Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. T.A. Franks:
That this council—
1. Condemns the inaction of the Minister for Environment and Water and the Minister for Energy and Mining in dealing with Buckland Dry Creek Ltd, resulting in the mass die-off of mangroves in St Kilda;
2. Calls on the government to act to ensure that the hypersaline brine filling the ponds near the south of St Kilda Road is drained out as a matter of urgency;
3. Calls on the ministers to commit to closing and repairing the ponds as directed in the Crown land lease conditions; and
4. Calls on the ministers, and their departments, to work with the public to create an action plan for the closure of the ponds and restoration of the surrounding tidal wetlands.
The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:20): Thank you to all those who have made a contribution today. I think, like many South Australians, many people in this chamber will have fond memories of visiting the St Kilda mangroves and share the heartbreak that I am certain is felt at the moment with the destruction of this unique environment. Certainly, we have all agreed on that part of the facts.
When I first moved this motion, I did not want to think that we would still be here some months later with no answers, no transparency and no accountability, but here we are. When I first moved this motion, it looked like the departments and the EPA were starting to ramp up the action and were starting to try to remove the brine and stop more environmental impacts, but the results since then have actually been questionable.
I know I covered a few of the impacts during my initial speech, but there has been additional information that I want to be really clear about right now for the council to understand the sheer scale of mismanagement that we have seen here. We were told, for one, that serious pumping would take place to remove the brine from the ponds and away from the mangroves, but this was not quite true. When you hear that, you think that the brine is being completely removed and either transported away or is being transferred to an impermeable or further inland pond, but this has not been the case. No; instead, they pumped into the eastern side of the same pond, not to remove brine or decrease the salinity but rather to simply increase evaporation.
Further, despite the order to remove water from the ponds that was made on that 24 December date, no attempt to pump was even made until the second week of January 2021. Even that attempt was not able to remove enough brine from the four ponds to even wet the next two ponds. The department has recently stated that 50 million litres of brine has been removed, but is that entirely accurate when much of that was from the ongoing leaking of these ponds and from evaporation?
The salt is still there, so no salt has actually been removed from the system. This means all of that salt is just going to get washed back into the system, down to the adjacent seawall when it rains. In what universe is this an appropriate solution? As my colleague the Hon. Rob Simms pointed out in his speech, the department does not even have the data or information on what might happen the next time it rains and all this salt is dissolved once more.
We were told that departments are working with the community, but at best we can say—and this is being quite generous—that they have met with the community perhaps a handful of times. What the department calls a meeting is not necessarily actually a meeting. For example, in the Budget and Finance Committee this week, we were told that the Minister for Energy and Mining had recently met with the St Kilda Mangroves Alliance on site. I have been reliably informed that this is actually not the case. Rather, he met four members of the alliance in passing for a couple of minutes. This so-called meeting took place only a week ago and the minister is yet to set a proper date to meet with the alliance on site.
I remind the council again that the department has known about this issue since September last year and the community has known about it for much longer. In fact, the Department for Energy and Mining has handled this matter so poorly and so many community complaints have been made regarding how the department has treated community members—and indeed the department is now turning on community members—that yet another department, the Department for Innovation and Skills, has had to be brought in to help facilitate a community meeting, and that took place earlier this week.
Despite the far-reaching impacts of this disaster, no community forum has been held with the residents of St Kilda. This is beyond ridiculous. This kind of disaster is actually not unprecedented. It happened in the 1930s, during which time the same ponds leaked like a sieve. As my colleague pointed out, and as I pointed out in my original speech, we have had multiple warnings over multiple years that this could happen if we did not manage these ponds properly. We have now seen almost a decade of missed opportunities and mismanagement.
It is not good enough to blame the previous government for this. Our Marshall government has utterly failed to prevent an entirely preventable environmental disaster here and now. The mismanagement of these ponds goes back further than this most recent disaster, and the local environment there and the ponds have been stuck in this holding pattern. I note it is a holding pattern that was never intended to be permanent. In fact, it was supposed to end in 2014 with the implementation of a proper closure plan.
As was noted by the Hon. Rob Simms, the holding pattern continued to get pushed back, and to this day we have never seen any form of closure or other long-term management plan for these ponds. The mismanagement has led to the salinity levels that yo-yo back and forth, and about 2½ years ago all control over salinity appears to have been lost, which of course is likely disastrous for wildlife supported by these ponds.
Historic data indicates that the ponds were held within very narrow salinity ranges, and more recent data reveals conditions in the ponds are extremely variable, so it is likely that the stable populations of invertebrates that were present in each pond have already been killed. Yet somehow we hear from DEM that they are considering a 'temporary return' to the harmful holding pattern. Despite all the evidence, despite having years and years to figure out a long-term solution for these ponds, despite even having a fresh chance now so that something good might come from the death of these mangroves, they have once again ignored what should be a wake-up call, and they are now looking to something that never worked in the first place.
They are not even indicating what the time line might be for this temporary reinstatement of the holding pattern. I reiterate that the criteria for that original holding pattern had never been maintained for longer than a season, and hypersaline pond ecology needs at least seven years to be able to establish properly. The original holding pattern was supposed to end in 2014. They have now had more than seven years to come up with a long-term solution.
I know that there are people out there in the community with solutions and suggestions ready to go, backed up by science, backed up by data, and if the departments and organisations in charge cannot come up with something on their own after all this time they could at least consider working with the community that so desperately wants to help them fix this. As I say, there has been scant respect for that expertise in the community.
We now look to this chamber to pass this motion to demand action and to condemn the Marshall government's past inaction, because I have no confidence that this government will take this disaster seriously without more pressure now. I have no confidence because we see comments made about the future of the mangroves completely unsubstantiated by fact and action, comments such as those from the acting director of mining regulation on ABC radio that 'government departments are on top of the issues that are currently faced with the salt fields at Dry Creek' and that the department is confident that the situation is not going to get worse.
When I asked the department about these comments and what scientific evidence they are based on, the department did not have an answer. In terms of the department's confidence, I think Peri Coleman said it best:
While DEM may be 'confident' that further damage to the mangroves may not occur, let’s consider their track record, mmm?
They were 'confident' the miner could be allowed to flood a further three dams after killing the first lot of mangroves and saltmarshes. Cost? Another 3 or 4 km of damaged coastal wetlands.
They were 'confident' the miner’s mackled together pipe arrangement across the Little Para would be safe. Cost? The brining of the estuary of the Little Para.
They were 'confident' that issuing a 'stop pumping' order would stop the leakage. The cost? Many months of continued leaking until the leaking dams essentially drained out.
They were 'confident' the miner’s pumps could handle the by-then crystallising brine to remove it, when they finally issued a 'remove brine' order in summer. Cost? Well that didn’t work at all, rumour has the miner’s pumps stopping after 15 minutes...so the EPA has been out on site moving the crystallising brine to the uphill side of the dams with little pumps where it has salted out, and will await some decent winter rains to dissolve back up and mobilise again.
They were 'confident' the problems were confined to the pond/dam system south of St Kilda. Cost? Trees in the gardens at St Kilda have died as the crystallising brine in the northern ponds has impacted the perched freshwater lens under the town. And the invertebrates in the dams, that the migratory shorebirds feed on, have all been pickled by the changed salinity.
So, HOW confident are DEM?
How confident can this council be that the department and the ministers are handling this issue? We know that the ministers have been very slow and very lackadaisical in handling this disaster.
I am not confident at all in these ministers, so I want to be clear: it is not good enough to blame the previous government. It is not good enough to have been so slow to act. The community is watching. This parliament is acting. We will not stand for further destruction and ineffective action. I commend the motion.