May 4th 2013
Will Magnetic become "Mud Island"?
“Mud Island” is the likely future for Magnetic Island if Townsville Port’s current expansion plans are to be enacted, according to a flyer currently being distributed by two major community organisations on Magnetic Island
The plan, which would extend and deepen the access sea channel which runs within 1500 metres of some of Magnetic Island’s finest beaches such as Florence, Arthur and Alma Bays, looks like it has run into stiff Island opposition with the letterboxed flyer (click here for download from MINCA website), produced by Magnetic Island Nature Care (MINCA) and MI Community Development Association (MICDA), urging residents to write letters, emails and submissions to the state and commonwealth as well as politicians.
Claiming the equivalent of, “half a million truck loads of mud are to be dumped” from the initial dredging, about 6 kms up-current of Magnetic, the Mud Island flyer also takes aim at the ongoing maintenance dredging, with a banner, “Dredging is forever,” and, “as mud is repeatedly stirred it smothers and causes chronic stress to corals,” adding, “The plan could spell the end for the island’s present marine environment, recreational fishing and tourism industry.”
The flyer is responding to the Port’s huge Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which is currently out for public comment.
The document takes further the concerns outlined in a letter organised by Tourism Operators Businesses Magnetic Island (TOBMI) late last year which was also supported by MINCA and MICDA as well as the MI Ratepayers and Residents Association (MIRRA). In it there was "overwhelming concern regarding the detrimental effects of dredging the Platypus and Sea Channels," and "Of greatest concern is the fine silt which is created during maintenance dredging of the channels and its known detrimental effects on the fringing reef communities."
When an information session was held at Nelly Bay Harbour recently, Magnetic Times spoke to Greg Fisk, from the Port’s consultants, BMTWMB, who was quick to highlight the level of scrutiny the EIS will be under. “With the federal government responding to UNESCO’s visit (which is threatening a “World Heritage in Danger” listing for the Great Barrier Reef if major changes to port expansions - which are threatening the Reef’s water quality - were not made) and all the stuff happening at Gladstone, it’s one of the most detailed ever for an EIS.”
“We have to get it right - get a balance. The pressure is on both governments to get the balance right. And all we can do is put together the best document we can.”
Greg Fisk believes that the process set out by his company’s document, “tries to build flexibility” with detectors set up to alarm when mud levels are too high and for the dredging to then leave that location for another while the water settles down.
He admitted however that with the dredging process, “If you don’t overflow (muddy water overflowing from the dredge’s collection hopper) you’ll get 10% material (in the hopper) and 90% water - so, for productivity purposes, you want to overflow”
As, “dredging is much more serious and long lasting than occasional big impact events like cyclones and bleaching”, according to the “Mud Island” flyer, Greg Fisk’s overflow description is hardly reassuring. He did however add that the EIS calls for the use of a “green valve” which, instead of allowing water to spill back from the top of the hopper and onto the sea's surface, “The new technology shoots down overflow under the keel so it doesn’t spread turbidity too far.” When questioned as to how much better this would be in reducing the muddy water in the water column, he said, “I can’t quantify how much more effective.” The Mud Island flyer claims, “this doesnʼt change the amount of mud it will release, it just means it will be released beneath the seaʼs surface so we wonʼt see so much of it.”
Another major criticism levelled by the "Mud Island" flyer is that, “The consultants have produced a huge document to show how to minimise the mess. But, when they are hired by the Port, can we really trust the results? The query goes to the heart of the process which occurs across Australia when EIS and similar documents are called for by government.
One might wonder if there has ever been an EIS commissioned anywhere where the consultants have returned to their client and simply said, “We have looked closely at the project and advise that its environmental risks are just too great and believe the project should not go ahead!”
We put this scenario to Mr Fisk who said, “There are projects our company simply wouldn’t touch” and, while we take him at his word, the process isn’t independent of the client and the temptation for all consultants is great. Clearly the job of the EIS consultants is to find a way around the worst and eliminate or minimise whatever it can that is negative. As Mr Fisk put it, “We have to get it right - get a balance”.
But Magnetic’s marine environment has suffered the effects of dredging for many decades. Some may be aware that in the early 20th century the mud and mangrove-lined west coast of the Island was predominantly sandy beaches until dredging spoils were dumped there. So, just what a “balance” might be, when the dredging is massively increased - even with the aid of 21st century monitoring - when so much has already been lost to increased silt from agricultural run-off combined with historical dredging (think Geoffrey Bay reef flat), it sounds like the rhetoric we hear so often. Is there is a “right balance” between damaged and destroyed?
The EIS, according to Greg Fisk, does however call for an independent advisory committee of scientists to oversee the project but it doesn't detail how they should be appointed.
The flyer sees this project as, “a make or break moment for Magnetic Island's environment and economy and it's time to make some noise.” Given its enormity and the risks to the Island’s environment and tourist-based economy, this project demands our attention and our best efforts to understand and respond.
Writing to politicians who, in the end, will wear the responsibility is easy. The most significant politician contacts are listed on the MINCA page (click here).
The flyer also strongly recommends writing to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) (click here)
How to respond to the more formal requirements of the EIS, which has separate deadlines (May 13 and 27) for the state and commonwealth authorities, isn’t totally straightforward but there is very useful help and support on the MINCA website (click here).
Story & photo:George Hirst