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Senate Estimates - SEWPaC - Gladstone harbour contamination

Estimates & Committees
Larissa Waters 18 Oct 2011

Senator Larissa Waters questions SEWPaC in Senate Estimates about Rio Tinto's bauxite mine expansion in Cape York, and work being undertaken to assess the impacts of dredging in Gladstone harbour.


Senator WATERS: I have a few questions on a number of issues. Firstly, the EPBC assessment of Rio's bauxite mine expansion in Weipa on Cape York is currently underway. When is the final decision due to be made?

Mr Barker: The proponent is currently finalising its environmental impact statement for that project. When that is finalised it will be provided to the department and the process and the time frames will continue from there. There will be a 30 business day period from the receipt of their final environmental impact statement until a decision is due on the project unless further information is needed.

Senator WATERS: Have they given you any indication of when they will submit the EIS?

Mr Barker: They are currently preparing responses to public submissions that have been made on that statement. We expect that to occur in the coming months but they have not nominated a particular date.

Senator WATERS: I too am a Queensland senator. I want to ask about Gladstone. As you know there has been a huge increase in dead wildlife, including dugongs and turtles, and there have been sick fish—and, for that matter, sick fishermen. Some believe that it is from the floods. But given the most recent turbidity data from September, which the Ports Corporation itself collected, which showed extreme turbidity at three different sites within the harbour, what are you as the regulating body doing about it? I understand that the conditions required the submission of a dredging and construction management plan. Are there turbidity parameters in that plan and have they been breached with this most recent September data from the Ports Corporation?

Ms Colreavy: Yes, the Ports Corporation was required to provide a dredge management plan and also establish an expert panel to oversee the implementation of that plan. As I answered to Senator Boswell, we are of the view that they are complying with that dredge management plan. The peaks in turbidity that were reported abated very quickly. They ceased dredging immediately when those peaks were reported. The view offered initially was that the peaks were partially due to the very high tidal movements at that time. The second set of reports were a result, as I mentioned earlier, of the movement of some very fine silt through the bund wall. In both those cases, we were satisfied that the ports authority responded very promptly, that they ceased operations until the water quality returned to acceptable levels and that they have maintained their operations within the levels of acceptability that were approved.

Senator WATERS: So, if turbidity is already peaking after only two million cubic metres have been dredged and there are 44 million cubic metres to come, when will you be recommending to the minister that the dredging stop, and what are you doing about all of the dead fish, dugongs and turtles? How much more wildlife has to die before the dredging will stop?

Ms Colreavy: The peaks in turbidity levels were very localised; they were not broad scale. We do not believe that there is any evidence at this stage that the dredging itself is causing a long-term problem. The minister can review his conditions if he believes that there is new information to point to that. At this stage, we have not been presented with any substantial new information in terms of considering that.

Senator WATERS: It is interesting that you say there is no evidence of the dredging causing the problems—unfortunately, the department is not undertaking its own studies. Be that as it may, what advice will you be providing, or have you provided, to the minister regarding whether or not any existing approvals in the World Heritage area should be suspended during the UNESCO requested strategy assessment of development in the World Heritage area? Will anything stop while you are looking into what is going on in this area and you are preparing the strategy assessment, or will it be business as usual?

Ms Dripps: As we mentioned, we cannot answer a question about what we will advise the minister. However, I can report to you that each of the cases that are currently under assessment in Queensland are being carefully considered in terms of any potential impact on any matters of national environmental significance and assessed according to those potential impacts. We will expect—

Senator WATERS: Will any of those assessments be stalled while the strategic assessment is prepared?

Ms Dripps: We will expect to develop transitional provisions for the strategic assessment when the Queensland government has formally signed off on that strategic assessment.

Senator WATERS: So none of the existing assessments will be paused while the strategic assessment is prepared?

Ms Dripps: I do not believe that the act includes a provision for pausing—

Senator WATERS: What will the strategic assessment cover? What will be left for it to cover if everything is already going to continue to be approved? That is a genuine question.

Ms Dripps: There are a range of proposals for development along the coast of Queensland. It would be expected that a strategic assessment would take between 18 months and two years—three years at the outside—to complete. Any proposal for development along the coast of Queensland that was likely to occur after that point would be included in the strategic assessment.

Senator WATERS: So, if you are a coal port, get your application in now. Thanks very much. 

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