Southern Black-throated Finch, a potential champion in the fight against Adani?
Words by Austen Hunt
How the Adani mine has been developing
The use of water for the open cut mine of Adani has incurred public concern. Queensland's scarce groundwater reservoirs, specifically the Doongmabulla Springs, stand to be impacted by the 12.5 billion litre a year digest of the proposed Adani coal mine. The Adani developers have been required to produce a Groundwater Management Plan to propose ways to mitigate potential solutions.
On Tuesday the 9th of April, Minister of the Environment Melissa Price signed her approval for the controversial Adani Groundwater Management Plan, bringing the development of the project one step closer to fruition. The minister has cited reports conducted by the CSIRO and Geoscience Australia as having influenced her decision, however, these reports have been noted to be critical of the Adani development.
Minister Price has also outlined that while she has signed off on the Groundwater Management Plan the Carmichael Coal Mine is still far from being developed. Ms Price outlined that "To date, only 16 of 25 environmental plans have been finalised or approved by the commonwealth and Queensland governments with a further nine to be finalised,"
While there are still other environmental concerns which require the approval of Queensland and Commonwealth authorities, few of them pose a real obstacle to the development of the Adani Carmichael. The exception to this is the endangerment of the Southern Black-throated Finch which Adani developers have failed to adequately address.
The approval of the Groundwater Management Plan is a hallmark decision for the coalition government as it heads towards a federal election in May. The issues of Adani, future coal developments, and Australia’s environmental impact are likely to be the central issues which define this election.
To define themselves in opposition to the coalition government, Labor leader Bill Shorten said the environment minister was being bullied in what he described as a "failure of ethics in government at the highest level".
So what else stands in the way of the Adani Carmichael Coal Mine and how does the resistance change to the new circumstances?
An Unlikely Champion
Could the Southern Black-throated Finch be an unlikely, and unsung, champion against the Adani coal mine?
With the Southern Black-throated Finch being an endangered species within Australia, organisations such as the ACF may qualify for standing against the development of the Adani Carmichael Coal Mine.
The Southern Black-throated Finch is an endangered species whose habitat stands to be destroyed by the Adani coal mine developments. The endangered bird has had its population recede as it’s habitat has consistently been threatened by economic developments and a changing environment. At present, only 12% of the Black-throated Finch’s habitat remains, raising concerns as to the future of this unique Australian species.
The Black-throated Finch’s habitat stands to be threatened by the Adani developments of the Carmichael Coal Mine and the North Galilee Basin Rail (NGBR). The Carmichael Coal Mine is planned to consist of an open cut and underground coal mine, and 189 km of associated rail infrastructure, while the NGBR is planned to be a 310 km stretch of rail connecting to the Port of Abbot Point.
These developments demand environmental restructuring which will have adverse effects on an already struggling species.
So what is happening with Adani and the Black-throated finch? Will this pose a challenge to the foreign coal magnate, or merely be an unfortunate casualty of industry?
To explore this we need to look at the context that this takes place in, Australia. Thanks to a few checks and balances within our state and federal systems, these kinds of conundrums often require third party intervention. This allows for Environmental Impact Assessments to take place to determine the potential damage and allow developers a chance to propose management plans.
Who is involved
The main parties coming to the tables are the classic loggerheads of Adani and the Queensland state authorities. The former is interested purely in extracting resources and producing profits, while the later has to take broader factors into consideration; How Adani will affect other industries, namely agriculture and tourism, how Adani will affect Australia’s unique biodiversity, and the public's disposition towards Adani.
In an attempt to thwart any criticisms of the public and Australian environmentalists, Adani has contracted a third party to create a Black-throated Finch Management Plan (BTFMP). The ‘Eco Logical’ organisation has created a report which outlines the impact that Adani’s developments will have, and proposes some solutions. The report seems to be more scathing then it is redeeming, outlining that the development will affect more than just the Black-throated Finch. The report outlines that the following species will be impacted by the development of Adani:
Black-throated Finch (southern; Poephila cincta cincta) - Endangered
Squatter Pigeon (southern; Geophaps scripta scripta) - Vulnerable
Ornamental Snake (Denisonia maculata) - Vulnerable
Brigalow (Acacia harpophylla dominant and co-dominant) TEC - Endangered
Yakka Skink (Egernia rugosa) - Vulnerable
Waxy Cabbage Palm (Livistona lanuginosa) - Vulnerable
Doongmabulla Springs Complex – Nationally Important Wetland and hosts a community of native species.
