, for a moratorium on new approvals until a long term plan for
the Reef had been completed, and for any approval after that to have a net
benefit for the Reef.
We reintroduced that bill in the current Parliament in February 2014 and
included a ban on new offshore dumping. That bill, and these additional
comments, proposes to ban offshore dumping of port dredging sludge within the
Great Barrier Reef's waters, and are backdated to ensure that the plan to dump
dredge spoil offshore at Abbot Point is stopped.
The Greens believe our environment laws are failing to protect the Reef.
The Reef is too precious to lose, and the Greens will fight for its future.
Greens Senator for Queensland
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