26 Sep 2018 By environment reporter Laura Gartry
A $1.3 billion development at the gateway to Stradbroke Island off Brisbane has sparked major environmental concerns after internal department briefings reveal dredging will threaten dozens of species, including loggerhead turtles and dolphins.
- Internal advice reveals the development would threaten dozens of species and critically endangered birds.
- Residents support the upgrade to the ferry terminals but not the housing development.
- The developer promises to restore roosting habitat and create new 3.5 hectare conservation area.
Internal Federal Government advice obtained by the ABC found the development would destroy the foraging and roosting habitat of migratory shorebird species and “seriously disrupt the lifecycle” of multiple critically endangered species, including the Eastern Curlew.
The proposal to build Toondah Harbour at the southern end of Moreton Bay would see the wetlands reclaimed to make way for 3,600 residential dwellings, a new port facility, ferry terminals and a 200-berth marina.
The harbour currently serves as the base for ferry services between the mainland and North Stradbroke Island.
Approximately half-a-million cubic metres of seabed and wetland would be dredged to make way for the mixed-use residential, commercial, retail and tourism precinct, which has now been referred by the Department of Environment for a third time.
The first two proposals from the developer, the Walker Group, were dropped or scaled back, prompting the company to send their third proposal to the Federal Government to “better integrate with the ecological character”.
Moreton Bay is listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands — an international treaty to protect important wetlands around the world — given it supports vital habitat for dugongs, turtles and a significant population of migratory shorebirds.
Shorebirds, which migrate up to 12,000 kilometres in one trip to and from places like Siberia or Alaska, use sites such as the Toondah Harbour tidal flats to fatten up over summer and rest for their epic journeys.
The wetland supports more than 50,000 water birds, including 30 migratory species listed on international conservation agreements.
Despite the developer, the Walker Group, proposing a “250-metre buffer zone” to Cassmin Island, the department does not appear convinced this will help.
“The project will substantially modify, destroy and isolate an area of habitat for the Eastern Curlew,” the department said.
“Although the referral states that a buffer zone will be included between the development and the mangroves and high-tide roosting site at Cassim Island, it does not provide sufficient information for the department to be confident that this will reduce the impacts on migratory shorebirds.”
In addition, advice from the department’s Wetland Section concluded:
“The impacts on the ecological character of the site will be difficult to mitigate and offset.”
It recommended the project “should not be approved if it would be inconsistent with maintaining the ecological character of the wetland or the conservation and sustainable use of the wetland.”
Dredging to impact endangered turtles, cause algal blooms
Concerns over dredging, excavation and reclamation activities have also been flagged by the department, along with changes to water quality that could “promote the growth of algal blooms”.
The removal of onshore vegetation will also have a significant impacts on other listed threatened species, including vulnerable koalas.
Moreton Bay supports important foraging populations of green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles.
According to the department it is anticipated the development will lead to increased boating traffic, lighting and noise, and ongoing dredging of the harbour would threaten their existence in the area.
“The department considers it likely that the proposed action will increase these threats to migratory marine species and reduce the area of occupancy of the species,” the documents said.
Support for terminal upgrade but not housing development
Chris Walker from the local group Redlands 2030 supports an upgrade to the ferry terminals but not at the expense of a large area of natural wetlands.
“Quite clearly, the Department of Environment in Canberra are very concerned about the project’s impact on threatened species and the character of the Ramsar site itself,” he said.
“I think it is an abomination, it’s a plan to totally destroy a natural wetland for housing that is not required.”
John Groom, owner of Stradbroke Flyer water taxi, said he supported a much-needed upgrade to the “mud puddle” ferry terminal but not the housing development.
“I don’t see that we need high-density living where they have planned to put it — it goes a bit too far,” he said.
“We haven’t been included in the design work, it’s all a bit political.”
Mr Groom is worried the large housing development will impact on his businesses ability to run ferries early and late in the day.
“They are trying to put residential high-density living right next to a commercial ferry port. And we are growing at 10 per cent a year capacity, so we need to be able to expand.”
Developer promises more detailed studies on impacts
The Walker Group promised to restore roosting habitat and create a new 3.5-hectare conservation area.
The company declined to be interviewed, but in a statement, Peter Saba said the forthcoming environmental impact assessment (EIS) would require the project to show that all significant impacts on the natural environment were either avoided, minimised or offset.
“Further detailed studies will be carried out through the EIS process including … potential impacts, not just for migratory bird species, but all aspects of the environment,” he said.
“The outcomes of this assessment will further inform project design, construction and operations.”
The statement said there was demand for medium-density residential and tourism development in the area.
“It will be delivered in the context of a project that provides significant new public infrastructure and amenity that will be open to all, while ensuring an overall benefit to the ecological character of the Moreton Bay wetland,” Mr Saba said.
A statement from State Development Minister Cameron Dick said “any proposal for the Toondah Harbour needs to be consistent with Australia’s rights and obligations under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands”.
Toondah Harbour was declared a Priority Development Area (PDA) in 2013 under former LNP premier Campbell Newman to fast-track its approval.
As a result, the project area is exempt from the standard planning and development assessment processes in Queensland such as the Environmental Protection Act and will be assessed directly by Economic Development Queensland.
The plan was then endorsed by the Labor Government in 2015, with a development agreement reached with the Walker Group with promises of 500 ongoing jobs.
The project still has to gain federal environmental approval and will be delivered in stages over 15 to 20 years