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Senate Estimates: has GBRMPA ever refused an offshore dumping permit?

Senator WATERS: Dr Reichelt and colleagues, is it still the authority's policy for offshore dumping to be a last resort?

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Dr Reichelt: We adhere to the national guidelines for spoil dumping. Those guidelines are to allow offshore dumping only after the first two approaches have been tried, either onshore disposal or reclamation-I think it is termed 'beneficial re-use', but it is essentially reclamation-to minimise the potential impacts on the marine environment.

Senator WATERS: Has GBRMPA ever refused an offshore dumping permit?

Dr Reichelt: We have, as a matter of fact-Hay Point. It was refused around 2007. It was to do with a dredging operation near the Hay Point. I should say that it was refused and then negotiated. It was eventually approved after considerable negotiation with the company around the conditions under which it would be approved.

Senator WATERS: I see. So offshore dumping was ultimately approved for that project.

Dr Reichelt: Yes. But taking you literally, it was initially refused but then allowed. It was do with the nature of the material-some was rock and some was soft sediment-and how that was dispersed and used. That is one that I am aware of.

Senator WATERS: Could you please take on notice for me if there have been any other refusals of offshore dumping permits. Also, could you provide me with as much information as possible about the first Hay Point dumping application that was rejected and the reasons it was rejected and then the final version that was approved so that we can see the differences. Thank you for that. I have asked you previously whether or not you seek detailed information from the proponent about whether or not they have looked at those alternatives to offshore dumping and the extent of the evidence base that you seek from proponents before approving offshore dumping. Has there been any change in approach since the last time I asked you about this?

Dr Reichelt: I do not believe so. The sea dumping act applies in the park and we have delegation on that. The act of drudging that we are referring to generally occurs outside of GBRMPA's jurisdiction but involves transport into the marine park and in that space our policies remain the same.

Senator WATERS: Okay. So you continue to have the approach of not seeking a detailed evidence base from the proponent about what the alternatives and whether they have considered those alternatives and done a cost-benefit analysis.

Dr Reichelt: No. Our approach has been the opposite of that. There have only been a couple. I am speaking about my term, which is six years. I can only recall a couple. The approach taken was to suggest at the first pass of the PER document that more effort should be put in to describing the alternatives. We did that two years ago. I could give you the fine detail on that.

Senator WATERS: If you can give me as much-

Dr Reichelt: But I believe that we have spoken about that before.

Senator WATERS: We have. I was under a different impression. If you can give me as much information about the evidence base that you require from proponents before you determine that offshore dumping is indeed the last resort that you will approve, that would be very helpful. I want to ask now about Abbot Point. I am across your authority's recent research, which found that offshore dumping in fact travels much further than you had previously thought due to a number of things, such as deep ocean currents and so forth. Have you advised the minister on the likely scope of the Abbot Point offshore dumping and how far that might travel under these new parameters?

Dr Reichelt: The report that you are referring to on the modelling of dispersion with the longshore currents was one that I referred to earlier. That has been public now for some time. In the context of advising the minister, it would be the department's responsibility to use whatever material was available for their briefings. In the Abbot Point context, I would need to defer to the department. There was a lot of interest created in the methodology of the study that you referred to. Some critics think that too simplistic assumptions were made. Ultimately, our view is that what it shows is that we have more work to do in accurately modelling the dispersion.

The criticism of that study was that the plumes that were considered at the extremity were very dispersed and there was no evidence that at that extremity there would be any impact from those plumes. What that tells us is that the potential for impact is there and it should be studied and modelled accurately using the best available three-dimensional models, which should include all current sources and energy regimes-when one does it is a highly variable environment, because of things like the weather. We have taken that on board. That is being incorporated into our new assessments of spoil disposal that may come along. We still have a fair way to go with comprehensive modelling of all the sources of sediment movement in the reef region. The example put to me was that one major cyclone would mobilise a lot of sediment, but it is essentially unmonitored, untracked and unmeasured. The multiple sources and multiple impacts mean that major storms should be part of a cumulative impact assessment.

