Once upon a time - a historical background

 

Otime… there was a small, friendly, seaside township called Cardwell-by-the-Sea, on the North Queensland mainland at the northern end of the World Heritage listed Hinchinbrook Channel, just four kilometres across from the magical and mysterious Hinchinbrook Island.

In the 1970s the Queensland Government carried out investigations of mainland sites that had been selected, from an engineering perspective, for investigation as small boat harbours. The Government had already decided that Oyster Point (the mouth of Stoney Creek, about one kilometre south of Cardwell) was unsuitable. The local Council, however, in a time of little environmental awareness and perhaps under pressure from developers, so badly wanted to have a boat harbour on their bit of coast that they persuaded the State to include Oyster Point in their studies in 1977 and again in 1980. On each occasion the resulting Report stated that Oyster Point was unsuitable as a boat harbour; citing engineering costs, flood and sedimentation proneness and lack of natural deep water; all difficulties that persist to this day.

Nevertheless, a company called Tekin Australia began to develop a 26 ha Special Lease and about 20 ha of associated land on a former mangrove island that formed the northern bank of Stoney Creek. The company also owned some 85 ha south of Stoney Creek, including Lot 17 where now stands the four-metre-high and kilometre-long dredge spoil reservoir or 'spoil pond'. Tekin substantially cleared the development land, illegally cleared old-growth mangroves on and north of the development site, and began earthworks for a resort project and boat harbour. South of Stoney Creek, Tekin dumped acid sulphate soils in 'mullock heaps' on Lot 17 and in the adjacent Vacant Crown Land (now called Unallocated State Land or USL).

Tekin was floated as a public company, bringing in some $31m. For most of its life it had four directors (some of whom were associates of Keith Williams) who were also directors of another company called Resort Village Cardwell (RVC). Tekin borrowed around $10m from Farrow Mortgagees, a Skase company. Much of these moneys were transferred to RVC, the liability remaining substantially with Tekin. Tekin persuaded the contractor engaged for site works to bring more machines onto the site even though progress payments had been stopped and even though, no matter how deep his excavations into the soft marine mud, he could find none of the promised sand with which to carry out the surface work.

After campaigning by the Wild Life Preservation Society of Queensland and other groups, the then Commonwealth Environment Minister Senator Graham Richardson had requested a Public Environment Report (PER) - but Tekin was wound up before this could be done. Ten years later the contractor was still trying to recover a claimed $1.5m. At the time of winding up about $12m seemed to be missing, accepted as having been in the possession of RVC. Farrow's loan to Tekin was not recovered. Three years later RVC (same directors as Tekin) was also wound up, and this time the missing money was apparently supposed to have been with the defunct Tekin.

In April 1993 a former Tekin associate started a new company Cardwell Properties Pty Ltd (CP) which acquired the site at fire-sale price. Within two months Keith Williams had become a director and had written to the Queensland Government advising that he would push ahead with a new version of the old Tekin project. Before long the only directors were Keith Williams and his son Ben.

With trouble looming in the Hinchinbrook Channel, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) decided that the Hinchinbrook Channel was not under their jurisdiction - despite the fact that the GBR Marine Park boundary follows the mainland coast and has never been changed - after receiving a weak legal opinion based on their advice to the Commonwealth Attorney General's Department. This boundary issue has since been canvassed publicly in Professor Frank Talbot's chapter Will the Great Barrier Reef Survive Human Impact? in Eric Wolanski's book Oceanographic Processes of Coral Reefs (CRC Press).

The GBRMPA did at least insist that dredge spoil would have to be stored ashore, not dumped at sea. The GBRMPA also wanted the Queensland Government to carry out a public Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Instead, the Queensland Department of Environment published in 1994 an Environmental Review Report (ERR), a poor excuse for an EIA. Further, the developer's handwriting was all over the drafts (later obtained under Freedom of Information legislation), a fact not denied by the developer when confronted on the ABC Four Corners program The Dugong and the Developer.

