Backers of Massive Development Project Seek to De-list Part of Protected Wetland in Queensland

The Toondah Harbor project in Moreton Bay, which is backed by the Australian government, would impact migratory bird and koala habitats as well as Indigenous sites.

Anyone flying across Brisbane cannot fail to be mesmerized by the coastal geography of Moreton Bay. The dreamy intersection between land and sky is decorated by islands, promontories, and wetlands. Ferries leave slow-motion wakes across the waters. Between July and November, humpback whales can be seen breaching on their annual migration to (and from) Antarctic waters. Below the surface, dolphins, dugongs, endangered loggerhead turtles, and almost 1,200 species of fish weave through coral reefs and seagrass beds.

Aerial view of Moreton Bay
An aerial view of the Jumpinpin bar, South Standbroke Island, Moreton Bay. In 1993, much of the bay was recognized under the Ramsar Wetland Convention as “wetlands of international significance,” incurring federal responsibility for protection of the area. Photo by Luis Bartolomé Marcos/Wikimedia Commons.

Along the muddy, mangrove strewn coastline, some 32 species of shorebirds stop here along their awe-inspiring annual migrations. Among them, the endangered bar-tailed godwit flies around 12,000 kilometers nonstop from the Arctic. Part of the East Asian Australasian Flyway, Moreton Bay provides one of only two sites in the world where the young of the critically endangered eastern curlew can mature enough to make the trip to Siberia.

In 1993, much of Moreton Bay was recognized under the Ramsar Wetland Convention as “wetlands of international significance,” incurring federal responsibility for protection of the area. Australia, one of the first signatories of the treaty signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, boasts 65 Ramsar wetlands that cover more than 8.3 million hectares. This impressive estate of diverse wetlands covers three climate zones, numerous sacred Indigenous sites, and various habitat.

Such a commitment to environmental protection speaks loudly in contemporary Australia, where mining companies can blow up 46,000-year-old cave sites, with only an ’Oops, sorry,’ and no sanctions.

But Moreton Bay has become the latest example of where Australia’s environmental protection goals conflict with the country’s legacy of industry and development: A private corporation has been lobbying hard to get an area of this wetland delisted so that it can build a massive development there.

The bay, of course, has been under threat for a while. In 2013, the previous Queensland State government led by pro-business Campbell Newman declared Moreton Bay a Priority Development Area (PDA). Sources associated with the government who did not want to be identified reported that the state’s controversial ex-deputy premier, Jackie Trad, found not guilty of corruption earlier this year enlarged the development area by a factor of three, without formal approval.

According to the Ramsar treaty, re-zoning a Ramsar wetland for commercial use requires federal approval based on “overriding national interest.” Brisbane Airport, for instance, was given the greenlight to extend one runway into the bay under this same provision to maximize safety.

Toondah project map
The $1.3 billion Toondah Harbor project — which includes 3,600 apartments, hotels, shopping centers, and a 400-berth marina — would push well into the shallow bay, impinging on several historical sites. Photo courtesy of the Toondah Project.

Walker Corporation, a well connected construction firm, has had its eyes on another part of Moreton Bay for an extravagant development project that would spread over 67 hectares — 17.5 ha on land and 49.5 ha over water — impinging on the city of Cleveland’s Heritage Precinct. The A$1.3 billion Toondah Harbor project — which includes 3,600 apartments, hotels, shopping centers, and a 400-berth marina — would push well into the shallow bay, impinging on several historical sites. The development has been shrouded in secrecy and the community not consulted.

“It’s hard to envisage why a private development consuming 40 percent of the Ramsar site and affecting the wider environment with noise, traffic, additional light, and the destruction of koala and bird habitats, could be defined as being in the national interest,” says Judith Hoyle, a local leader of BirdLife International.

Lang Walker, the company’s founder and executive chairman is known for his largesse with political contributions. Since 1998, he has donated some A$2,252,480 to both the Labor Party and the Liberal National Party, the majority going to the Labor Party.

That may be why in 2016 Steven Miles, at that time State Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection, sent a colleague to Canberra to pressure then Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, who is now the country’s treasurer, to approve the Walker Corporation’s project. Department insiders added that Jackie Trad also sent letters reiterating the state government’s support for Walker, neglecting to mention that the State Department of the Environment was firmly opposed to the project.

Meanwhile, a major review of Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act in July this year sounded a stark warning: Australia’s “current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.”

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act was put in place in 1999 to protect world heritage sites such as Toondah, with its biodiversity, wetlands, and other significant areas. Despite there being a two level (state and federal) system of processing development projects in such areas, the review concluded that administration of the existing Act had been poorly handled.

The interim report from the statutory review, chaired by Graeme Samuel, a professor at Monash University’s Business School and School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine, recommended the creation of a National Environmental Protection Agency whose responsibility it would be to bring State and Federal environmental assessments into line.

Samuels wrote that the existing EPBC Act was “not fit to address current or future environmental challenges,” and its provisions were “ineffective and inefficient” against pressures from industry. Samuel’s report recommended broad changes to the Act to make it more effective, but was rejected by the current Federal Minister for Environment Susan Ley who intends to revised the act to give states greater responsibility over approval of development projects, while not offering additional financial or technical support.

The revised act which the Federal Government is trying to push through with minimal scrutiny, “makes the environment more prey to politics than science,” a member the citizen’s group, Redlands 2030, that is opposing the Toondah Harbor project told Earth Island Journal.