Senator WATERS: You have mentioned a few things there. The report indicated that there was more work today to accurately model the dispersion and that the potential for impact should be studied and modelled. Will GBRMPA do that work for the Abbot Point dumping or should I harken to your earlier answer that that is now the department's role to advise the minister about just how bad the offshore dumping will be at Abbot Point?

Dr Reichelt: It is the department's job to brief the minister about Abbot Point.

Senator WATERS: I will move on then. I am aware of recent reports that indicate that GBRMPA gave feedback to the department that the cumulative impact assessment of Abbot Point, which was done on a voluntary basis, did not actually take into account the cumulative impacts of the proposal. Can you talk me through why you said that, if that is indeed the view of GBRMPA?

Dr Reichelt: Yes. The cumulative impact assessment of Abbot Point was a very good thing to have done. What it did was accumulate multiple proponents work into one overall assessment, which was innovative for its time. It is not a bad thing. When our strategic assessment talks about a cumulative impact assessment, we are talking about the accumulation of all sources and all impacts over broader time scales. You are really comparing two different things. In the context of our statement, we were not saying that it was not cumulative. Someone has overly shortened that phrase. That assessment was not done in the style that we interpret 'cumulative' to mean.

However, it was a very positive step for them to take all of the multiple proponents rather than looking at them one by one.

Senator WATERS: Okay. I am glad that you clarified that. Thank you. Originally, a fee for offshore dumping was mooted. That was a couple of years back. Can you update me on whether that is still on foot and on whether the new government has asked to be briefed on that?

Dr Reichelt: No decision was taken by the previous government. I can say that it is not on foot. I cannot speak for what the government may or may not do in future budget settings.

Senator WATERS: Sure. And the new government has not asked for a briefing on that issue?

Dr Reichelt: No.

Senator WATERS: I do not want to give the government any ideas in that respect.

Senator Cormann: I am listening very carefully, Senator Waters.

Senator WATERS: I am very wary of that look that you just gave, Minister Cormann. Moving now to conflicts of interest on the GBRMPA board, which there was some significant media interest in a few weeks ago, it seems to me inappropriate that there be people on your board that have current interests in mining and gas. Are there any moves to tighten the requirements for your board managing any conflicts of interest of members? The rules seem to me to be too lax, if that has what has been allowed to happen.

Dr Reichelt: There are a blend of things in your question. It goes to who is on the board, which is the province of the minister and the Governor-General. On the issue of conflicts of interest, we have an expertise based board. They are chosen for their knowledge of industries. How that is managed within the board is now the subject of an inquiry as a result of the media allegations. That inquiry was requested by the minister. We are taking that very seriously. We will properly investigate that and will use a thoroughly independent legal probity expert, who has already been announced, Mr Rob Cornall. We are drawing on the good offices of the department to ensure that there is an independence about this review. It is inappropriate for me to comment on the specifics of that inquiry right now, as there should be natural justice for the individuals concerned. I am awaiting the outcome of that report as well.

Senator WATERS: Sure. My question was more about what you will do to ensure that there are not such conflicts of interest in the future.

Dr Reichelt: I would like to wait for the inquiry and see if that becomes an issue during the inquiry.

Senator WATERS: Okay. The media reports were that the GBRMPA draft policy statement on port developments was changed after insistence by at least two of the folk on the board, which resulted in protection for biodiversity being weaker in that document. Were they accurate reports? Is that indeed what happened? Have there been any other instances where policy positions or positions on particular projects have been scrutinised by the board and then the position changed?

Dr Reichelt: No, I do not believe that they are correct. The changes, if any happened, would have been by the experts who write these documents. What the board does is demand the highest possible scientific standards and clarity of the documents in a legal sense. In that particular media report that you mentioned, the change that was highlighted was explained at the time. The first version was not clear; in fact, it was legally unenforceable and unusable as a statement. The subsequent change was done by the staff. The board merely highlighted that it was too general a statement and would not be able to be used in decision making. The board is not a project decision-making board. That is delegated to the expert staff. It sets the policy. It advises the minister on future regulation options. It is quite a strategic board.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Does the board have anything to do with employing those staff?