Using locally scavenged soils a dredge spoil reservoir was built above the ground on Lot 17 (owned by the developer), along the boundary of the adjacent low-lying melaeuca (freshwater) wetlands of Unallocated State Land (USL) Lots 42 and 33. No crystal ball was needed to predict that the kilometre of north-south earthen walls would block the easterly overland freshwater flow into the coastal wetland; nor that there would be more dredge spoil and discarded acid sulphate soils than could be accommodated in the reservoir. Nevertheless the proposal seemed assured of State approval regardless of these and many other serious environmental issues. Ironically, USL Lot 33, now officially given 'high conservation' status and valued as habitat for mahogany gliders (endangered), beach stone curlews (vulnerable) and Livistona drudei palms (rare), has for the last seven years been earmarked by the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for inclusion in the new Girringun National Park, along with other Hinchinbrook coastal lands such as Lumholtz National Park.

In late 1994 the Australian Governor General accepted the advice of the Commonwealth Environment Minister Senator John Faulkner and issued a Proclamation over part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, comprising the Hinchinbrook Channel waters adjacent to the development site north and south of Stoney Creek. The Proclamation, the only one ever issued in relation to private development actions, gave the Commonwealth legal power to stop any actions that would threaten world heritage values in the Proclaimed area of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA). Nevertheless, all the northern foreshore mangroves would have been destroyed had not conservationists been protecting them with their bodies while the Proclamation, a lengthy legal document, was being prepared; and in the end the developer's bulldozers entered the foreshore at midnight on Proclamation Day, felling the tall mangroves under flood lights. Although Environment Minister Faulkner had then commissioned a scientific report that recommended immediate restoration of the foreshore, his Government was unable to act on the Report because elections intervened. The incoming Howard government evidently did not feel compelled to act on the GBRMPA Report.

Margaret Moorhouse in Cardwell, receiving by fax the Governor-General's Proclamation over parts of the Hinchinbrook Channel, the legal instrument that should have stopped the bulldozers and saved the mangrove trees so far protected only by the bodies of protestors. And in the afternoon the bulldozers did stop. But late that night flood lights went up on towers, and midnight saw machines again on the foreshore tearing down most of the remaining forest. Only the incoming tide prevented dozer access to a narrow strip of more seaward trees. Photo: James Crawford

In fact the new government actively supported the development. Following a brief Commonwealth public assessment process in 1996, both Prime Minister Howard and Deputy Prime Minister Fischer publicly stated that they favoured the development proposal, thus pre-empting the proper decision of the new Environment Minister Senator Robert Hill.

Although that part of the 1996 application relating to the construction of breakwater walls extending 600-900 metres out into the Hinchinbrook Channel was refused, Environment Minister Hill approved further destruction of the remaining fringing mangroves, along with futile attempts to create an artificial-beach as-if Whitsundays-type beaches could ever be transposed onto this turbulent tropical mangrove coast.

In 1996 in the Federal court in Sydney, Friends of Hinchinbrook (FOH) was granted an injunction (based on an affidavit by Margaret Moorhouse) to prevent the imminent destruction of the remaining mangroves in the intertidal zone (State Marine Park). This precipitated a full hearing in which FOH challenged the decision of the Commonwealth Minister under the Administrative Decisions Judicial Review (ADJR) Act, and lost on Appeal. The merits of the development application were not in question; only the way in which the decision had been made. The judge's findings filled some 90 pages; essentially it seemed that as long as the paper processes had been properly carried out, ministerial discretion was unassailable.

In 1997 the Queensland Government exempted from Environment Impact Assessment a new proposal for a canal estate along the excavated 'Grande Canal' that now carried the flow from the former Stoney Creek. Later the Queensland Environment protection Agency (EPA) approved a further canal extension to the south for a 'ships maintenance basin'. By this time disturbed acid sulphate soils were releasing sulphuric acid into the environment, a headache to the agencies that had permitted the development works.

In 1997 too the development came under scrutiny in two Senate Inquiries the first into Commonwealth Powers and the second into the Hinchinbrook Channel. Senators visited the site and saw for themselves the obvious environmental damage. The subsequent Hinchinbrook Channel Inquiry Report referred to the saga that unfolded during the Inquiry as a “tragedy of errors”.

HOW MANY STAGES?

From Phoenix May 2005, the official newsletter of the Alliance to Save Hinchinbrook. Edited by Margaret Moorhouse and Margaret Thorsborne; compiled by Steven Nowakowski. Spokeperson for ASH: M. Moorhouse, PO Box 2457 Townsville Qld 4810; Phone 0427 724 052 May 2005

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