Will Garrett Push The Button?


Next week, the former Navy frigate HMAS Adelaide is set to be scuttled at sea. It will rest permanently less than two kilometres off Avoca Beach on the NSW Central Coast. The HMAS Adelaide was given to the NSW government by the federal government for use as an artificial reef and recreational dive site and is expected to draw more tourists to the region.

Planning for the event has been underway for two years but, in recent weeks, a groundswell of protest has grown across the Central Coast. It’s being led by residents of Avoca Beach who are concerned about the long-term impact of the dumped warship on the local beach and marine environment.

And although the scuttling is scheduled for 27 March, Federal Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett, is yet to make a final decision whether to grant the Sea Dumping Permit the NSW government needs for the ship to be scuttled legally. A spokeswoman from the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts told newmatilda.com a decision from the Minister could not be expected until early next week because the departmental assessment process was not yet finished.

On the Central Coast, however, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a done deal. Arrangements for the big day have already been firmly set in place. RTA road closures and special event clearways have been established. Squadrons of electronic mobile traffic signals have been deployed to warn motorists to expect traffic delays as thousands of spectators are anticipated.

The local media are on board too. A "Push The Button" competition is being jointly run by local radio station Star FM, NBN Television and the Express Advocate. Hourly advertisements encourage residents to SMS "BOAT" to a hotline for the chance to personally blow up the frigate next week.

Advice on the best vantage points for viewing the detonation next Saturday have also been distributed, along with a strict timetable for the day; the formal ceremony will begin at 10:10am with the detonation of the ship set for 10:30am sharp.

Residents opposed to the scuttling are now formally organised as the No Ship Action Group (NSAG), and they have been joined by other organisations like the Surfrider Foundation. They are disputing the integrity of the environmental review process undertaken by the relevant state and federal authorities. Of primary concern is the potential presence in HMAS Adelaide of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a highly toxic fire-resistant compound which poses a well-documented risk to human and animal health.

PCBs were produced by Monsanto and commonly used in the manufacture of heat resistant coatings for electrical wire and other electronic components. This heat resistant quality was of obvious value to warships in the event of enemy strikes. Unfortunately, PCBs are also extremely toxic and cannot break down naturally in a marine environment. As a result, they accumulate in human and animal tissue and biomagnify in food chains.

The detrimental impact on human health of PCBs is significant and the US Congress banned their manufacture in 1979, just two years after the former HMAS Adelaide was built.

Responding to community concerns about the presence of PCBs on the ship earlier this month, the NSW Land and Property Management Authority (LPMA) agreed to subject samples from the ship to independent tests.

The tests found no traces of PCBs in the selected samples. This satisfied the LPMA and the NSW Minister for Planning, Infrastructure and Lands, Tony Kelly, but community concerns persist.

NSAG maintains that the small number of samples tested, just five, were taken from areas of the ship unlikely to contain PCBs, whereas samples from the areas where PCBs were more likely to be found — such as the engine room, weapons area and communications room — were not tested.

Environmental watchdog, the Basel Action Network, has been critical of the test procedures used to detect the presence of PCBs, claiming they are scientifically flawed. Colby Self of BAN told NSAG that "the PCB sampling report is insufficient". To concerns about the number of samples taken, Self adds the scope of the test: "they tested for the presence of six different PCB congeners, yet there are 209 PCB congeners that could pose risks."

Still, the LPMA and Minister Kelly maintain the ship is free of PCBs, and it appears the only way to check the vessel thoroughly for PCB toxicity is to pull large sections of it apart and access cabling in the walls of the ship. A process like this would defeat the cost-effective rationale behind the scuttling and doubtless also take considerable time.

The Federal Department’s technical assessments as to whether the former HMAS Adelaide meets the environmental standards stipulated in the Environmental Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981 continue. All the while, "Push The Button" day draws closer. With Garrett due to make an announcement early next week, the time available for the community to mount an appeal will be extremely limited.

One reason why the community consultation process is running so close to the wire is the NSW government’s very selective public advice throughout the two-year consultation process. At issue for the residents opposed to the scuttling is that the specific site for the wreck, Avoca Beach, was not formally communicated by the NSW government until a public meeting on 29 January 2010. Prior to this, all NSW Government communications indicated that the wreck would be located at Terrigal, the next beach north of Avoca. The location was changed after ocean floor surveys found that an area 1.8 kilometres off Avoca was more suitable.

But a newsletter from the local federal MP, Belinda Neal, advertised Terrigal, not Avoca, as the location of the wreck as late as February 2010. The first hint for many residents that the ship was to rest off Avoca was when a yellow buoy was placed at the proposed scuttling site on 28 January 2010. At this point, local resistance to the project grew in earnest.

Still, Minister Kelly and local stakeholders in favour of the wreck — including the Terrigal-based dive businesses that have lobbied successive governments for access to a lucrative wreck dive site for the last decade — point to the length of the community consultation process as they attempt to deflect calls for delay. 

With time running out, many are waiting to see how Garrett will deal with this explosive issue.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.