Saturday, September 1, 2012

Gladstone Harbour Dredging

[Source: The Economist]

A short and generalised summary of what's happening at the Gladstone Harbour (Queensland, Australia).

Interview with Dr. Matt Landos - an independent researcher (a veterinary scientist) who will soon release a report on data collected from the Harbour - if you don't have time to watch it all, probably start from 13-14 minutes to get the more generalised explanation.

To prepare the harbour for coal seam gas (methane) export (money) -  e.g. boats/equipment entering/leaving, the sediments are being dredged (dug up) and the material acquired dumped in the Great Barrier Reef. Yes, that Great Barrier Reef (link 1, 2). Excavation waste is being dumped into a UNESCO World Heritage site, a biodiverse and complex ecosystem (UNESCO wasn't notified when the project started). In addition, you'd think the government would consult experts before potentially disrupting an ecosystem - e.g. a vet in regards to animals, a coral expert, a water quality expert. Let's release the cane toad.

But the more immediate concern, is that as a result of all the digging, the water is being contaminated and to no surprise, the animals living in the water are now diseased and dying. Water to sea creatures (or anything living underwater, for that matter) is everything - how it gets its oxygen, how it gets its food, minerals, nutrients, essential ions, its toilet... it's everything. It's surrounded by its environment all the time and it cannot get away from it. The dredging is releasing materials into the water that is not usually there e.g. metals (such as aluminium) and nutrients from stirred up soil. Now, nutrients are good, but anything in excess can be toxic (seriously) - organisms like algae which produce toxins flourish in excess nutrients. This is kinda why you don't pour garden fertiliser into your backyard pool, or you don't wanna administer insecticides/fly-spray into your home aquarium. 

The government has collected some data to say that levels of some toxins (eg. some metals) are not above the levels considered to be 'toxic'/harmful. But what wasn't mentioned was the data was collected from a large body of water - ie. samples collected from where the toxins were coming from, and also further (and further and further) away from that site - where the water is only slightly contaminated. Then they combined all the numbers together and produced an average. So instead of revealing that: yes, the water is contaminated (eg. 20 times toxic levels) - the results were figuratively diluted out. Also, we/people don't entirely understand how chemicals (e.g. toxins / other substances in the water) interact with each other - even though the measurement of a certain substance may be "under" the harmful level, it may interact with something else and cause harm.

You've heard of lead poisoning and how it affects the brain, nerves and basically how the body functions. If the body cannot function well, well.. the animal cannot survive. The coral, fish, turtles, dugongs, crabs, dolphins and everything else living in or using the water - even people working in the area (such as fishermen) - are all being affected by the contaminated water (by affected, I mean getting ill and/or dying). 

When you get sick, you are more susceptible to getting more disease - the body's immune system becomes compromised (immunocompromised). Some of the authorities (govt, dredging company) are attributing some of the disease and mortalities to secondary diseases that the animals are getting, which are highly likely due to the contaminated water in the first place. (In short: contaminated water > unwell/sick fish > get secondary diseases eg. because they are less able to fight off 'the usual' load of diseases such as parasites). And the Queensland Government (their Environment department) are saying fish caught from these are still fit for human consumption. I don't think many people would want to eat emaciated fish with heart disease, fluid leaking into their body cavities, inflamed guts, brain disease; crabs with holes in their shells.  

A report that will soon be released collected data to see what the situation is actually like. Mortalities have increased, coinciding with the start of dredging. (nothing else besides that have changed - "what about the recent Queensland floods?" you ask? Well, as was mentioned in the video above by Dr. Landos, ever since that Harbour ecosystem existed (e.g. hundreds/thousands of years), there has probably been flood events - and monitoring has not seen deaths like current levels. 

(Personally, when I first heard of the situation, which was only yesterday. I naively was surprised and thought back to when I first saw the Asia Pulp and Paper 
(the destroyers of rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia and probably leading to its inhabitants' (eg. orangutans) extinction) TV advertisement being played in Australia  - how bluntly the public was being misled.)

Some web links (plenty more out there to research, as well - Google Scholar effects of contaminated water / heavy metal poisoning on fauna/flora, coral health etc etc etc - everything in the environment is interconnected, there is no way affecting one thing will not affect something else). Ok, enough of my rant. Spread this topic and raise awareness if you'd like.

- Courier Mail
- Weekly Times Now
- The Economist
for less objective links (not news articles):
- - related blog posts
- GetUp! campaign page

*update: here's a link to the abc 7:30 queensland report news segment (the site won't let me embed the video elsewhere) - there's also a transcript of the video as well

some points to clear up (mentioned in the above news report and/or by Leo Zussino, from Gladstone Ports Corporation (working for the Port / the dredging project))
1. Overflow of barramundi, that came with the overflowing dam water (due to the floods) are increasing competition for food, and this is why the other fish are getting sick and dying - due to starvation.
No. Independent scientists (soon to be released report), not ones working for the government who approved this situation, found that there were plenty of fish for the barramundi (and other fish-eating fish) to eat, right next to where the barramundi were swimming. 

Also, it's not just fish competing with barramundi who are getting sick; dugongs, crabs, people, sharks - they're all affected and they're not competing with the barramundi for fish to eat. So this argument is moot.

2. Leo Zussino said: "We are causing an impact upon commercial fishermen's harvest in Gladstone harbour while we are dredging. But we're not causing in our view and all the scientific evidence we've seen any impact upon fish that's causing disease in fish."
Key words to take note here: "...all the scientific evidence we've seen...". I don't think "all the scientific evidence" that him and his Corporation has seen, can be compared to "all the scientific evidence" that scientists producing a peer-reviewed scientific report have seen (and to that add: and probably read and understood). 
It's like saying, 'there is no evidence' - when you didn't look in the right place!

3. the Gladstone Ports Corporation also said that diseased fish were there before the dredging started, so dredging could not be responsible for disease and deaths seen now.
Who do you believe: Fishermen who are working in the water and experiencing the problem first hand, or a Corporate Businessman who probably has not stepped foot in the actual waters or seen and touched the animals affected?

One of the fishermen interviewed said, "I caught 15 tonne of barra before the dredging started and not one of them had any sign of disease and about a month after the dredging started they started getting diseased."

You've probably now gotten a sense that the Gladstone Ports Corporation, and some  representatives of the government backing this project are willing to say things that's not backed by a lot of scientific evidence (i.e. untrue things, a.k.a lies). I really hope that someone high up gets their head screwed on right and realise what precious things they are destroying.

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