Hinchinbrook dugongs: extinction for profit

October 16, 1996


By Carol Booth

BRISBANE — Environment groups will challenge in the High Court federal environment minister Senator Robert Hill's consent to Keith Williams' Port Hinchinbrook development. The case will be a benchmark in environmental law, establishing what responsibility the Australian government has in protecting World Heritage Areas.

Hill announced consent for Williams' 1500-bed resort and 250-berth marina on the Hinchinbrook Channel on August 22, but delayed providing the legally required Statement of Reasons for his decision until October 9. Those documents revealed that Hill bowed to Williams' all or nothing demand and agreed to the mega-development despite acknowledging that it could cause environmental damage. The site is adjacent to two World Heritage areas — the Great Barrier Reef WHA and Wet Tropics WHA.

Under the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act, the government is bound "to the utmost of its own resources" to identify, protect, conserve, present and transmit to future generations World Heritage areas.

Massive excavations are proceeding at Oyster Point. A 900 metre canal for the marina is to be dredged into the Hinchinbrook Channel.

Despite its massive size and potential impacts on WHA, the Oyster Point development has not been subject to an environmental impact assessment or a regional plan to account for World Heritage values.

In a number of scientific reports on the project and in numerous letters written by scientists to the environment ministers — almost 200 scientists in letters to Senator John Faulkner and about 130 to Senator Hill — scientists have expressed concern about the potential impact of the development.

In the Valentine Report, 1994, commissioned by Senator Faulkner, Dr Peter Valentine identified 15 potential impacts on World Heritage values. "It is quite extraordinary that a resort project of this scale (the largest yet attempted in Queensland) occurring adjacent to two WHA, could be granted approval without a full Environmental Impact Statement", he said.

There are two major categories of potential impact on World Heritage values: those arising from construction and maintenance of the resort and marina — vegetation clearing, channel dredging, excavation of acid sulphate soils — and those from the effects of greatly expanded tourism and boating.

There is particular concern about the effects of increased boating on critically endangered dugongs. Over the past eight years, dugong numbers have decreased 50-80% in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. One of the largest remaining dugong populations is in the Hinchinbrook Channel.

Dugongs are grazing mammals. Destruction of seagrass by the Hinchinbrook development could leave them without food.

The channel is also home to three species of turtle, all listed as endangered.

Hill approved the development based on a scientific review of the Hinchinbrook — Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA) Study by Sinclair, Knight Merz submitted by Williams with his application. The Reichelt Report concluded that while the science of the ERA study was in many places inadequate, the development could go ahead without damaging the immediate environment within a few hundred metres provided best engineering practice was employed.

Despite the concern of the scientific reviewers that they had been limited to assessing the effect on just the local environment, Hill tried to use it as scientific validation of his decision.

In a press release announcing the approval for the development, Hill said: "The scientific advice I have before me indicates that the World Heritage values of the region will not be threatened provided best practice engineering methods are employed".

This is directly contradicted by the Reichelt Report: "Attention is drawn to significant uncertainties about the impact of the proposed activities ... when they are set in a broader context of the regional environment, and in the context of society's goals for the region in relation to its World Heritage status".

The Goss Labor government in 1993 also approved the development without assessment of the potential impacts on World Heritage values. Its decision was based on an environmental review report criticised by Professor Frank Talbot as "a piece of work that would fail a student".

Drafts of that report acquired through Freedom of Information by the Democrats show that Williams influenced the contents of the final document. The margins and text of the draft are peppered with his handwritten comments, such as "A suggestion on which I will insist", "Not acceptable", "Noted with thanks", "Under no circumstances will I agree to that".

Also obtained through FOI were documents such as a letter to Queensland's coordinator-general, John Down, with this introduction: "I write this letter to you personally and it might be best to destroy same after you have absorbed the contents. I would not like it to be subject to F.O.I. Because you and your staff have devoted so much time and effort to getting 'PORT HINCHINBROOK' through an inordinate amount of red tape ..."

Williams has a history of defying environmentalists' outrage to push through large developments in environmentally sensitive locations. He cleared swampland on the Southport Spit to build Sea World and built Hamilton Island Resort in the Whitsundays.

Williams uses threats of litigation liberally to try to silence criticism. In the Courier-Mail of December 1, 1994, Williams was quoted as saying: "I am working with my legal advisers right now with the view to taking civil action against all those people, be they just plain greenies or obstructionists or scientists or pseudo-scientists ... all those people who have written letters to the department which I consider have caused me damage, such letters as contain blatant untruths, distortion of the facts and unsupportable scientific or supposedly scientific evidence, I consider that they are liable for damages and I intend to launch civil action against them."

He accuses scientists of lying and distorting information. For example on Four Corners on September 23, he implied that scientist Dr Tony Preen was lying about there being dugongs near Oyster Point.

He has repeatedly accused Dr Peter Valentine of scientific misconduct. The Tully Times of September 29, 1994 reported, "Williams said commissioning Dr Valentine to prepare a report on the likely adverse impacts of Port Hinchinbrook was parallel to asking the devil to report on heaven. Williams stands ready to challenge the Valentine Report on every count and he is adamant that if reputable independent and unbiased scientists had been commissioned to perform the work then the report could not possibly contain one supportable negative impact."

The Australian Academy of Sciences has formed a committee investigating alleged political misuse of scientific information and intimidation of scientists.

"Someone has to prove the point", Williams said on Four Corners, "that you can fight against these minority pressure groups and win, because if someone doesn't win against them and if somebody doesn't have a strong government behind them that wants to help them win, then this country is doomed".

Williams bought the already devastated Oyster Point site in 1993 from Teakin Australia. Teakin had cleared seven hectares of mangroves and melaleucas for a large resort development, but abandoned the project in 1990 when financial backers withdrew after the federal environment minister issued a stop-work notice until an EIA could be completed.

It was later established that Hinchinbrook Channel was not part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the federal government had no power to order an EIA for Queensland state waters. The Goss state government fast-tracked approval for the resort in 1994, using the Williams-influenced environmental review report as justification.

In November 1994, there was clearing of old-growth foreshore mangrove forest. On November 15, the governor-general issued a proclamation under the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act identifying Oyster Point as property to which the act applied and therefore requiring Williams to apply to the Commonwealth for approval to carry out work. Defying that proclamation, clearing of mangroves continued through the night until all the old growth trees were destroyed. Williams was not prosecuted for this action.

After further government consents and backdowns, representations by conservationists and scientists finally convinced Faulkner to stop further work on the site.

After the election of coalition governments in Queensland and federally, Williams reapplied for consent, supported by the ERA report he commissioned. Hill consented to the development of the 250-berth marina and resort, complete with 1500-bed accommodation, a convention centre, retail village and recreational facilities.

John Howard was quoted in Townsville Bulletin as saying he had been personally involved in the process after lobbying by a local National Party MP.

The case challenging Hill's consent is not just about saving one region from an inappropriate development. It could decide the future for all World Heritage areas by establishing the government's responsibility to protect such areas.

Donations to the Hinchinbrook Legal Fighting Fund can be made by phoning (07) 3221 0188 with credit card details or sending a cheque (payable to QCC Hinchinbrook Fund) to Queensland Conservation Council, PO Box 12046, Elizabeth St, Brisbane 4002.