Most controversial is Ley’s removal of federal oversight of the terms of reference for a project’s EIS, and the following approval/rejection procedures.

Australian Conservation Foundation spokesperson (ACF) Josh Meadows said that the audit report showed Australia’s key piece of environmental law was inadequate, The Samuel’s report is testimony to the need for a new independent regulator to prevent project like that of Toondah,” he said.

The derisory term “green tape” has found favor on both sides of the political aisle, particularly during the current pandemic. Giving greater powers to the under-resourced states offers developers a chance to cut green tape at no cost to the Federal Government, but at great cost to Australia’s already fragile environment.

Queensland’s Minister for Environment Leanne Enoch refused to comment for this story, as did Walker Corporation.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) obtained federal documents that revealed the Department of Environment was also directly pressured by Walker Corporation to approve the development.

Redlands2030 has also repeatedly submitted formal Freedom of Information requests to access the documentation. At the beginning of August, the request was finally approved, but the resistance both groups encountered, indicates how weakened Australia’s Freedom of Information laws have become. Both groups had been seeking documents related to meetings between a Walker Corp officials and government authorities assessing plans for the project, for over a year.

The documents also show that more than half of the construction will occur inside the Ramsar boundaries, wiping out critical shorebird feeding sites.

Redlands2030 reports that around 85 percent of local residents oppose the development. More than 7,000 people petitioned the state government to reject it. The project’s environmental impact statement will be released for public scrutiny later this year.

If it gets the go ahead, the Toondah Harbour development would have multiple impacts on the local ecosystem and its inhabitants. Whales and dugongs are badly affected by noise and construction, and the area is an important habitat for koalas, which are endangered in some parts of Australia. Wooded areas adjacent to Toondah Harbor host up to 95 of the much-loved creatures. Ironically, Walker did its own survey hoping to find Toondah had fewer koalas than claimed by the Koala Action Group (KAG), but they actually found more.

Debbie Ponting, convenor of KAG predicts that increased motor traffic, noise, and light will decimate already shrinking local koala populations. Ironically, the state government sees tourism as a major selling point for the Walker project. But travelers seeking to explore the area’s natural beauty have been invariably ecstatic at seeing these iconic animals in the wild, along with whales and turtles. Seeing a koala high in a eucalyptus, says Ponting, is a highlight of visiting the area.

The Walker project also spells serious danger for coastal resilience in the face of rising seas. There is a general misconception that Moreton Bay, with its fringing islands, is protected from storm surges and sea level rise. Maree Klemm, whose family has lived in the area for over a century, says otherwise. She remembers storms repeatedly destroying her father’s fishing jetty and washing away large tracts of park and privately-owned land. This used to happen about once every ten years a few decades ago, but is happening more often now with recent storm surges washing over some of the heritage buildings in the area, she adds. Maree says the effects of rising sea temperatures and consequent sea level rise are already being felt here.

Walker Corporation has countered claims of these risks by saying it will use silt dredged from the site to raise the level of construction by three meters. About a half-million cubic meters of seabed and wetlands would need to be dredged to achieve this goal for the mixed-use residential, commercial, retail, and tourism precinct — therefore, increasing the scale of the project’s environmental impact.

Redland City Council has used a projected sea-level rise figure of 0.8 meters by the year 2100 for the shoreline along Toondah Harbour. But the rise may be greater as natural features of the bay funnel destructive winds and waves directly into the construction area, causing coastal erosion and storm tide inundation. While the company is rich and well-connected enough to be insured, there is less surety for individual boat, business, and apartment owners.

Some 32 species of shorebirds stop at Moreton Bay during their awe-inspiring annual migrations. The bay is also the traditional home to Aboriginal groups whose presence in the area dates back 26,000 years. Photo by bertknot/Flickr.

Moreton Bay is also the traditional home to three Aboriginal groups: the Nuigi tribe on Moorgumpin (Moreton Island), the Nunuckle and Greonpal on Stradbroke Island and mainland, and the Minjerribah. All are Quandmooka people. Their continuous occupation is indicated by artifacts and remnants of ritual and tribal life that date back tens of thousands of years.

Norman Enoch, one of the traditional leaders, says that analyses of shell middens indicate Aboriginal presence in the area dating back 26,000 years. The question of which groups have been properly consulted about the development is a matter of argument. Enoch says that the project has created serious divisions in the ranks of the traditional owners.

Ferries take passengers to the various islands, the biggest of which is Stradbroke, which has plans to increase tourist facilities. There is no doubt that the ferry terminal and facilities do need upgrading. Even opponents of the Walker development concede that the area could do with some urban improvement to parks and improved access to the area’s historical sites.

Enoch, however, was adamant that ‘Straddie’ is “already at capacity” and does not need additional mass employment. “Large-scale tourism would not be welcome,” he said.

The state government is facing elections in the next few months, so Labor Party politicians running for reelection are keen to show they are busy creating post-Covid-19 employment opportunities. But many residents in adjacent Cleveland city — including longtime Labor voters — have indicated that they will not be choosing them this time.

A retired professor of ecology who requested he not be identified that there was no way a portion of the RAMSAR site could be excised with out damage to the rest of the vulnerable ecology. ‘If this is approved all RAMSAR sites many of which are already under international pressure are threatened.’

Helen Abrahams, a leader of the Labor Environment Action Network and a critic of the Walker project, suggests that economics will kill the project. Current and long-term economic instability stemming from Covid-19 will have consequences for Walker Corporation; something even they can’t control.

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