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Moderator on Labor’s intractable commitment to the Mary River Dam

Moderator of the Uniting Church Queensland Synod Rev Dr David Pitman

This is an unedited reflection by the Moderator of the Uniting Church Queensland Synod Rev Dr David Pitman after his visit to the Mary Valley last week.

On June 8th-9th I visited the Mary Valley in order to gain a first-hand insight into the situation around which the current controversy is raging. During my visit I was accompanied by Heather den Houting, Synod Social Justice Advocate, the Rev David Fanning, Chairperson of the Presbytery of Mary Burnett, and local Uniting Church Minister, the Rev Iain Watt. I have returned from that visit with a heavy heart.

On the evening of the 8th, I met with about 60 people in the Imbil Uniting Church Hall and the following day visited the Mary Dam Information Centre set up at Kandanga, and several properties that will be inundated or become unusable if the dam project proceeds.

In all, about 850 homes and/or farming properties will be resumed to make way for the dam. However, that is only the beginning of the impact this project will have on the local community and beyond.

Let me briefly summarise the issues as I now understand them.

For some time now, the Government has had on its agenda the construction of a new dam on Amamoor Creek and the raising of the existing dam at Borumba to increase its capacity. The land required for these projects has already been acquired and their implementation would have minimal impact on the community. While some people are opposed to any further dam construction, most of the residents in the Valley have long since adjusted to the possibility of these projects and are willing to accept them.

However, while the possibility of a dam at Traveston on the Mary River has been investigated and rejected on two previous occasions, there has been no hint that the Government was considering this option yet again. Consequently, the announcement regarding the construction of a mega dam at Traveston, coming as it did without prior knowledge or consultation, caused shock and dismay in the community.

It is not really possible to appreciate the depth of pain and trauma this announcement has caused without personal contact with those most directly affected. The Premier, whose public statements have been particularly insensitive and uncaring, did fly over the region a few weeks ago, but has chosen not to visit the area or meet with local residents.

Telephone “help-lines” that have been set up are a joke! People are being asked to put their concerns in writing and are waiting for up to three weeks for a response. Financial compensation is being promised but the emotional pain and distress being experienced remains ignored and unaddressed.

Some of these families have been on the land in this area for more than 100 years. Others have moved there just recently, expecting to spend the last years of their lives in peaceful retirement in a lovely rural environment. Business people face financial ruin. Unemployment will increase greatly as farms and businesses are forced to close.

Even if it was decided right now not to proceed with the dam the adverse impact on the community has already been very significant. 

Now all of this has happened while the current process of investigation into the suitability of the site is still in its early stages. Notwithstanding the commitment by the Government to undertake thorough geological research, along with environmental and community impact studies, the Premier has repeatedly declared that the dam must and will be built! I would like the Premier to explain the basis on which he can commit to this project before any such significant investigation has taken place, and in the absence of any prior consultation with those most directly and adversely affected. I find his attitude and the intention both mystifying and irresponsible.

The human cost of this project, directly impacting on the lives and livelihoods of 850 families, but with a major impact on many more people in the region, is unacceptable, particularly given that there are a number of previously identified alternative strategies that could be implemented with minimal human disruption. There is no doubt in my mind that the actions of the Government to this point in time have been shameful, abusive and callous.

It is inevitable that there will also be a significant impact on the environment, representing a major risk not only to local flora and fauna but to the whole river valley. The Mary River contains a number of rare and threatened species, including the Mary River Cod, the Mary River Turtle and the Queensland Lungfish (which is sacred to the local Indigenous people). Previous commitments by the Government in relation to environmental protection and community consultation, incorporated into the Water Act 2000, have not only been ignored to date but will be violated if this dam proceeds.

A range of other adverse outcomes have been identified, including the potential impact on tourism and recreational fishing, and disruption to transport, communications and power supply.

There is now a significant body of opinion that seriously questions the construction of dams as an effective strategy for long-term water conservation and supply. I am not a geologist or an engineer, but there seems to be something incredibly foolhardy about building a very expensive dam in an area where the alluvial sand is not only very deep but notoriously unstable, where water flow, except in times of flood, is variable and uncertain, and with the expectation that the actual depth of water in the dam will be quite shallow yet will cover 76 sq/kms of fertile and productive land. It is no wonder the local residents are bewildered and dismayed!

It is very apparent that opposition to this project is widespread and has brought together a variety of concerned groups and organisations, so creating a stronger a sense of community and common purpose.

The Uniting Church has a long history of commitment to the community. This stance is informed by a strong determination to stand alongside those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged and who need someone to be their advocate and speak on their behalf. 

As a church we also have a clear understanding of the urgent need to protect and preserve the environment for the sake of the generations who will come after us.

I know that environmental issues are sometimes controversial and that finding the right balance between development and conservation can be very difficult. But I sense that in regard to the construction of a dam at Traveston, the human and environmental issues have come together in a special way and have unified the community, not divided it.

I personally feel a deep sense of outrage on behalf of the residents of the Mary Valley. They have been treated very badly by a Government that constantly declares that it “cares for people”. There is no evidence of that here.

Regardless of the final outcome, a great injustice has been done. Our commitment as a church must be to challenge that injustice and to ensure that proper and sustained pastoral care is provided, both now and into the future. I intend to take further action in regard to both of those imperatives.

The Rev Iain Watt has been exercising a wonderful ministry in the Valley. He is well known and greatly respected. In the midst of this human crisis the demands on his time and energy have been considerable. Please pray for him, and the members of our congregations at Imbil and Amamoor, as they exercise a caring and supportive presence in the wider life of the community.

Photo : Moderator of the Uniting Church Queensland Synod Rev Dr David Pitman