It is crucial to some of the most ambitious mines plans seen in Queensland. While the companies involved have taken unprecedented steps to alleviate fears of potential damage to the nearby Great Barrier Reef, their independent environmental assessment may not be as independent as they claim.
The three main players in the Abbot Point port — Indian industrial powerhouses GVK and Adani, and BHP Billiton — undertook a year-long independent, peer-reviewed environmental Cumulative Impact Assessment.
Their aim was to demonstrate their environmental credentials and safeguard the approvals process. No wonder; in 2011, the port exported coal at a rate of 14 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) — piddling figures when compared with what is in in store.
Each company plans to a build terminal with up to 60 mtpa export capacity. Queensland's two biggest operating coal ports — Gladstone and Hay Point near Mackay — current export 75 mtpa and 130 mtpa, respectively.
Both Adani and GVK's terminals will service mines in the untapped Galilee Basin coalfields. BHP's terminal will export coal from established Bowen Basin mines.
GVK, the most advanced of the Abbot Point triumvirate, is the first to receive federal and state approval to proceed with its mine and port, as well as the rail line which will connect them. GVK owns 79 per cent of the Alpha coal project, which has potential to last 30 years. The remaining 21 per cent is held by Gina Rinehart's Hancock Coal.
Mining companies are usually paranoid about losing commercial advantage. They dread having to disclose operational information — a fear that most definitely includes development of export facilities like Abbot Point.
In this case, however, GVK, Adani and BHP shared their plans and cooperated to submit to the Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA). The CIA, a voluntary report not mandated by law, is the first major collaborative study of its kind in Australia.
It comprises 16 individual studies on various aspects of the environment, including: shipping; fishing; noise; dredging; marine; terrestrial biodiversity; and visual amenity.
The publicly-run port administrator, North Queensland Bulk Ports, said "studies have been conducted and reviewed by recognised scientific experts including university scientists, environmental consultancies, port industry professionals, marine safety experts and other specialists."
But of the 16 studies and their subsequent peer reviews, only 10 per cent were performed by bodies that could be classified as independent.
GVK says the CIA studies were the subject of rigorous independent peer reviews. Vice-chairman Sanjay Reddy said "we believe the overall assessment process has resulted in best practice environmental protection outcomes."
However, of the CIA's 16 studies, all were undertaken on a commercial basis funded by the development proponents. 14 were performed by environmental consulting agencies, with one each from Bond and Curtin Universities,.
12 were subject to "independent peer reviews" by consultants, one by a professor from Griffith University and three were not reviewed (pdf).
Environmental consultants in such a situation suffer a conflict of interest. Adverse results threaten developers' plans — who, after all, pay consultants to undertake the environmental assessments in the first place.
Jon Brodie, who leads James Cook University's Catchment to Reef Research Group at the Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, told NM: "If consultancies don't produce the answers required by the developer, then there won't be any more work. They are captured to some extent."
"[Consultancies] have to accept the work and have less control [compared to university departments] over what they do. They just do what they are told to do."
In addition, according to journalist Paul Cleary's recent book Mine Field, no accreditation process exists for the industry.
Brodie said the troubled Port of Gladstone in Queensland is a salient reminder of what can go wrong when port developments are mismanaged, while Townsville, on the other hand, is an example of good management.
Decades of rapid industrial growth have severely impacted Gladstone Harbour and with massive expansion planned to accommodate the booming LNG industry, threats to the Great Barrier Reef loom.
"Some people say Gladstone was an accident. It is not," Brodie told NM. "Gladstone was deliberate as far as I am concerned. Deliberate environmental destruction and basically corruption. Get it all done as cheaply and quickly and nastily as possible and ride out the consequences by using political power."
"Port developments can be managed well — Townsville had big capital investment about 20 years ago. In 1992, the dredging was managed quite well. [Ports] don't have to be like Gladstone," Brodie said.
So what needs to happen to prevent Abbot Point turning into another Gladstone? A baseline monitoring program of the port development for a start, Brodie said.
"If the design of the baseline monitoring was internationally and independently reviewed and open and transparent, one might have some hope. But [the monitoring] needs to be scientifically robust and open and transparent."
Senior Lecturer in Civil Engineering at Monash University, Dr Gavin Mudd, has long studied environmental regulation of Australia's resources sector, and is the author of significant academic studies on the topic. He also expressed concerns about the approval process.
He said government agencies charged with regulating heavy industry inadequately monitor the environmental impacts of development — water quality samples, measurement of water table contamination and the like.
"Regulators have forgotten that they are supposed to provide an independent assessment, but we have got to the stage where they are actually more pro-industry than the industry.
"Governments say ‘consultants are experts so we can trust their results'. The development proponent isn't going to lie, so we can trust them too.
"So they [the department] just send their monitoring staff out to take samples on the same day that the consultants that their samples and say we can rely on these results."
At the time of writing, GVK and the publicly-owned port administrator, North Queensland Bulk Ports, had declined to provide details of what monitoring would take place during the Abbot Point development and whether it would be made public or not.
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