Disturbing Toondah Harbour revelations
6 December 2018
Shocking revelations about the national assessment process for the proposed Toondah Harbour development in Queensland is further evidence Australia needs stronger national environment laws and an independent umpire for project approvals, leading conservation organisations have declared.
This morning the ABC revealed then-Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg was advised by his department on multiple occasions the Toondah Harbour apartment and marina proposal should be rejected outright because of the damage it would do to an internationally protected wetland.
Only a handful of developments have ever been rejected under current national environment laws.
Documents show Minister Frydenberg in at least one instance rejected this advice and instead sent the development to the next stage of assessment. Other documents obtained by the ABC reveal the Queensland Government was also willing to remove areas from the internationally protected wetland to facilitate the development.
Donor Annual Returns lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission show the Toondah Harbour proponent, Walker Corporation, gave $225,000 to the Federal Liberal Party and $23,000 to the Queensland ALP in 2015-16 – the year the initial development proposal was submitted for national assessment. Documents obtained by the ABC suggest Walker Corporation also engaged in a campaign of legal challenges and lobbying to keep the project alive.
The Toondah Harbour development would destroy approximately 40 hectares of the internationally protected Moreton Bay Ramsar site – one of Australia’s most important migratory shorebird feeding and breeding wetland habitats. A third version of the development is currently at the second-stage of assessment under national environment law.
Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) Chief Executive Officer, Kelly O’Shanassy, said Australians should question whether state and federal elected representatives have been acting in the best interests of nature or those of a significant donor, in not striking out the Toondah Harbour development.
“There needs to be an independent probe into this matter. Australians have the right to be confident the natural world is being protected from irresponsible development, especially places as important as the Moreton Bay Ramsar site,” Ms O’Shanassy said.
BirdLife Australia Chief Executive Officer, Paul Sullivan, said the project should never have proceeded to this stage.
“The proposal to build 3,600 waterside apartments and a marina on a Ramsar site flies in the face of Australia’s international obligations. The Minister should have followed the advice of his own department and rejected this project outright,” Mr Sullivan said.
“Critically endangered migratory shorebirds like the Eastern Curlew rely on this important wetland for their survival. If approved, Toondah will set a dangerous precedent for 2,331 Ramsar sites around the world. The international community is watching what happens next.”
Humane Society International Australia Chief Executive Officer, Erica Martin, said the revelations highlight the urgent need for new environment laws in Australia.
“It is unacceptable that matters of national environmental significance are being ignored in the decision making process for major developments like Toondah Harbour. Australia needs stronger nature laws and a national Environment Protection Authority to take the politics out of these decisions and to ensure native wildlife and their habitats are given the protection they truly deserve,” Ms Martin said.
“The Department was right on the money in saying this proposal should be rejected outright, and it’s disturbing that Minister Frydenberg ignored this advice and opened the door to removing international protections for the sake of development. The Moreton Bay Ramsar site is priceless, and Australia must respect the conventions we’ve committed to.”
|Respect Ramsar – Birdlife Australia|
The story of the Bribie Borefields goes back almost two decades…….
For ten years before the State Government put out an urgent request for water (2007) at what was to become the break in a ten year drought in South East Queensland, some water engineers in the Caboolture Shire Council (CSC) had been proposing that the Bribie Island aquifers were a source of water that could supply the mainland. However, in their wisdom, the State Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had recognized that this proposal was not viable, (environmentally and economically), understanding the unique and fragile ecosystems that maintain Bribie Island’s vegetation and wildlife. For ten years the EPA said “no” to the idea.
Then came the call for anyone who might be able to supply water to top up for dangerously low dams. This was the opportunity for the CSC to jump in the deep end unprepared, touting that they could build the Bribie Borefields for $10 million and supply 10ML/day from Bribie’s aquifers.
The Green Tape was untied and the project was fast tracked without the normal pre-requisites of an Environmental Impact Assessment; baseline studies of surrounding ecosystems; appropriate monitoring sites identified; the economics of the project and without a myriad of other assessments that would normally precede such a project.
BIEPA’s then President, Ian Bell, with his professional expertise in water management and the natural environment, recognized the folly of this proposal, especially the potential for negative impacts on Ramsar protected wetlands. In December 2007, Ian made a presentation to the CSC’s Mayor, Acting CEO, two councillors, engineers and private consultants hired for the project. Ian pointed out the deficiencies in the consultants’ and engineers’ hasty assessments of the location for the borefields, especially the consultants’ inaccurate report that the adjacent lagoons were saline. Ian showed proof that these lagoons were freshwater and the surrounding vegetation and wildlife depended on them. He warned that if the bores were to draw down too far and allow seawater intrusion, all these ecosystems on Bribie Island would be lost as well as compromise the supply of fresh water to the Project.
The CSC persisted with the Bribie Borefields Project and within six months the cost estimates blew out to more than $50 million. Ian took the issue to the Commonwealth, who limited the extraction to 4.3 ML/day & added mandatory monitoring sites to be in place. A Community Reference Group (CRG) was also established as part of the Commonwealth’s conditions for approval, because of the potential impact on adjacent Ramsar protected wetlands. www.ramsar.org/ The CRG monitors and provides regular community input on the Bribie Borefields.
BIEPA and the CRG remained resolute in their demand for transparency and accountability. Eventually the State Govt took over the Bribie Borefields Project as part of their responsibility for the supply of all bulk water. The Project came under the management of Seqwater who were able to ease the community’s concerns with the management of the Project.
The Bribie Borefields have experienced many design defects and have never reached capacity production and have never exported water to the mainland.
Even at the reduced production level, many of the producing bores hit their trigger levels during the dry period at the end of 2013 and had to be shut down. It has been estimated that the Bribie Borefields cost ratepayers in the order of $70 million – some of the most expensive water produced in Australia (more expensive than the Tugun desalination plant).
A recent review of the Bribie Borefields determined that they should be shut down indefinitely.
Sadly, Ian Bell and BIEPA were vilified by some council staff and members of the community for their stance on the long-term viability of the Bribie Borefields Project. Their stance, tenacity, expertise and wisdom has proven to be correct. And, those decision makers in council responsible for this white elephant have moved on and can not be held accountable.
As part of the Project, a pipeline, costing approximately $1 million, was constructed from the Woorim Sewage Treatment Plant to Pacific Harbour in order to supply grey water. This pipeline has never been used.