Dredging facts from the fiction: GPC responds to claims
DAMAGING claims made this week in southern media about the Gladstone Ports Corporation's $1.3 billion major harbour expansion show a limited understanding of what was involved during the planning and problems with the bund wall, according to the GPC.
The Observer sat down with Western Basin Dredging and Disposal Project manager Peter O'Sullivan, who has been on the project throughout its duration, to decipher fact from fiction, while also being privy to sensitive documents from the WBDDP.
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FORMER short-term employee of the GPC John Broomhead, who was employed for six months in 2011 as the environment and approvals project manager, made many claims in this week's The Australian that the GPC has not been given the chance to refute.
Mr Broomhead claimed the GPC faced a $1 million-a-day penalty to be paid to the dredging company if it stopped work.
Mr O'Sullivan said there was no penalty, but there was a standby rate for when the dredging equipment was being used. Dredge company Van Ord also attended to maintenance during some standby times.
Mr Broomhead claimed it was near impossible for anyone to order a stop to dredging works, and that it had to come from the State Environment Department.
Mr O'Sullivan said the first stop to dredging came when the spring tide on September 29, 2011 triggered an exceedance of turbidity levels for the second time, where GPC voluntarily stopped dredging for more than 80 hours.
He said under the Turbidity Management Plans the Queensland Government called one stop in December 2011, while the GPC called for 850 hours of voluntary stoppages to assist in reducing the turbidity in the harbour.
Mr Broomhead claimed design changes to the retention area and efforts to save a stand of mangrove trees had caused the bund wall to leak.
The Observer has seen the original EIS documentation showing the plans for the reclamation area, which from the beginning had a buffer zone in the design to protect the mangroves, agreed upon by the GPC and both levels of government.
"At no stage did the design change for the mangroves," Mr O'Sullivan said.
He agreed the final design was changed following Federal Government concerns on the overall footprint and preservation of nearby seagrass beds, where the GPC offered to reduce the reclamation area size from 400 to 300ha.
Modelling was done on 150ha and 400ha options, which had similar outcomes in respect to turbidity.
Mr Broomhead claimed the design of the geotextile was changed for cost-saving measures.
Mr O'Sullivan said there was no budget restriction from the LNG companies; they would spend what was required. SMEC, supported by additional GHD advice, decided that as the geotextile wasn't required to resist the placement of the rock, a lighter fabric could be used.
Bill Service, a former dredge advisor for an LNG proponent who came out recently saying there were problems with the wall, was part of the technical panel that accepted the final design and tender.
Mr Broomhead claimed he knew there were problems with the bund wall as early as August 2011.
Mr O'Sullivan said the bund wall problems began earlier - in June, when isolated tears in the fabric was noticed, and the tidal pressure was causing ballooning of the geotextile.
A remedial plan involving an alternate anchoring system for the geotextile was put in place immediately on engineers' advice.
Mr Broomhead claimed the GPC was forced to seek permission to breach its environmental approvals in June 2012 to close the bund wall before it ran out of space to store the dredge spoil.
Mr O'Sullivan agreed. He said verbal advice from Golders in September 2011, with a full report in November, suggested three remedies to the geotextile problem including relocating dredge or quarry materials.
These were carried out, but the full report found 20 metres of dredge spoil against the wall was required to effectively resolve the issues.
The GPC said it was understood by all parties including the Dredge Technical Reference Panel and the State Government that after exhausting all other options, a Temporary Environmental Program was required to allow the GPC to exceed turbidity levels.
A decision was made to defer works until June 2012, before spring tides that were resulting in the largest increases in natural turbidity levels and when seagrass was dormant.
A SCHOOL of fishermen who launched a class action against the Gladstone Ports Corporation will be heading back to court this Monday, January 20.
The legal action is the second case led by fisherman Trevor Falzon against the GPC, to secure more compensation for the loss of their fishing grounds.
WESTERN Basin Dredging and Disposal project manager Peter O'Sullivan told the Observer there was a problem following the construction of the bund wall, but it was fixed.
As to why the community wasn't told of the extent of the bund wall problems at the time, the GPC said it was responding to the community's focus in 2011/12 on the fish health problems.
The GPC said there was no deliberate attempt to hide information from the community.
Where the wall was porous, the big inter-tidal flows were stronger than anticipated.
Mr O'Sullivan said the project's primary goal was to look after the seagrass during construction, which was a sensitive marine life form that responded to light. But the combination of dredging with natural occurrences that couldn't be controlled led to dredging being halted every so often.
