Dredging for facts on the Barrier Reef

Australians like the money that natural resources bring, but are divided about whether the ecological costs are worth it.

by

     

    His tone was plaintive.

    “We’re poisoning that harbour.  All the crap we’re stirring up all the rubbish being spewed out. It’s just too much.”

    Ordinarily, when someone uses "we" in that context, they only include themselves as passive (usually resistant) individuals, reluctantly part of a national "we" – against both their better judgement and will.

    The man describing to me how Gladstone Harbour was being "destroyed", however, counted himself as an active part of that "we": a hands-on, knowing participant in the harbour’s destruction. 

    It’d be instant dismissal if anyone heard him tell me these things, he said, so he wouldn’t speak on camera.  But as a bulldozer driver, helping to clear land for a Liquefied Natural Gas plant on adjacent Curtis Island, he realised he was contributing to what he saw as an environmental catastrophe. 

    So why was he doing it? 

    He spelt it out, literally: "M-o-n-e-y."

    A standard five day week earned him $3,400.  Working weekends, he could nearly double that.  He may have sold out his principles, but at least he’d got a good price. 

    Gladstone Harbour – almost exactly half way up Australia’s East Coast – represents, in microcosm, the great Australian dilemma. 

    Abundant natural resources have kept the country – both as a nation and as a collection of individuals like that bulldozer driver – economically rich.  While the rest of the developed world struggles through financial crisis, Australia powers on.

    But it’s all come at an environmental cost. 

    As my TV report makes clear, in Gladstone – as elsewhere – competing claims are made about the extent to which development causes damage.

    And it’s hard to know who to believe.

    The commercial fisherman who was adamant that dredging was killing the fish - and with them his livelihood - had an interest in one causing the other: where there’s blame, there’s a big compensation claim.

    Equally, the head of the port corporation could see the entire development of Gladstone Harbour – worth billions – put on hold if a link was ever proved.  So it’s in his interests to stress that "no evidence" of one has ever been found. 

    In journalism, it’s common to build a report around a debate – one person says this for these reasons, another that, for those ones.  What is rare is to see a debate internalised within one bulldozer driver: a tortured environmentalist earning $250,000 a year to clear land, and bury his conscience.  


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