Dr Reichelt: No.

Senator WATERS: Is there going to be a review of any other decisions made or policy documents written under the current board to check to see whether any conflict of interest issues arose in other instance?

Dr Reichelt: The terms of reference will go to any matters that relate to the allegations made in the media. That is up to the independent probity expert to decide how that will be put together.

Senator WATERS: Sure. As you would be aware, the Queensland state government has now decided to reopen uranium mining in Queensland. Has GBRMPA been asked to advise the federal minister or been asked by the department to advise on the threats to the reef of shipping uranium through it or any other regulatory or legal framework issues around reopening uranium mining?

Dr Reichelt: I am not aware of any requests from any source on that.

Senator WATERS: Could you take on notice and double check that that is the case.

Dr Reichelt: Sure.

Senator WATERS: That would be great. What are GBRMPA's views on the risks to the reef from shipping uranium through it?

Dr Reichelt: As I have answered this one previously, we would need to see the nature of the proposal. It is too general a statement to give a precise assessment of. We would need to know the toxicity of the material and whether it is radioactive or not. We would asset that on its merits and on the risks to the reefs. But we would take it very seriously and make a proper assessment should we have a proposal in front of us.

Senator WATERS: Would you be in a position to refuse approval for uranium shipping? Would that be within your regulatory scope?

Dr Reichelt: I would need to get legal advice, probably, because of the nature of it. It would depend on where they would do it and how it would happen. It would depend on whether it was inside the marine park and whether it was something that required a permission. That is why it is difficult for me to be specific.

Senator WATERS: Assuming that the ships would transit the marine park, would the authority be able to prohibit approval for uranium shipping?

Dr Reichelt: I am not 100 per cent sure. It has not come up.

Senator WATERS: Okay.

Dr Reichelt: We have quite stringent shipping controls-pilotage and designated shipping lanes. Whether they extend to the cargo-

Senator WATERS: Could you take that on notice.

Dr Reichelt: Yes. I will.

Senator WATERS: Have you advised the new minister on what is required to meet UNESCO's recommendations to keep the reef off the World Heritage endangered list, either of your own volition or because you have been asked?

Dr Reichelt: No.

Senator WATERS: There was a very recent announcement by the Queensland government that the legacy mine water discharge program in the Fitzroy is going to be extended. Was GBRMPA consulted on the effects on the reef of allowing these litres and litres of contaminated legacy mine water to be discharged into the reef?

Dr Reichelt: I have previously been briefed on the issue of Mount Morgan and that area. Because it is some hundreds of kilometres from the ocean as the river flows as distinct from how the crow flies, there is no detectable impact at the river mouth, so it is not in our jurisdiction.

Senator WATERS: Are you confident that that remains the case with the extension of this program?

Dr Reichelt: I do not see how the extension of it could affect it.

Senator WATERS: It is presumably going to apply to more mines.

Dr Reichelt: Oh, I thought you meant in time. I have not had a briefing in other mines and whether there are ones closer to the reef.

Senator WATERS: Okay. Hopefully, that will be put on your radar, because it seems like something that you should be consulted on given the possible threats to the reef.

Dr Reichelt: If it is closer to the reef, yes, definitely.

Senator WATERS: Lastly, what is the progress of recovering the unexploded bombs that were dropped on our World Heritage Great Barrier Reef by the American army?

Dr Reichelt: The two explosive weapons were recovered a few months after the event. They were detonated at Townshend Island in a designated practice area for the military. The US military and the Australian Defence Forces cooperated at considerable expense to bring specialists from Alaska, and the USS Germantown retrieved the two weapons safely. The two inert weapons, which are concrete filled tubes, are resting peacefully on the seabed.

Senator WATERS: Could you table the cost of that to the Australian government?

Dr Reichelt: I could not, I am sorry. It would be a question for Defence?

Senator WATERS: Could the department take that then, or is it possibly Defence?

Dr Reichelt: Possibly Defence.

Senator WATERS: Okay, I will put it to them. Thank you.

CHAIR: Okay, time is up. Thank you, Dr Reichelt, for your attendance.

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