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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts

Great Barrier Reef grounding, Great Keppel Island resort proposal, Home Insulation Program

Doorstop Interview, Rockhampton Airport, Qld
E&OE Transcript
8 April 2010

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GARRETT: Thanks for coming out to Rockhampton for me to provide some additional information following my fly-over of the site of the grounding of the Chinese vessel this morning with officials from AMSA and GBRMPA.

Firstly to say that we recognise that the environment of the Great Barrier Reef is unique - very, very special - and that any risk to the environment of the reef must be minimised. And, that the Queensland Government, the Australian Government and all the relevant agencies are working closely and co-operatively to make sure that those risks are minimised.

The second thing to say is that the values of the Great Barrier Reef to Australians - it's priceless. This is a World-Heritage Listed area, the largest collection of coral reefs of its kind anywhere in the world. The Great Barrier Reef is visible from space. It is a place of great diversity of both bird-life and sea-life, but it's also a really important economic driver for Australia: a major source of tourism income and for the fishing industry, for recreational fishers and commercial fishers. And for the tourism industry, particularly those parts of the tourism industry and the fishing industry that are located in and around Douglas Shoal, this is a place of great, great importance.

The next two days are going to be critical given that we are know seeking to significantly reduce the risk further by having the oil pumped from the vessel into the bunkers that we saw from the air today, and are already located off the vessel that's grounded.

And I am very hopeful that that operation can be conducted successfully. That will significantly lower the threshold of risk. But there is still the possibility that it may take longer and that there may be issues that arise whilst they are getting oil off the vessel.

We now clearly have the salvors on the vessel and, as well as that, a significant amount of personnel deployed not only on the vessel but also onshore in order to manage any contingency should it arise.

Finally to say that the Government takes very, very seriously any breaches of our national environment legislation which has included strengthening the requirements for a proper exercise of the duty of care for this beautiful part of Australia under the amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act which I brought through the Parliament. That means that we have one approach in terms of seeking both investigative matters and also looking at the penalties that might apply. It means that we have got significant additional powers in terms of dealing with an incident of this kind once we understand whether or not additional action has to be taken. And it means that the liability issues, the compensation issues and any issues that arise in terms of making good whatever damage has been inflicted on our environment will be forcefully and very, very strongly pursued.

I know that there's really high levels of concern around the grounding of this vessel - boy I share those concerns. We very much that in the next two days we will see the risk levels substantially lowered on the Great Barrier Reef if oil can come off this ship successfully.

Clearly there are a number of other issues that follow as a consequence of that but I am confident that the approach that has been taken so far is the right one. I commend those who have done the work so far and, like everybody else, I am very, very hopeful that the next two or three days go successfully.

JOURNALIST: How happy are you about the fact that ships can travel through these relatively narrow passages in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park?

GARRETT: I think the thing I would say to that is, what I am not happy about is that a ship could stray so clearly away from what is a clearly defined passage. That there is in the normal course of ship transport plenty of opportunity for the provision of appropriate information in terms of safe passage, reefs, shoals, shallow water and the like. The technology is fairly standard on most of these vessels. I am not going to speak to the specific matters of this case because it is under investigation, but the issue here is not one about whether or not ships could go through what is roughly a twelve mile passage but rather why did this particular ship end up on this shoal.

JOURNALIST: But in that vein though, this shipping company has got a pretty disastrous history. Shouldn't we have more regulations on who is actually using our waters?

GARRETT: There are a series of regulations about who uses our waters. There are international maritime arrangements and agreements. We have a very strong legislative framework for ensuring that accidents, spills and other matters can be properly taken care of. But what I would say is that this investigation that is being undertaken into how this accident happened, and the recommendations of the enquiry into this incident will bring forward a range of options. Every option that is brought forward by way of recommendation will be taken seriously by the Government, every option will be pursued fully. And it not appropriate now to start speculating any further until we actually have the results of the investigations that are underway.

JOURNALIST: Are you confident that a major disaster has been averted here?

GARRETT: My heart has been pretty agitated by the thought that we have a vessel of this size with 900 tonnes or so of bunker and fuel oil on board. And so I am very, very hopeful that the salvors and those who are doing the work of getting the oil off this boat can successfully achieve what is still a difficult task at sea over the next couple of days.

If we are able to get this oil off the boat then we will breathing a sigh of relief. It is not the end of the story but it is certainly a significant reduction in risk to the environment of the Great Barrier Reef.

JOURNALIST: ... any indication of whether any marine life or any coral in the reef has been adversely affected by either the oil that got out initially or the chemical dispersant that was sprayed afterwards? Can they rule out that there was any damage done?

GARRETT: Because we can't put divers down underneath where the vessel is at the moment - that wouldn't be safe - until such time as we have got access to the waters around where the vessel is grounded, we won't be able to provide additional information there. I think it is fair to say that a vessel of this size, of this tonnage, landing on a coral reef is going to have some impact. The extent of that impact we won't know until the vessel, hopefully, is successfully removed.

On the broader question of oil dispersal, it seems to be that there were relatively small amounts of oil that were discharged. I think we can be thankful for that. We haven't seen any signs yet of impact on wildlife but clearly we are going to continue monitoring. And we are also working closely with Queensland authorities on shore, in the event that anything turns up there but for the moment nothing specific has been identified.

JOURNALIST: Just on a separate matter, there is a new plan coming out for a resort on Great Keppel Island. I understand that you will be responsible for looking at these plans. At this stage will you be taking this quite seriously to approve this?

GARRETT: I will take very, very close account of any proposal that comes to me on Great Keppel. I think it is a really important place in this part of Australia - important for its tourism but also important because of its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef and to the marine park. And any proposal that comes to me will need to take proper account, and careful account, of the values - those important values - of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

JOURNALIST: Just one final question, this is on a different subject. The Financial Review is reporting today that there were minutes of departmental meeting in February '09 saying that safety dangers and mandatory training were integral to the insulation program. Why was that advice ignored for months?

GARRETT: The advice that came through at that meeting and many others was taken account of in the development of a risk framework for rolling out that program and that has been clearly enunciated by me in my statements to the parliament, and subsequently.

JOURNALIST: But there wasn't mandatory training put in place then, it wasn't until June and July?

GARRETT: In relation to mandatory training, we took a series of advices from training organisations and others, and we amplified the training requirements over time as a consequence of the advice that we received, and the advice that I received from the department.

JOURNALIST: People at that meeting said a similar scheme in New Zealand resulted in accidents - three people died there. Why did it take four people and several months before we did anything in Australia?

GARRETT: Again, all of the advice that was received by the Government in relation to the scheme including from the many meetings that were had and risk assessment led to the establishment of a risk management framework which identified and took into account both that information and those advices. And that was the way in which the scheme was rolled out over time. That was how it should have been rolled out over time. And, as I made clear in my statement to the parliament, we took careful account of the advice that we received in order to properly effect the scheme.

[ENDS]

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