"Yes, we had exceedances but it was in line with natural causes," he said.
He said bund walls were designed to let water pass through, so they didn't "leak" but some areas of the bund wall that didn't seal properly were also contributing to the turbidity.
"Where the wall was porous, the big inter-tidal flows were stronger than anticipated," he said.
"Our independent experts all came back and said the reason wasn't that simple. There were initial thoughts it was the mud being scoured as the water was cutting a new path around the wall."
He said the GPC spent $3 million on remedial works, but after several trials the last option was to push 20m of dredge spoil up against the wall to give it a good seal.
"The idea was to go as fast as they could to seal the space, and it was slammed shut within a few days," he said.
As for claims the dredging caused fish health problems, Mr O'Sullivan said it was only a matter of having a look at the timeline to see that wasn't possible.
- While capital works programs like the Western Basin project happen on a one-off basis, the GPC has been undertaking regular maintenance dredging in the harbour and surrounds as required from the early 1960s.
- The quantities of dredge material under maintenance programs can range up to 150,000 cubic metres per year, and is dependent on seasonal variations, including prevailing wind events.
- The dredged material from maintenance works is placed in the approved East Banks off shore disposal site. It is estimated that this area has capacity for the placement of maintenance dredge material for another 5-10 years.
- FEDERAL Environment Minister Greg Hunt called for an urgent review of the bund wall, back in December.
- QUEENSLAND Deputy Premier and Minister for State Development Jeff Seeney told media this week the preferred EIS option was subject to detailed modelling and investigation, which was then evaluated in the Co-ordinator-General's evaluation report.
- SENATOR Larissa Waters of the Australian Greens is pushing for a Senate Inquiry into the Gladstone harbour dredging project when Federal Parliament next sits in February.
- THE Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is asking questions about the scrutiny of future dredging operations in Queensland, and has decided not to give a permit to allow dredging spoil to be dumped in reef waters until further tests are finished in late January.
- EIS issued for comment, GHD engineering suggest geotextile on inside wall.
- Invitation to tender for construction. GHD suggests geotextile within the wall and a heavier style.
- Coordinator General approves EIS, stipulating EIS instructions for geotextile on inside of bund wall.
- Federal Government concerned with overall footprint and seagrass beds, GPC proposed a reduction in reclamation size from 400ha to 300ha.
- Abigroup awarded contract with design in line with EIS, for safety reasons asked for the geotextile to be fixed to the wall after construction.
- SMEC suggested a lighter fabric as the geotextile wasn't needed to resist the placement of rock.
- Federal Government approval of EIS (October 22).
- Construction of bund wall began.
December 2010 to January 2011
- Queensland floods.
- Commercial fishermen complain of fish health.
- Backhoe dredgers mobilise.
- Law Essentials issue a letter to CG about fish deaths.
- Identification of tear in geotextile and remedial plan.
- Abigroup issued with non-conformance and investigation begins.
- Bund wall construction complete.
- Identification of algal bloom in the harbour.
- Cutter suction dredge mobilised (September 6).
- High turbidity readings recorded, independent reviews through Vision Water Quality Monitoring, Asia-Pacific Applied Science Associates, WBM BMT and full investigation by geotechnical consultants Golder and Associates.
- State Government enforce closure of Gladstone harbour due to fish health (September 16 to October 7).
- Initiatives commenced to seal bund wall.
- DERM issue report that water quality was within acceptable guidelines, apart from the flooding events.
- Further turbidity exceedance occurred on the next Spring tide, dredging voluntarily stopped for over 80 hours (October 11).
- Turbidity Management Plan put in place to cease dredging in line with times of high Spring tides, resulting in over 850 hours of stoppages over next 10 months to assist in reducing turbidity.
- A centre bund wall was constructed to restrict flows to paleo channels, allowing the southern cell to be sealed whilst minimising sediment flow in the north cell.
- Three recommendations to hold the fabric in place, trialled over coming months.
- Sealing with dredge spoil complete for southern cell of bund wall.
- Transitional Environmental Program approved, allowing an exceedance of turbidity levels to enable 20 metres of dredge soil to effectively seal the northern cell bund wall.
- Sealing works completed within four weeks, two weeks early. Water quality results indicated minor levels of exceedance occurred.
- Northern cell sealed.
- Federal independent review begun.
- Federal review concludes 2011 conditions the result of multiple pressures.
- Dredging for the WBDDP concludes.
- Water quality monitoring continues for Gladstone harbour.