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October 16, 2012

Greenpeace Australia Reveals Potential Government Coal Cover-Up

Coal pileIs the Australian government rubber stamping massive environmental impacts from a coal export terminal?

This is a guest post by Gordon Scott of Sierra Club International and Georgina Woods of Greenpeace.

The coal industry's assault on Australia's cherished Great Barrier Reef continued last week with the announcement by Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke of approval for a major new coal export terminal at Abbot Point in Queensland. While it's a temporary setback for a growing Australian coal movement, the questionable approval process and potential cover up it has exposed will undoubtedly weaken the coal industry's plans in the long run.

The coal terminal, a 60-megatonne-per-annum facility known as "T3" to be developed by Indian based GVK and Australian based Hancock, is one of three new terminals proposed for the area and is a part of a broader push for a massive Australian coal export expansion. These plans have tremendous environmental impacts.

The Abbot Point shoreline alone is home to threatened and migratory marine turtles, fat and endearing dugongs, and Humpback whale mothers and their calves. The area is also an important habitat for tens of thousands of migratory wetland and shorebirds, some of which are endangered or vulnerable. This is just the kind of place you would NOT want to put a giant destructive coal export terminal.

That is exactly why the project developers may have hid the environmental impacts from regulators. Recently revealed project documents obtained by Greenpeace under freedom of information laws reveal that GVK/Hancock was well aware of the ecological significance of this area. Despite this knowledge they either knowingly omitted it or covered it up in their environmental assessment for the project. 

Worse, documents from the consultants undertaking environmental surveys of the area revealed that as early as March 2012, project authorities were warned that the Abbot Point area "meets the criterion...for recognition as nationally important migratory shorebird habitat," and that "a total of eight endangered, vulnerable or near threatened bird species (seven of which utilise wetland habitats) have been recorded."

In fact, the final report for the Cumulative Impact concluded that there were more than double the threshold count of wetland birds to be considered internationally important habitat, and stated in no uncertain terms that the area "is assessed as meeting both criteria for recognition as internationally important habitat." [1]

But despite these findings  the official assessment documents provided by the mining and export companies in June maintained that "based on the information available, it is unclear if the project site at Abbot Point provides important habitat for any of the shorebird species." The project's documentation concluded that the affected wetland “is not considered important migratory shore-bird habitat." [2]

The developers' disregard for these findings of threatened species and important habitat in the Cumulative Impact Assessment is disturbing. It is not clear whether this was merely an oversight or a deliberate omission by GVK/Hancock Coal. Greenpeace Australia is currently investigating further. 

What is even more troubling, however, is the fact that the government's assessment process did not independently discover the outstanding ecological value of the affected wetland. The successful approval and permitting of this project in the face of easily identifiable facts exposes just how shoddy Australia's environmental approval process was in this case. In effect, it was little more than a rubber stamp for the coal industry.  

This problem however does not rest solely on the shoulders of Australia's regulators, it's also an American problem. As we've reported previously, US tax payer dollars flowing through the United States Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank may support this destruction. The Ex-Im Bank has faced severe criticism for considering financing for questionable coal mines in Queensland's Galilee Basin, including GVK's Alpha coal project, and Adani Power's Carmichael mine.  Financing the Sierra Club explicitly opposes.

Activists in both countries are now stepping up their opposition to these destructive plans, and the shoddy oversight that is letting them move forward. The coal industry may have won a rubber stamp victory this time around. But it will soon realize that it is far from the last battle they will face in their efforts to destroy the Reef. 

[1] BAAM 2012. Abbot Point Cumulative Impact Assessment Migratory shorebird and waterbird surveys. Report prepared for NQBP. Dated 13 April 2012.

[2] T3 Preliminary Documentation, Section 8


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