Independent review ordered by Greg Hunt finds flaws in design and construction of bund wall and a lack of oversight
By Oliver Milman
A dredging project at Gladstone harbour which coincided with the deaths of a large number of fish was deficient in its decision making and construction, a report instigated by the federal government has found.
An independent review, ordered by environment minister Greg Hunt, found aspects of the design and construction of a “bund” wall, which aimed to prevent dredged sediment leaking into the harbour of the Queensland port, “were not consistent with industry best practice”.
The report says the location of water-monitoring sites and record-keeping practices were “inadequate”, with a confusingly complex oversight regime from state and federal governments.
The review was launched to analyse concerns that the bund wall had leaked sediment into Gladstone harbour between June 2011 and July 2012. Gladstone is next to the world heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.
According to the report, there was a “lack of coordination between the jurisdictions, particularly on compliance monitoring – a critical issue given that the main regulator for the western basin strategic dredging and disposal project was the Queensland government.
“With the benefit of hindsight, some actions taken by both Australian and Queensland governments and the proponent in the delivery of the western basin strategic dredging and disposal project were less than optimal.”
The Gladstone Ports Corporation was given the responsibility of removing 48m cubic metres of sediment from the seabed to expand the harbour so that large ships could enter it. The dredged spoil was to be contained by the bund wall, but the review found the wall was not designed or constructed to the highest standard.
Environmentalists and local fishers have blamed the dredging project forpoisoning and killing marine life, including turtles, crabs and fish.
Gladstone fish markets, the main fish retailer in Gladstone, now has to import fish from elsewhere in Queensland after noticing pus and lesions on fish caught in the harbour. The Queensland government has blamed flooding, rather than dredging, for the rise in toxins in the harbour.
The review recommends key steps be taken to ensure bund walls are secure, water-quality plans are properly managed and the public is better informed about work being undertaken.
Hunt said he would respond fully to the report on 1 July but he would adopt as many of the recommendations as possible.
“I am advised these issues affecting the bund wall have been resolved and do not present an ongoing threat to the environment,” he said. “I am confident that these findings will help improve environmental practices and regulation going forward.”
The campaign director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Felicity Wishart, said the failures of the dredging operation in Gladstone were “deeply alarming”.
“Clearly this report highlights the fact that the government and the ports corporation has put massive industrial development ahead of the environment,” she said.
“We’ve seen constant denial of the problems despite clear and obvious evidence. How on earth can the community trust the government or ports corporation to undertake any development alongside the reef? This is a systemic, cultural failure of process.”
Wishart said there should be a full inquiry into the impact of Gladstone dredging, beyond the failure of the bund wall.
Last week Unesco expressed concern about dredging and dumping at Abbot Point, further up the Queensland coast near Bowen.
On Thursday, experts at the international symposium on sea turtle biology and conservation in New Orleans passed a resolution calling on Australia to halt all industrial development beside the Great Barrier Reef until a management plan for sea turtles has been implemented.
“To allow dirty energy companies to industrialise this critical nesting and feeding haven for sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef will push these vulnerable marine animals ever closer to the brink,” said Teri Shore, program director of Turtle Island Restoration Network in California.