Campaigners say Tony Burke should have ruled out Fitzroy Terminal as soon as government received warnings
Australia’s environment minister said he never saw advice that a proposed coal port posed “extreme” risks – including threats to endangered turtles and a species of dolphin – at the Great Barrier Reef.
Campaigners said Tony Burke should have ruled out the Fitzroy Terminal as soon as the government received the strongly worded warnings, rather than allow the company to undertake a lengthy environmental impact statement.
But a spokeswoman said the minister had not seen the 2011 advice and the decision that the $1.2bn project should proceed to assessment was made by a delegate.
Burke recently described the region where the proposed terminal would operate as “the front lawn of the Great Barrier Reef”.
The warning about the potential impact of the proposed project in the Fitzroy River delta south of Rockhampton was delivered to the federal environment department by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GRMPA), the body responsible for protecting and managing the world heritage-listed reef.
In its August 2011 advice – released publicly after a freedom of information request by the GetUp! advocacy group – GRMPA said its preliminary risk assessment “has identified seven risks with an extreme consequence rating” due to the proposed project, including extreme consequences “on threatened and migratory species including three species of vulnerable and endangered turtles and the Australian snubfin dolphin.”
GRMPA concluded that the port had “the potential to have unacceptable and high risk impacts on the [Great Barrier Reef] and in particular the flatback turtle and snubfin dolphin populations”.
Burke told Guardian Australia recently that the Fitzroy Terminal, proposed by The Mitchell Group, and a second nearby terminal proposed by mining giant Xstrata, were both in the kind of “relatively untouched and pristine” areas that Unesco’s world heritage committee has said should not be subject to further development.
“The minister has the legal power to say a project is inconsistent with Australian environmental laws, and reject it, at the time it is first referred to him, and in this case he had clear advice that it was completely inappropriate for a world heritage area,” said GetUp! campaign director Paul Oosting.
A spokesman for the Fitzroy Terminal Project said the company had worked with “environmental and world heritage specialists” to make sure its plan – to barge coal into deeper water where it will be loaded on to transport vessels – had “minimal impact” and addressed all environmental concerns.
“Mitchell Ports’ team recognised the critical need to find a low impact export solution for projects along the Queensland coast years before the interest expressed by Unesco and green groups regarding port developments,” the spokesman said.
The environmental impact statement (EIS) would be submitted later in 2013.
“We believe from the scientific reports presented to us to date that the EIS will demonstrate that our proposed barging and transhipping operation offers a far smaller impact than traditional port developments, due largely to the vast reduction in dredging requirements. The EIS will demonstrate that the impacts associated with the project can be successfully managed, and we are confident that the project will be approved by both levels of government,” he said.
Last year the world heritage committee warned it was considering putting the reef on its list of world heritage sites “in danger” and said Australian governments should “not permit any new port development or associated infrastructure outside of the existing and long-established major port areas within or adjoining the (world heritage) property, and to ensure that development is not permitted if it would impact individually or cumulatively on the outstanding universal value of the property”.
The Fitzroy Terminal is technically in an existing port area, but in the recent interview with Guardian Australia Burke said: “The area around Balaclava Island is in my view and based on the environmental evidence, relatively untouched and pristine. There are large and important areas of seagrass … it is effectively the front lawn of the Great Barrier Reef.”