Sunday, April 10, 2011

Environment? What environment? Federal inaction at Mt. Morgan is brewing a toxic disaster

A mine tailings dam about to fail is a REAL environmental problem but is not "sexy" enough to attract the attention of the grand people of the Gillard government, apparently -- but it could be a disaster for a lot of people.

Well we do not have a problem as long as the 7,000 mega litres of water held back by the tailings wall does not break. In total there is 11,500 mega litres in the Mount Morgan Mine pit laced with cadmium and other heavy metals which would flow into the Dee River, then into the Don River, into the Dawson River and down into the city of Rockhampton's water supply on the Fitzroy. To understand the scale Lake Burley Griffin holds 33,000 mega litres.

They say that the cyanide that was used in processing is now inert but it is the acid rock drainage (ARD) that is the real problem. The water has a ph between 2.8 to 3.5. Understandably those downstream are a little anxious as the water is pouring through the tailings wall.

Because of the wet weather it would have been a good idea if the water course leading into the mine could be properly diverted around it.

The Government management could be described as a kiss it better job on a train crash. The State Environment Minister, Kate Jones, is almost pathological in her defence of bats. Maybe we could tell her that bats go to the river on the weekend. The locals are scratching their heads as to whether Kate has even visited the site. If she did it was low key.

Stirling Hinchcliffe, the Mines Minister, said how I dare impugn Kate's portfolio. Good-o. Well Stirling, apt name for a minister responsible for a mine which extracted 247,000kg of gold, 360,000 tonnes of copper and also 40,000kg of silver, what are you going to do apart from saying in a "yes minister" like form, nothing to see here, move on please.

When a ship the Shen Neng 1, ran onto a reef near Gladstone creating approximately one kilometre of damage, an aerial circus of everyone including Kevin Rudd, Bob Brown, Peter Garrett and Anna Bligh flew back and forth over the site crying tears of blood all over the cabin of the plane. It was a shame the planes with pollies instead of flying east to sea did not fly north west to Mt Morgan.

Later, cyclone Yasi knocked out, on a conservative estimate, 20,000 sq km of reef virtually shutting down sections of the much maligned fishing industry. An act of nature, sure, but there were no tears for the fisherman, apparently.

I do not recollect if we had spent all of Mr Garrett's, sorry your, $2.5 billion at that stage on ceiling insulation. If we had kept back $120 million of that we could have treated the water, emptied the pit, filled it in and covered it up.

Now, instead of a solution we are catching the water in dams that spills out and pumping it back in so it can spill back out again. Let me assure you that the little boy who stuck his finger in the dyke to save Holland had far more effect than the remedial work at Mt Morgan Mine. They have constructed a treatment works for 650 mega litres a year. Pathetic when compared to the enormity of the task at hand.

The locals down stream say they are looking up the hill to one of the greatest potential environmental disasters in Australia. The Dee River is already the most polluted in Queensland. The wealth of the mine was critical in the formation of BP and on a benevolent note, the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust. Unfortunately, it is becoming Australia's version of the former gold mines of Montanna and the environmental disaster they have bequeathed on the Bitter Root River. The Zortman-Landusky Mine was one of the first in the USA to attempt large scale cyanide heap leach extraction of low grade gold ores, unfortunately the water got out.

Where it really, counts the Labor party have deserted the environment. If the Labor Party, Mr Hinchliffe, Mr Garret or Ms Jones, who champions cleaning up our rivers, don't want to do it for the farmers or the people of Rockhampton, then possibly they may want to do it for the bats or the Barrier Reef. But wherever their motivation is, they should please do something more.


Abortion is OK but selecting the sex of a baby is not?

A COUPLE who have had their bid to choose the sex of their child rejected by VCAT say they may go overseas in their desperation for a baby girl.

The couple, who are still grieving for a baby girl they lost at birth, had appealed the Patient Review Panel's decision against their wish to select sex by IVF treatment.

The panel - an independent, hospital-based authority - ruled that under Victoria's 2008 Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act, any conflict between the welfare of the child to be born and the health of the person undergoing assisted reproduction must be resolved in favour of the child.

"They (the couple) believe having a child of the same sex as the one who died would assist their recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, or assist their psychological health or wellbeing," the VCAT judgment read. "The tribunal was not satisfied the matters relied upon by the applicants gave paramountcy to the welfare and interests of the child to be born."

The couple, who have three children, said they may go overseas to fulfil their wish. "We expected that result. We were trying to do the right thing and do it here in Australia and it looks like they're stuck in the 1980s on the panel," the father said.

"I can understand that a woman coming off the street and asking for that, they'd say no. But this isn't about choosing the sex, it's about the chance of having a child we should have had, that we lost.

"The pressure is on for change. The legalities will eventually catch up with the science. We have to move with the times."

All IVF clinics in Australia must stay within National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines that say sex selection should not be done, except to reduce the transmission of a serious genetic condition.


Anger at schools' Christian 'bias'

BUDDHIST community leader Dr Sue Best has complained of the "Christian bias" in religious education in Victoria, saying if her group had access to government funding, they too could expand to hundreds of schools. And social commentator and Muslim Waleed Aly said it was a "logical necessity" to "get proselytisation out of the classroom".

Public debate on the issue was sparked by a Sunday Age revelation that the Education Department was forcing schools to host Christian religious education whether they wanted to or not. It took a new turn last week when state Education Minister Martin Dixon granted $200,000 in extra funding to Christian religious education provider Access Ministries to improve its training. Mr Dixon, a Catholic, said that despite the controversy he had no intention of reviewing the system.

The move sparked anger yesterday from groups representing other religions, who said Mr Dixon had not consulted them. "We were requesting a meeting with the minister and have not even received a reply," said Anna Halaffof of the Religion, Ethics and Education Network Australia, which promotes religious tolerance and respect. "Instead he made a decision to support Access without doing any community consultation."

Access is the only religious instruction provider that receives government funding, and only Christian religious education is given to children as a default if their parents forget to opt out.

The leaders of Access Ministries say their syllabus gives children an introduction to spirituality and values, and they insist that they do not proselytise.

Mr Aly asked whether "the providers of Christian education feel equally comfortable if the religious education spot were handed over instead to Jewish teachers, or Buddhist teachers or, shock horror, Muslim teachers? "If they're not comfortable in that, then it's clear that there's a bias in the teaching that they would wish to preserve." He said children in state schools should be taught about all religions.

Dr Best said Buddhist education was offered in 14 Victorian schools, but did not have the advantages enjoyed by the Christians, who teach 96 per cent of all religious education. "There is definitely a funding bias . Ours is funded by volunteers and donations," she said. She said half the children attending Buddhist classes came from other religious traditions, but their parents were keen for them to experience their world view. If they had the resources, "I am confident that we could be in hundreds of schools".

Scott Hedges, a parent involved with the "Fairness in Religions in School" grassroots campaign, said that the Christianity taught in his daughter's Hawthorn school was missionary in nature. "The only difference between my daughter's class and an African village to these people is that we have cleaner water and shoes."


Some hospital reforms which look promising

PATIENTS will know how many people are waiting in hospital emergency departments ahead of them before they arrive, under a radical overhaul of the health system.

As one of her first acts as Health Minister, Jillian Skinner will also legislate to give power back to doctors and nurses to run their hospitals.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph yesterday, Mrs Skinner said she would not rule out job cuts and wanted bureaucrats in "ivory towers" to get back to working in hospitals.

But under a major reform of the system, "real-time" waiting times will be introduced, giving patients the chance to hospital-shop on the internet to find those emergency departments with shorter waiting times. A similar system already operates in Western Australia.

Mrs Skinner said her plan was to introduce the same system in NSW's major teaching hospitals, such as Royal Prince Alfred. "We've said we will have real-time data on the internet for our major tertiary hospitals so you can log on and see how many people are sitting in the waiting room at Royal North Shore Hospital," she said. "We have said all along we want people to get out of their ivory towers and get down to closer where the services are delivered."In her first week since being sworn in on Sunday, Mrs Skinner has sent a letter to all NSW Health employees promising to bring reform.

One goal is to re-draft the employee code of conduct based on core values including collaboration, openness, respect and empowerment. She has promised the 100,000 employees she wants to stamp out bullying.

"One of my first objectives is to address the bullying and harassment that has been around for a very long time," she said. "I ask everyone to be patient. It's not going to change overnight."

Despite Premier Barry O'Farrell saying before the election he would not sign up to the national health agreements, Mrs Skinner said she was "open" to negotiating with the Federal Government. She has contacted Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon to set up a meeting.

At the same time, she will change the name of all 15 local health networks to local health districts and will be meeting governing board members to ensure they have the right skills to financially run the hospitals.

Wanting to avoid budget over-runs that have plagued hospitals, Mrs Skinner said doctors, administrators and specialists who run the boards will have ultimate responsibility for budgets. "I am giving them greater authority and responsibility," she said. "There will be greater accountability, particularly in relation to finances.

"The Director-General has overall responsibility for the operations of the health department. I'm accountable for the system, the boards will have responsibility for local operations and that will mean, and I'm saying this to all the [board's chairpersons], I will look at the skills set of those bodies to make sure they do have sufficient expertise, not only in clinical matters but in management and finances."


Big pipe wanted

Might be more use than Julia's fibre network

IT IS inevitable that water in West Australia's far north will eventually be channelled to the south, Premier Colin Barnett says.

As opposition leader in 2005, Mr Barnett's commitment to build a canal to carry water from the remote northern Kimberley region to Perth was blamed as the reason he lost the election. The plan was widely rubbished with then premier Alan Carpenter saying it would be cheaper to relocate Perth.

Although the idea of a canal has been put on the backburner, there have been renewed calls for a pipeline to pump water from the wet Kimberley to the drier areas of Perth and the south.

Former Labor MP Ernie Bridge has called for a pipeline to be built to take water from the Fitzroy River in the west Kimberley to Kalgoorlie where an existing pipeline to Perth would be utilised.

Mr Barnett said that while the Kimberley continues to become wetter and the south becomes drier, it is certain that water will be pumped from the north some time in the future. "I have not lost my desire, my interest to see water come south," the Premier told Fairfax Radio despite his panned 2005 canal proposal.

"I think there are projects and other water resources closer to Perth that would come first but I think it's inevitable that, over time, and it might be over the next 20 years, there will be an integrated water system across the state."

Mr Barnett said Environment Minister Bill Marmion is currently looking into the issue of longer term water supply for Perth and the southern regions.

It comes as some of the state's biggest dams are at record lows, including the 138-gigalitre South Dandalup Dam which is less than nine per cent full. The total water content in dams across the state is less than 25 per cent while the six-gigalitre Samson Dam is completely dry.

Mr Barnett said that although WA's dams levels were dropping, if the situation became dire the Government could rely on getting water from the north. "One thing you can say in WA is that, worse comes to worse, you've got water in the north and we've got an opportunity to solve that problem that other parts of the world don't have," he said.

Mr Marmion said he hadn't ruled out "some sort of scheme to incrementally stage some sort of piping scheme from the Kimberley in the future". "But the facts are that the costs of piping water from the Kimberley are well above the costs of just doing a desalination plant.

"The premier has always been keen on a scheme, as people know, of using water from the north. "The last time someone looked at it was around 2006. The costings showed it was prohibitive. It's probably worthwhile having another look at the feasibility of it," Mr Marmion said.

But Environs Kimberley Director Martin Pritchard said proponents of a north-south pipeline had yet to demonstrate its viability. "That the north is wet and the south dry is no reason to build an inefficient canal or pipe the length of the state."

Mr Pritchard said that in 2006, the then Labor government in WA looked into the viability of bringing water from the Kimberley to the south and found it would not be economically viable. "The report costed water transported this distance via a pipeline or canal to be between 100 and 200 times the normal prices for bulk water." Mr Pritchard said the report estimated that household water bills would be at least doubled with such a project.

He said Mr Barnett needed to get serious about water efficiency and local water supply measures instead of "flogging a dead horse in the Kimberley".


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