At a meeting in Brisbane on 18th October 2019, NQCC met with the Department of Transport and Main Roads about the draft Townsville Port Master Plan. This is a strategic level of planning that is an attempt to manage the Queensland Government's uncomfortable paradox of allowing port developments within a world heritage area while they try to manage their international obligation to protect the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
Digesting the Port Master Plan to determine exactly what the environmental outcomes are is an intense and complicated task. Probably the best opportunity for NQCC and our community of conservationists is to ensure important environmental values within the 'Master Planned Area' are mapped on the 'overlays.' The overlays are like maps that set up requirements for monitoring or environmental assessment of impacts for proposed development activities into the future. The idea of the plan is not to duplicate existing legislation but to fill in where there might be any gaps.
A Good Outcome for Shorebirds
Unfortunately, many of the activities that would be undertaken with the port expansion cannot be stopped or changed through the Port Master Planning process, e.g. sea dumping of maintenance dredging. However, in the coming weeks when public consultation is opened up on the overlays, that is our time to ensure important environmental values are mapped. Already so far as a result of input from our expert members, NQCC was able to highlight important shorebird habitat on the southern bank of the Ross River and to connect the department with the Queensland Wader Study Group. The group surveys shorebird activities (and are always looking for volunteers to survey shorebirds) and they were able to provide the department with count data of shorebird abundance and diversity for the site. Perhaps you know of other useful citizen data sets or information helpful for the public consultation phase of the overlays. Another opportunity is for any World Heritage experts well versed in the Great Barrier Reef WHA who can review the Port Master Plan's framework of evaluating their Outstanding Universal Value attributes. If you can help with either of these, NQCC would love to hear from you.
Industrial Development for Significant Wetlands
The Master Planned area also covers the Townsville State Development Area (TSDA) which is a 4,900 ha site from the eastern side of the Bruce Highway from the southern bank of the Ross River almost to as far south as Billabong Sanctuary. This is the proposed industry zone for new developments now and into the decades to come. It is a prized location for this purpose because it is 'empty', unused land and it will be connected to the port via the Townsville Eastern Access Rail Corridor (TEARC) project (a proposed 8.3km rail freight line). This large area of future industrial land is a Nationally Significant Wetland within close proximity of important ecological areas, namely the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and Ramsar listed Bowling Green Bay National Park.
A bit of Background
The draft Townsville Port Master Plan was released late in 2018 for public comment. A joint submission was written by NQCC, WWF and the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS). Our submission raised our concerns about sea dumping of maintenance dredge (the material from regular dredging of the channel to maintain sufficient depth for large container ships to access port areas), the continuing decline of water quality in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA), ensuring better use of existing port capacity to reduce the need to expand the port and the need to protect the Great Barrier Reef's Outstanding Universal Values (OUVs) of the world heritage property.
Master planning for priority ports is an action that came out of the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan) and a requirement under the Sustainable Ports Development Action 2015 (Qld). The deal is that in order to protect the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area while at the same time allowing for development to proceed, the Queensland Government has committed to limit port developments to four areas along the Great Barrier Reef coastline. Townsville, Gladstone, Abbot Point and Hay Point/Mackay are the selected sites that have been carved out of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park but they are still within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area - a slight technicality that is easily used to confuse the public. While it is great that port developments along the Great Barrier Reef coastline has been limited to the four locations, it still means development of larger ports, dredging of the seafloor and increased shipping traffic, which all have impacts on marine life and water quality.