Acid horror story in Cairns

Pollution pouring into sea

Brendan O'Malley

A HUGE area of ocean and waterfront land near Cairns is suffocating under some of the worst acid and heavy metal pollution in the country, according to a damning CSIRO study.

The report found acid sulphate soils on the east side of Trinity Inlet were releasing the equivalent of a small swimming pool of sulphuric acid into the ocean every day.

In the past 23 years, acid released from the exposed mud had been pouring into fishing grounds at 190 times the natural rate. Scientists estimated more than 120,000 tonnes of acid had been washed into the inlet since 1976, four years after sugar producer CSR drained and cleared 700ha of mangrove swamp within sight of downtown Cairns.

Two successive developers, including current mortgagee-in-possession Natwest Markets (UK), have meanwhile tried to turn the site into a mini-city, housing 25,000 people.

Federal Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch, who released the CSIRO study, said the problem would cost millions of dollars to fix.

He said the final report showed the problem was even worse than suggested in CSIRO's preliminary findings, released last May, and raised concerns about heavy metal pollution.

According to the report, plants and animals might be contaminated with arsenic leached out of the acidic soil. The acid was also leaching aluminium into the ocean at up to 6000 times recommended levels.

"The report reads like an absolute horror story. For the first time it's given us the opportunity to know exactly what's happening over there and 1 would suggest it's going to give us the tools to move very, very quickly to look at dealing with this problem," Mr Entsch said.

"It has to be fixed, there's no question about it. It will certainly have a massive, massive environmental effect.

"But it won't be easy to fix. One simple solution would have been to take out the bung walls and allow the sea flow to flow back into it, but that option may not be practical because there's been subsidence of up to a metre (deep)."

Mr Entsch said the only economically viable option might be to allow Natwest to go ahead with its controversial development plans.

But Save Trinity Inlet spokesman Jonathan Metcalfe condemned Mr Entsch's comments and called for the site to be returned to its original state.

Mr Metcalfe said Natwest and its backers were trying to talk up the cost of remediating the site in an attempt to justify the mini-city proposal.

"Warren Entsch obviously intends to fix this up by building a city on it. While we agree there are no easy answers, we're saying rehabilitating it to how it was in 1972 is the only option we have left," he said.

"What we have to do is reintroduce water very slowly, over a period of years, and slowly replant the mangroves or allow them to naturally recolonise.

"We've got the scientific evidence that it can be rehabilitated. Mangroves are good colonisers, so it's not going to cost millions."

Natwest Markets consultant Gary Hunt said the CSIRO report said remediation would be expensive. He believed development was therefore essential to offset costs of fixing the problem.

 The Courier Mail Saturday, April 3, 1999. Page 8

last upgrade 23 Oct 1999

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