Rubber stamping the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef


The minister knew of the diseased marine turtles prior to giving his approval to the project.

Jonathan Meddings tells the Ecologist why he is outraged that Australia's Environment Minister has given his backing to a project that could spell disaster for the Great Barrier Reef and its marine inhabitants......
We should be wary of a system that promotes the self-censorship of scientists

That an environment minister has approved plans for one of the largest coal ports in the world to be located at the heart of the Great Barrier Reef would be comical if it weren't so obscene. And yet that is exactly what Australian Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Tony Burke has done.

One cannot help but detect a hint of hypocrisy: could it be that diplomats from Australia who used our environmental credentials to lobby, successfully, Caribbean countries to gain a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, neglected to mention this recent development?

The fact is there are serious deficiencies in environmental management and policy in Australia. Mining companies employ environmental scientists on bloated six figure salaries, a conflict of interest as clear as it is consequential, for it is also the mining companies that are charged with preparing Public Environment Reports (PER) when submitting their project proposals. That is exactly what Hancock Coal has done in the case of the proposed, now approved, Abbot Point coal port expansion. 

Because the site falls within a World Heritage property but not within the Marine Park the proposal was referred to the Minister’s department under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). However, as a component of the project involves an activity requiring permission under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 1983 (GBRMP Regulations), the referral under the EPBC Act was taken to also be an application under the GBRMP Regulations.

What this means is that although the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority provided advice to the Minister’s department, there was little oversight, with members of its Reef Advisory Committees not being required to formally comment.

In theory, Hancock Coal will have followed the EBPC Act and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, and submitted a PER to Minister Burke sufficient in allowing him to make an informed decision on whether or not to approve the project. And so we face the stark realization that Mr. Burke’s decision was based largely on environmental information provided to him by people employed by a mining company. 

We should be wary of a system that promotes the self-censorship of scientists

One can forgive a bureaucrat for thinking that drawing imaginary lines in the water and creating ‘zones’ would somehow magically protect the marine park from coal ports contained within the ‘zones’ - as if the wind does not blow, the water does not possess a current, or the wildlife inhabiting it move around freely.

But one has the expectation that environmental scientists know better. And yet curiously the study team who composed the final Hancock Coal report omitted any mention of the recent mass mortalities at nearby Wungjunga Beach and the outbreaks of viral disease at nearby Edgecumbe Bay of green sea turtles (Cheloniamydas), a threatened species.

After all, despite their close proximity to Abbot Point, these sites are outside of the magic ‘zone’ they chose as a marine study area. The report authors also downplayed the significance of the Caley Valley Wetlands to threatened species of migratory shore-birds.

It has since come to light that Mr. Burke knew of the troubled marine turtles prior to making his decision. One wonders then how knowing of the mortality and disease both north and south of Abbot Point that Mr. Burke failed to employ the precautionary principle, and reserve his decision on whether or not to expand the port at Abbot Point until research has been conducted to rule out any link between the port and mortalities of a threatened species.

Of course, there has been plenty of time for community consultation. And given this one might think that despite the failings of the system we can at least rely on our scientists to tell us when we find ourselves without a paddle up that proverbial creek with the distinctive smell. Indeed, I was of this opinion myself until I wrote an open letter to Minister Burke opposing the port expansion and called upon members of the scientific community to endorse it.*

Whilst I certainly neglected to contact some who would have been worthy of contacting, and whilst others would have been away on travel or simply too busy to reply, despite contacting hundreds of academics, the response was underwhelming. 

A common theme began to emerge. Although messages supporting my letter were many, those willing to put their name to it were few. The reason given was always the same. People are afraid of losing their jobs or their research funding that are with or provided by government and mining. And so it is that the very people who know the most about the environmental impacts this project will have are also speaking about it the least. A system that has so successfully promoted the self-censorship of scientists is a system that should be under close scrutiny.

And now after the team of environmental scientists and conservationists who had the mettle to sign my open letter to Tony Burke have been labeled ‘environmental alarmists’ we are told to allay our fears, because a review on the impact the development will have on the reef released after the decision to go ahead with the development was made, has concluded there is little cause for concern.

A review that was commissioned by mining companies with vested interests, and which like the Hancock Coal report omitted any mention of the diseased and dying marine turtles.

From unabashed conflicts of interest to the self-censorship of scientists one thing is clear: we have a problem with environmental management in Australia. I do not claim to have all the answers,but I humbly submit that conflicts of interest are best avoided, and that mining companies should not be tasked with producing environmental reports.

* I suspect a common criticism will be I should have written about this earlier, and yet like many others I only learned of the port expansion after it had been approved. This gives you some indication of the level of community consultation that was involved. 

Jonathan describes himself as 'a young student with nothing to lose who can therefore speak his mind unreservedly'.