How is Adani proposing to manage this? Relocate these species to an area where his only rival coal magnate, Clive Palmer, has indicated an interest to mine coal.
Just let that sink in. The Adani developers have proposed simply moving the species to the land of their competitors. That is there solution.
To better understand the issue, the Department of Environment and Science (DES) has created a panel of experts to investigate the impact to biodiversity which Adani poses. Headed by Brendan Wintle, a Professor in Conservation Ecology at the University of Melbourne and a team of six leading scientific experts, this team has formed a panel to review Adani’s potential impact and the effectiveness of their management plan.
While their report has apparently been published in February of 2019, it’s findings are yet to be made public. The findings of these reports, while unclear, seem to be heavily critical of the Adani developments. This is evident in Adani’s response in Southern Queensland; a drastic increase in advertising and media campaigns to pressure the Queensland state.
So what is the counterbalance to this endorsement? Well, conservation groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation have begun federal and state campaigns to raise awareness to the possible extinction of the Black-throated Finch.
When reached out to, ACF’s Campaign Manager Basha Stasak has commented that
“ACF has long been deeply concerned about damage the Adani coal mine will do to the Black-throated finch and have consistently raised its fate as part of our campaign. We have worked with scientists to detail the destruction the mine would do to its scarce remaining habitat. We’ve sought legal advice to highlight how the approval of the Adani mine was inconsistent with the finch’s national recovery plan. And we’ve asked our supporters to write to the Queensland Government to urge them to reject Adani’s inadequate management plan for the species. We are currently campaigning for strong new national environment laws, and an independent national EPA to oversee them, so we can better protect threatened species like the Black-throated finch from destructive projects like the Adani coal mine.”
Which is where this story finally gets a little saucy.
What can happen from here?
Environmental law in Australia is complicated at the best of times. With the resources within a state being managed by the state authorities, and the concerns of the public being directed to the Commonwealth to intervene, jurisdiction is torn. Environmental issues in Australia, therefore, exist in a state of ‘cooperative federalism’ between the state and the Commonwealth.
Perhaps the most jarring caveat preventing action being taken by organisations or individuals is the challenge of gaining ‘standing’ in the legal system. To gain standing, or the right to elevate an issue to a judicial level, a person or organisation must prove themselves to be ‘aggrieved’.
So how does one gain this status and why has the Black-throated Finch perhaps become a catalyst for action on the environmental front?
The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 outlines that in order to have standing an individual or organisation must have been involved in a series of related activities within the 2 years immediately preceding the decision, failure, or conduct in question.
This naturally prevents any sporadic environmentalists from taking their qualms to court and limits the amount of ‘aggrieved’ persons to a handful of bodies, cutting the amount of opposition development Adani would face.
But wait, hasn’t the Australian Conservation Foundation been involved in the conservation of Australia’s Biodiversity since its founding in 1965? Wouldn't they have standing to prosecute, delay and potentially cease the development of the Adani Carmichael Coal Mine?
While it may be a long shot for a coal magnate to be stopped by the ACF, on the basis of protecting a small bird, stranger things have happened. At present, the ACF is attempting to go through advocacy means, lobbying Queensland’s decision makers to take action and prevent Adani’s plans from happening.
When asked if the ACF would challenge a federal decision to allow the mine on the basis of protection the Southern Black-throated Finch the aforementioned campaign manager, Basha Stasak has commented:
“It is a significant decision for any charity like ACF to launch legal action, and we’ve only done so a handful of times in our 50-year history. ACF has always looked closely at our legal options at every stage of the approval process for Adani’s coal mine, and we’ve already launched a legal challenge to the federal decision not apply the water trigger to the approval of the project’s surface water pipeline. The political interference revealed last week raises serious doubts about the probity of the Morrison Government’s approval process for Adani’s mine. If the Environment Minister was pressured by her Queensland colleagues to abuse the approvals process and rush through a decision on Adani’s groundwater plans before the election, that would make it vulnerable to legal challenge.”
As to whether this will progress to the judicial circuits, time will tell.
The Southern Black-throated Finch faces extinction. The Adani coal mine developments will eradicate environment crucial to the survival of this species.
To learn more about how this will develop and how you can support the conservation of Australia’s unique wildlife, head over to the ACF website linked below. Here you can sign a petition showing that you too support action on the environment and keep your eyes peeled as to how issue develops.