Above image © Kiwi / AMCS Collection
The fate of the Caley Valley wetlands of northern Queensland hangs in the balance, as federal environment minister Greg Hunt considers whether to approve a proposal to dump dredge spoil from a planned expansion of the Abbot Point coal port. Environmental groups are claiming the plans have been fast-tracked to appease the Indian mining giant Adani, which is threatening to pull out of the Abbot Point expansion project if dredging is further delayed.
Yet the Queensland state premier Campbell Newman called a snap election for the end of the month on Tuesday, so it's questionable whether the state can approve contracts for the dredging and the Caley Valley dump site. Queensland caretaker provisions state that governments should not enter into major contracts after an election has been announced.
And yesterday, in a further development, conservation group the Alliance to Save Port Hinchinbrook filed an injunction against Hunt's assessment of the onshore dumping plan. The group is seeking a halt to the Caley Valley wetlands proposal or at least to have a full environmental assessment undertaken.
Controversy has plagued the Abbot Point coal port expansion since it was announced by Hunt in December 2013. At that time the state-owned North Queensland Bulk Ports was given permission to dredge the port and dump three million cubic metres of dredge spoil into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This plan was backed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority despite the fact that their own scientists opposed it. After public outcry and criticism from environmental groups and scientists, the state government announced new plans in September last year to dump a reduced 1.7 million cubic metres of waste onshore in constructed ponds within the Caley Valley wetlands.
With the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port, coupled with Adani's proposed construction of the Carmichael coal mine – one of the largest in the world – the Great Barrier Reef is under threat from climate change and increased pollution. Now with the dredge spoil being dumped in the Caley Valley wetlands, federal and state governments are set to desecrate two ecosystems.
Louise Matthiesson is the Great Barrier Reef coastal campaign manager for the WWF. She says they're calling on the state government to put the project on hold during the election period, as the government is in caretaker mode and therefore shouldn't sign any contracts. This would allow Hunt more time to consider the impacts of the dump site proposal.
According to Adani however, they're losing money while the project is delayed. Matthiesson disputes this, saying they've "made unfounded claims about costs. The reality is that they don't have the financial backing to go ahead with the port construction and the mine, but there's no doubt they're putting enormous pressure on the Queensland and the Australian governments to get this proposal done as quickly as possible."
The Caley Valley wetlands are sit directly beside the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, supporting around 40,000 water birds, including endangered species. According to Matthiesson this makes it "a completely inappropriate site for an industrial dredge spoil disposal operation."
According to Jeremy Tager, Abbot Point campaigner for North Queensland Conservation Council (NQCC), it was when the NQCC took the federal government and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to court in August, that the state government decided to propose the Caley Valley wetlands as a dumping site. The court case challenged the initial approval given to dump the dredge spoil in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. But when the proceedings looked set to hold up the expansion at Abbot Point, Adani went to the state government and asked for an alternative so that dredging could begin in 2015.
"The proposal to dump at Caley Valley… will further degrade and destroy it. They've argued that it is an enhancement but effectively it is filling in a significant part of the wetland and then embanking an even more significant part," Tager told VICE. "It's extraordinary that this proposal is even being considered at this point because it is so poorly conceived and thought out. They've simply made the claim that we build these six metre embankments and it allows us to enhance the wetland, there is just no evidence of that in anything they've produced. There is significant evidence that it will have a major impact on threatened species.
Tager also points out that there are plenty of alternative sites to dump dredge spoil further inland away from the Reef. "They're dumping very close to the sea so they can simply run a pipe from the dredge directly to the Caley Valley site and that's all they have to pay for," he explained.
Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters said it was atrocious that Hunt is not requiring a full environmental impact statement before approving the dump site. "The Caley Valley wetlands are right on the door step of the Great Barrier Reef and act as natural filters, purifying runoff from the Reef's catchment," she said. "Dumping millions of tonnes of dredge spoil in the wetlands will stifle their ability to provide that important ecosystem service."
And Waters further points out that the Caley Valley is right next to Abbot Point coal port, which after its expansion, will be the export site for hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal annually. "The Abbot Point coal port is set to turn our Reef into a shipping super highway for coal, which will come back to bite the Reef through climate change," she said.
Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulrgregoire