Giving the Bird: Toondah Harbour Developments

On Mother’s Day 2022, police estimate that 2,660 people took to the streets of Cleveland on Brisbane’s Moreton Bay, protesting a huge development planned for the adjacent Toondah Harbour. If it’s given the go-ahead, this dreamy, shimmering bay will host 3,600 apartments, commercial centres and a 400-berth marina, all with attendant noise, traffic, and vast marine and wetland destruction. The energy was palpable, the commitment well aged and the cries passionate, verging on angry desperation. It’s been a seven- or eight-year battle.

But the signs are ominous, with financial leverage stakes too high. As it stands, the outcome will depend on Federal Minister for the Environment Tanya Plibersek. But her judgement on the Great Barrier Reef has shaken the community’s confidence in her ability to separate international obligations from political and economic aggrandisement. Her enthusiastic support for increasingly maligned offsets is also alarming: as Micaela Jemison of the Wilderness Society said in a recent webinar, ‘We have no intact ecosystems left. Old native timber forests are almost all gone. Habitat is being lost all the time with 2,000 species lining up for extinction. There is nothing left to offset, even if the system worked’.

Although the year 2021 represents the fiftieth anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Especially as Waterfowl Habitat), agreed and signed in 1971 by Senator John Faulkner, it was not until 1975 that it formally came into force. Australia was the first to formalise the arrangement, and Queensland’s then Premier Wayne Goss officially launched the Moreton Bay Marine Park. The Federal Department of the Environment is the keeper of the faith, and has the power to veto any development that may threaten the area’s status and integrity. Signatories to the Act have to ensure that they assign equivalent areas of habitat-laden wetlands to replace any lost. The reality is that no such areas now exist. And how does one explain to a dugong or a Eastern Curlew laden with eggs that its home is now closed and it will have to fly or swim on to an undisclosed destination?

Walker Corporation’s plan has been repeatedly rejected by the Federal Department, despite intense lobbying from its international office at both UN and federal levels and pressure from former federal minister Josh Frydenberg, urged on by Queensland Deputy Premier Stephen Miles. To meet the demands of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act’s .requirements for community information and consultation, Walkers finally delivered a 5000-page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), written in painfully evasive language—what I have labelled ‘slip speak’. An example is their publicity, which describes the marine habitat as combining ‘stunning physical and natural assets on its doorstep, development scale and ambition to create real [as opposed to fake] critical mass’ and ‘integration of stewardship’. So there!

Giving Walker Corporation the go-ahead means gifting it 3.5 hectares of foreshore, including a public park, along with the right to destroy around 60 hectares of Ramsar wetlands and Marine National Park. At current land values (A$26 million/ha), this gift amounts to $85.7 million of public assets.

History

Some say that in the 1840s Governor Gipps wanted to make Cleveland Queensland’s capital, but that after becoming stuck in the thick insistent mud he changed his mind. The mud is still there, as are the beauty and the wildlife. At the top of the list are the endangered shorebirds whose migrations are the stuff of both legend and scientific research. How does the developer plan to offset their habitat loss? Dugongs and endangered turtles have paddled unseen beneath the ripples. Increasingly ferocious storm surges have sent wild waters over the roads and into adjacent homes.

Controversial imbiber Karen Williams was elected the Mayor of Redland City in 2012 with the support of developers. The same year, one-term Queensland premier Campbell Newman cut perceived ‘green tape’ and introduced the Economic Development Act intended to fast-track new projects. Think of them while reading this.

Now

In the local public park, I watch as kids disappear into the fringing mangroves and slide down ancient tree branches. If the project goes ahead, this well-patronised public park will be built over. The sea vista from the adjacent heritage Grand View pub will be completely blocked. Both leisure and aesthetics will be privatised.

No wonder the local alliance of citizens’ groups sent 60,000 submissions to Walkers in response to their EIS saying no.

Walker Corporation’s website says that the Corporation first became involved in Toondah Harbour ‘after a request was made by Economic Development Queensland and Redland City Council in 2014 for private developers to express interest in the rejuvenation and expansion project. After a competitive tender process, Walker Corporation was selected as the preferred developer’.

If one sniffs deeply while diving into the web, there is plenty of evidence of lack of probity on all sides. Walker’s wealth accumulation is one feature, certainly, but serious questions are thrown up by government actions.

What is at stake?

The Mother’s Day event started next to Raby Bay, an example of the triumph of developers over the natural environment and just what the current Cleveland community wants to avoid. Once a vital wetland with mangroves, seething with aquatic life, Raby Bay now seethes with densely packed plastic yachts sitting in sludgy canals.

Walker Corporation’s proposed residential and commercial development will occupy significant areas of the Moreton Bay Marine Park and the Ramsar site. If it’s given the go-ahead, many predict that the next two decades will be dominated by noise from dredging around 30 hectares of sediment to build the development’s foundations, releasing release stored pollutants. Pile drivers will send deafening shocks through the sea, and trucks bringing in construction materials will adversely people, threaten the remaining koala population, disturb marine creatures and create, as one resident described ‘bloody unacceptable levels of noise and traffic.’ This at a time when more than 350 experts attending at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP15 warned world leaders they must deliver a more ambitious Global Biodiversity Framework to secure a vital nature-positive globe to survive beyond this decade.

It’s clear that both the Redlands City Council and the Queensland State Government support this development, and interviews for a previous story gave evidence that current Deputy Premier Miles and controversial former Deputy Premier Jackie Trad had enlarged the existing Priority Development Areas without consultation to maximise coastal development, and thereby profits. A well-connected local real estate agent suggested the government was clearly ‘on the take’. Her assertions may be supported by the fact that it gave development permission to Lendlease for extensive land further south in the Redlands area. Formerly a highly fertile red earth plain, the Redlands supported local agriculture. But as Australia has not followed the example of the US in encouraging local food production with Food Miles certification, the land was given over to intense housing development. Evidence of native forest felling was hidden behind walls.

The Redlands were important coastal wetlands and habitat for the black-necked stork and surviving koalas. Without them, the area is at major risk of mosquito borne diseases. Studies by the Queensland Institute of Medical Research indicate that mosquito density is so great on the nearby islands and wetlands that the risk of Ross River and Japanese Encephalitis outbreaks are significant and would eventually extend to Toondah Harbour.

Taking sides

Despite consistent and determined public opposition, Walker Corporation maintains that the public is on its side. A closer look shows that it has conflated approval of ferry terminal restoration with approval for the whole project—and even then, the approval rate is only around 30 per cent. More recently a deceptive website, possibly written by a PR consultant, has (??) enthusiastically promoted the development much as one would a new ice cream. Approval of the idea, not the reality, was taken to indicate approval of the project. All very dodgy practice and immediately picked up on by the alert community.

As community members have reiterated, it’s not like the dredging and construction will be over in six months. The size and scale of the planned development mean that it will take around 20 years to complete. For species that rely on sonar to navigate and communicate, such as the threatened dugongs, the noise caused by pile driving and dredging would be killing, a sentiment agreed to by the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

Demos Demonstrates

After First Nations elder Uncle Norm Enoch welcomed the Mother’s Day demonstrators to Country, TV horticulturalist and botanist Jerry Coleby Williams gave a spirited speech detailing the many risks presented by the project.

The draft EIS records only one meeting with First Peoples, held at the end of 2020. This was with the officially recognised Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation. It appears the meeting was limited to discussions about art, crafts and tourism, and ‘Environmental considerations, including koala, migratory shorebirds, and opportunities to protect and celebrate biodiversity’. There is no record of comments on the design of the project, or of its acceptance by the participants. A senior elder did not consider what transpired to be substantive consultation.

Meanwhile the Danggan Balun People have a pending Native Title claim for large areas of the project site, suggesting that Walker failed to substantively consult with the Indigenous owners.

Dodgy Dealings

But dodgy practice is a hallmark of Walker Corporation.

In 2012, The Tasmanian Times reported that Walker Corporation owed the state government $856,000 relating to the assessment of its failed proposal to build a canal estate at Lauderdale. It paid $135,000, but refused to pay the rest. To avoid prohibitive legal costs, the Government allowed Walker the remainder. Profit beats principle. The Corporation went on to earn $1.13 billion, and posted a 226 per cent increase in net profits.

Earlier, The Sydney Morning Herald had reported that

One of the country’s biggest property developers has been fined $200,000 by the NSW Land and Environment Court for unlawfully clearing 23 hectares of native vegetation. Walker Corporation, which has more than $4 billion of developments under way across Australia, was given a record fine for a company under the Native Vegetation Act for clearing the land at a property near Wilton, south-west of Sydney, in 2006 and 2007.

Then, the Kew Cottages

As a student, I spent time at the cottages before shunts effectively treated hydrocephalus. Residents performed simple tasks with their heads resting on the tables. The cottages recalled an age of disability that is now thankfully long gone. The heritage buildings were reduced to rubble alongside Walker’s quasi-modern housing.

The Age concluded that as the contract closed in late 2016, Lang Walker’s development company had made total of $520 million from house sales at the Kew site, while Victoria received just $54 million. Not what Steve Bracks had imagined.

The Age wrote,

Kew raises questions about the contracting and management of public-private ventures—especially when big political donations are in play. And it begs the question: how could a government do so badly on its own premium real estate in a well-serviced location overlooking the Yarra River and central city amid tree-lined streets and private schools?

Sounds like Toondah.

Then came the 16.5-hectare Amcor Paper Mill site beside the Yarra River. Its $1 billion redevelopment into 2000 dwellings, a shopping centre and offices on the Yarra River enraged the electorate. Ex-Labour henchman Graham Richardson lobbied for Walker.

In 2016 the South Australian government announced a $500 million deal with Walker Corporation to demolish Adelaide’s existing Festival Plaza, car park and parklands with well established trees and replace them with a 27-storey office tower. Lang Walker and the State Government argued over his push for a second office tower in the development; his ambition was to build a $100 million multistorey office tower above the $70 million car park. The development would have enclosed the Plaza on three sides with high rises. Big projects, big money.

Veracity: Water Always Wins

So what of the future for the spectacular Cleveland land overlooking an island-spotted bay?

Birds, koalas and marine life are not the only things endangered in the Toondah project, it seems. Truth, public opinion, environmental concern and factual integrity are also at stake.

Walker’s EIS states that

there is a need for harbour facilities to be upgraded to allow residents and tourists to safely travel to and from the Island, as well as future proofing the regional gateway to the islands … The facilities at the harbour have become dilapidated and there is a need to widen and deepen the entrance channel to provide safe passage.

‘The ferry channel is fine’, Ian Mazlin, a local Greens resident, told me. ‘I was chatting to the Harbour Master and he said that the channel does not need any dredging. Maybe the buildings could do with a hit of paint, but that hardly justifies what Walkers is doing’.

Local resident Margaret added that the Harbourmaster told her the channel had a deliberate dogleg that enabled evasive action during stormy winds and violent seas. And a science-trained resident who did not want to be named reported that ‘The impact of sea level rise under the final EIS Guidelines significantly understates the risk. Modelled maximum water levels during storm event with a 1.5 m sea level rise briefly exceed the 3.0 m design level of the development. That’s now’, he added.

‘Globally sea level rise will create a profound shift in coastal flooding over the next 30 years. The US Oceanographic Bureau reported “High tide and storm surge heights will increase and reach further inland”. By 2050, “moderate” (typically damaging) flooding is expected to occur, on average, more than ten times as often as it does today, intensified by local factors.

‘Walkers would need to elevate the constructions by 6 metres to stay above flooding and hand out gum boots’, he laughed.

It is thought that almost 70 hectares of land in the Bay are inundated each day by the high tide. Much of the clay bed is low-lying with porous sediment overlays. Disturbance caused by dredging will release stored toxins and carcinogens.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society asserts that

Seagrass meadows and mangrove forests can store 2—4 times more carbon than tropical rainforests [their emphasis]. These incredible places are vital for marine life, are nursery grounds for fish and other animals, and critical for healthy coastal ecosystems. The removal of mangrove and seagrass habitat would lead to the loss of vital feeding grounds for green turtles and dugongs, as well as nursery areas for juvenile fish and prawns.

The ACMS reports the IUCN 2020 assessment concluded that no World Heritage properties in Oceania have improved their conservation outlook. Five of these properties are in Australia.

What the muck!

A local engineer wrote in his submission to the EIS that

The proposed construction will require more than 15,00 truckloads over the life of the project each carrying 25 tonnes of material (rock, aggregate, road material, etc), to both infill and elevate the site.

The diesel emissions and noise from pumps, dredges, barges and trucks and vibrating sheet pile drivers, operating 24 hours per day, 6 days per week will disturb not only the residents of the area but disable marine creature’s ability to navigate and communicate, both of which are dependent on sonar.

In addition, trucks will burn over a million litres of diesel, will create noise and crossing hazards for koalas. Oh and contribute 2.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide per trip.

This increase in traffic, increased light and ecosystem destruction threaten ever-diminishing koala populations. Walker claims it will build a bypass tunnel, but as Debbie Pointing of the Koala Action Group pointed out, koalas are not known for their ability to find such facilities, much less use them.

In losing koala habitat, Australia is losing its most famous and loved animal, and a major tourist drawcard. Overseas, koalas are better known than kangaroos. Years ago, I met a large group of Japanese tourists gazing at a treetop near the harbour. I followed their gaze. A koala with her joey! The travellers were ecstatic. ‘This is the best thing’, they enthused. ‘We came to Australia for this. We had almost given up. Today is the best day’. The koalas were not in a tunnel.

In a rather bizarre statement, Walker’s EIS denies the Corporation could be responsible for a reduction in migratory bird numbers because the numbers are already in decline. Walker’s spokesperson Dolam Hayes has said that ‘Crucially, scaremongering about negative environmental impacts to bird life, marine ecology and koalas has been proven wrong by the best, independent science.’ In fact the opposite is true.

Nevertheless, the company insists that ‘the Project will not affect Australia’s international environmental responsibilities or agreements’ So how do they define the destruction of a significant area of Ramsar marine park?

Last Say

It was 11-year-old Oliver with his black dog who summed it up:

This place is special. I want to grow up seeing the birds returning from their migration to China. I want to be amazed. I want to see the islands, and explore the mangroves. Walker’s plans to dredge all the sand and ocean bottom will just release all the poisonous stuff that had settled there after all these years, oil, fuel chemicals. There are so many reasons to say no. I am too young to have a say, but I want it to be stopped.

Why isn’t he mayor?

Gentle Creatures: Brisbane’s bush stone curlews in the shadow of extinction

Dean Biron, 16 May 2022

Now it is the curlew that crouches like a ghost in the shadows of all of those lost creatures, waiting for that future time when it too will exist only in photographs or behind museum glass.

About the author

Melody Kemp

Melody has been an environmental journalist working in Asia for 20 years. She had post grads in Tropical Public and Environmental Health. COVID captured in Australia, she has been busy writing eco-fiction for young adults.

More articles by Melody Kemp

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