On coal company fines, reef shortcuts and environmental justice in Queensland

This week we saw hefty fines of $70,000 handed out to three foreign sailors from a bulk carrier, the MV Mimosa, which was caught travelling through restricted waters of the Great Barrier Reef off north Queensland. Also in the news was the arrest and charging of the master and the chief officer on watch of the Shen Neng 1, which ran aground on the Douglas shoal causing damage in a restricted area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. But almost under the radar was the token fines totalling $8,000 handed out to three Fitzroy Coal Mines in Queensland for polluting the Fitzroy river.

The three central Queensland mines were fined for discharging into the Fitzroy River in breach of their environmental licence conditions. Moranbah North coal mine has been fined $4,000 for exceeding its water release limits and for releasing water from an unauthorised discharge point. Rolleston and Callide coal mines were each fined $2,000 for exceeding their water release limits. "These fines are a clear message to mine operators that breaches will not be tolerated," said Kate Jones, Queensland Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability.

But Friends of the Earth said the fines were much too light. "This is a token gesture and it will neither silence the critics of this dirty industry, nor deter the mining companies from continuing to illegally pollute the Fitzroy river every time there is a flood," said Friends of the Earth spokesperson Bradley Smith.

In the last financial year, both Callide and Moranbah mines each produced over $1 billion dollars of coal at average export prices, while Rolleston's coal production was $980 million.

Kate Jones said that the fines are a clear message to mine operators that breaches will not be tolerated. A further six mines had been issued with warning notices - Blackwater, Moorvale, Dawson Central, Blair Athol, Peak Downs and Moranbah North. "Eleven mines have been, or are being, investigated for non-compliance with Environmental Authority conditions." said Kate Jones. "The decision not to prosecute was taken because in each instance, despite the breach of environmental operating conditions, the investigations found no evidence of significant environmental harm having been caused," she said.

Enforcement action for breaches of licence conditions can range from a warning notice to a fine of up to $200,000 and two years imprisonment, depending on the severity of water quality breaches. According to Mr Smith the $2000 fines handed down equate to 1.5% of the revenue made by each of these mines in just one hour.

So on the one hand we have 3 foreign sailors from a bulk carrier, the MV Mimosa, being fined $70,000 each for the risks of damaging the sensitive marine ecosystem involved in taking a shortcut through restricted zones of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. On the other hand we have 3 token fines amounting to $8,000 and warnngs issued to coal mining companies for breaching licence conditions and polluting the Fitzroy River and other waterways. The ship taking a shortcut put the reef at risk, but caused no damage. The Discharge from the coal mines polluted the Fitzroy river, but probably with minimal environmental damage. The sailors get fined a total of $210,000, the mining companies just $8,000. So where is the comparative justice?

There seems to be a gross lack of environmental justice in the token fines handed out for pollution by coal mining companies in comparison to the fines against ship masters and officers for equally risky and sometimes damaging behaviour as exemplified by the damage caused by the Shen Neng 1 damaging the reef.

Coal is a major export earner for the Queensland Government. Queensland is the largest coal exporting state in the largest coal exporting country in the world, accounting for as much as 20% of the global trade, with mining and infrastructure projects set to double coal exports. According to the Friends of the Earth the 2009-2010 Queensland Budget has allocated $1,758 million to coal subsidies and expansions.

The Queensland environment Minister Kate Jones talks tough in her media release, but the pitifully small fines are another example of the greenwash and bias towards the coal industry at the expense of the environment and climate. Read more on how the Queensland Climate Change Minister spins Climate Destruction of Great Barrier Reef.

"The planned doubling of the coal industry will inevitably lead to more pollution of our waterways and more accidents on the Great Barrier reef," said Mr Smith. "Everyday Queenslanders enjoy fishing in the Fitzroy and visiting the Great Barrier Reef. It is unfortunate that the Government more interested in getting a quick buck from expanding the coal industry than protecting these natural assets for all Queenslanders to enjoy," said Mr Smith from Friends of the Earth.


Takver is a citizen journalist from Melbourne who has been writing on Climate Change issues and protests including Rising Sea Level, Ocean acidification, Environmental and social Impacts since 2004.