Coal spilling from Port of Hay Point terminals, Environment Minister confirms
THE State Environment Minister has confirmed coal is spilling from terminals south of Mackay, within the Great Barrier Reef.
Dr Steven Miles said the Department of Environment and Heritage had witnessed "some spillages" at Hay Point and Dalrymple Bay coal terminals during an ongoing investigation.
"They did witness some spillages in those inspections, but I'd be loathe to go into any more detail, except to say one (of the spills) was unlikely to be the cause of the beach coal," he said.
The Minister's comments come after two contractors at the port approached the Daily Mercury in recent weeks, in response to reports coal, and what was thought to be coal dust, had been found on Mackay region beaches.
The contractors claimed spills were a common occurrence.
One Mackay contractor provided what he said was photographic evidence of coal in the ocean after a spill.
Australian Institute of Marine Science research, released last year, shows coal dust in seawater can kill corals and slow down the growth rate of seagrasses and fish.
However, the operators of the ports, BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) and Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal Management (DBCTM), reiterated they are abiding by all environmental obligations.
The Mercury understands the department has recorded larger spills from shiploaders at the ports and smaller spills from trestles.
Despite this, Dr Miles said "it's not possible at this stage to confirm that the coal that's been washing up on those (Mackay region) beaches is necessarily from the terminals".
"The EHP has done two site inspections and while they've identified some issues in some inspections they're not yet able to link those to the coal washing up," he said.
"The investigation at this stage is to try and identity the source.
"They've (EHP) got a laboratory working on samples to see whether the scientists can identity the original source of the coal. And once they do that they'll be able to then look at the transportation chains and determine what the possible sources of the spillage are."
Dr Miles said laboratory testing would determine how long the department's investigation would take.
"If they're relatively conclusive I hope we can move very swiftly to taking action, but if they're not it becomes a lot harder," he said.
"Fines for this kind of pollution for companies are in the order of around $5million, and for individuals more like $800,000.
"So, the fines are pretty significant, and on top of that the department has the power to order polluters to rectify their pollution. So in this case, clean it up."
Dr Miles considered the financial penalties "pretty significant" but said "reputational risks" for companies and "the impact on their ongoing operations" would hit hard.
"I think the penalties are right, we just need to make sure we can determine the source of the pollution and hold the right party accountable," he said.
The Minister said he'd had "lots of pictures and things" sent to him from members of the public in recent weeks.
"They've been in pretty regular contact with me and as you're aware, with media outlets too, certainly I'm aware of the level of concern," he said.
"I've just done four interviews on this. It's got quite a bit of attention."
Dr Miles was unable to say whether CCTV footage from the ports had been obtained by EHP, but he said he would endeavour to find out more.
Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal Management has been contacted for comment.
BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance and North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, the port authority for Hay Point, declined to comment further until the department's investigation was finished.