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Management of the coastal biophysical environment in tropical Queensland under conditions of heavy developmental pressure: the case of tourist resorts and acid sulphate soils

Patricia Erfurt-Haupt et Malcolm Cooper


La côte tropicale du Queensland est confrontée à un accroissement rapide de la population. Les fortes pressions anthropiques pèsent sur le milieu biophysique, qui comprend notamment a plus grande île de sable du monde, un site classé Patrimoine de l’Humanité, Port Hinchinbrook et Fraser Island. Malgré l’existence d’une législation nationale orientée vers la préservation de l’environnement, il est manifeste que peu d’attention est accordée aux effets à long terme des sites touristiques et du développement de l’urbanisation sur ces franges côtières sensibles. L’aspect massif des flux de visiteurs et leurs impacts sur le milieu naturel a été identifié comme un sujet d’inquiétude particulier dans certaines régions. La connaissance des impacts sur la géomorphologie côtière souterraine est très réduite et les choix de développement sont souvent faits dans l’ignorance ou au mépris de la présence répandue de terrains de sulfate d’acide dans ce milieu côtier. Des sols réactifs comme ceux-là peuvent affecter, et affectent, grandement les résultats géophysiques d’un développement lorsqu’ils sont connus. Des études de cas sur le problème des sols de sulfate d’acide suggèrent qu’une partie de la solution pour le gouvernement de l’Etat du Queensland est d’imposer des normes obligatoires pour le développement du tourisme dans la zone côtière.

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1The tropical coast of Queensland Australia is experiencing rapid population growth. Heavy development pressure is being placed on the coastal biophysical environment, which includes the largest sand island in the world (World Heritage listed Fraser Island) and formerly extensive mangrove and coastal forests. Despite the existence of State planning legislation oriented towards environmental sustainability, it is apparent that little, if any, regard is being paid to the long-term effects of resort and canal-estate development on the underlying biophysical environment of the coast and islands. While the remarkable surface features of the tropical coastal environment such as the surf beaches, the unique dune lakes, and the coastal vegetation, as well as the prolific wildlife, are used as selling points for new settlement and above all tourism, little is known or of concern with respect to the long term environmental impact of coastal tourism development.

2The crowding effect of large numbers of visitors and their impact on the natural environment - through significant degradation, site hardening or lack of proper on-site management – has been identified as a particular concern in certain areas (Queensland Department of the Environment, 1998). However there is little knowledge of impacts on the underlying coastal geomorphology. In particular, developmental choices are often made in ignorance of, or disregard of, the widespread existence of Acid Sulphate Soils (ASS) in the tropical coastal environment. Reactive soils such as these can, and do, greatly affect the biophysical and economic outcomes of a development if they are exposed. Agricultural, residential and tourism development along Australia's coastline has led to disturbance and increased exposure of acid sulphate soils, which has in turn led to reductions in inshore water quality, habitat degradation and loss of biodiversity, and economic loss.

3The effects of poorly managed ASS are felt by many people in the community, including farmers, fishermen, planners, engineers and people involved in land resource management in local councils and government agencies. These soils are unique in that the impact of drainage can be so severe that they can affect engineering works, agricultural productivity and water quality of estuarine systems (Sammut, 2001). Commercial and recreational fishing also experience off-site effects of the disturbance of these soils. Following dry periods, heavy rains in areas containing these soils cause flushing of extremely acid and aluminium-rich toxic water. Engineers also have to cope with extremely aggressive soil conditions for construction when using concrete and steel in this type of soil. Significant costs can thus be incurred by the community through maintenance of public structures such as bridges, pipelines and floodgates (Powell & Ahern, 2000). Virtually all developments proposed in coastal lowlands or catchments have potential impacts through the disturbance or drainage of ASS with potential impacts on the ecology of the adjacent receiving waterways. Developments (human activities) with the greatest potential to have adverse impacts on the environment through disturbance or drainage of acid sulphate soils include canals and artificial lake construction often associated with tourism resort development. In some prestigious canal estates and resort developments, residents have complained to authorities of foul smelling, iron stained waters in canals for several weeks following heavy rain. This is a little recognised consequence of up-stream ASS disturbance resulting in acidified water accumulating in the canals.

4In summary, development on these soils, particularly large scale drainage, resorts, residential areas and flood mitigation schemes, can lead to widespread acidification of land, lakes and streams and subsequent economic losses to other industries, e.g. commercial fisheries and oysters, recreational fisheries, tourist amenity and infrastructure (Powell et al., 2000). In some cases multi-million dollar coastal developments (e.g. East Trinity and Port Hinchinbrook, Queensland) have been stalled or abandoned, millions of dollars worth of oysters, prawns and fish have been destroyed, breeding areas have been decimated, and millions of dollars worth of infrastructure have had to be replaced due to acid attack (Powell et al., 2000). This paper looks at the ramifications of the problem of Acid Sulphate Soils for the development of coastal tourism in the Wet Tropics of Queensland.

1. Major geomorpholigical processes in the coastal zone

5Tropical coastlines are often the focus for settlement, intensively used and intended for further development, and this is the case in Queensland, Australia (for the location of sites discussed see figure 1). Australian coastal planning and management strategies in the past have been, and still are in many cases imported from temperate countries such as the United Kingdom or the United States. Environmentally, coastal processes in the temperate countries are generally very different from those in the tropical zone. As a result, while biological and ecological processes may be taken into account by planning policy instruments, the underlying physical processes may be operating differently in practice, presenting coastal managers trained in temperate systems with novel problems.

Figure 1. Queensland Australia showing locations of sites described East Trinity (Cairns)

Figure 1. Queensland Australia showing locations of sites described East Trinity (Cairns)

6The physical characteristics that typify a coastal zone are numerous, but may be divided into three; tectonics, climate and sea level change. The tectonic setting will determine relief and composition of rock types, climate controls the erosional processes but also the ecomorphological structure of the coast, including in the tropics the mangrove and salt marsh areas that have significant roles in the acid sulphate soil problem that is discussed in this paper, while sea level changes can affect deposition of sediments. The sea level is of course constantly changing, however whether it has been static, rising or falling over recent times (say 5000 years) will have profound effects on both coastal processes and land forms.

7The processes of denudation (weathering, erosion, deposition) to landward and the influence of the ocean (waves, tides and physical and chemical oceanography) seaward determine the details of a coastline and the location of acid sulphate soils (Hopley, 1999). Climatic factors are the greatest influence on these processes (Davies, 1972), with consequent management implications such as:

  • Intense chemical weathering or decomposition of rock;

  • Production of very finely grained sediments containing significant concentrations of minerals;

  • Potential for very high sediment yield if vegetation is damaged or destroyed;

  • Generally low wind and wave activity;

  • Specialised highly productive biological activity.

8Constant humidity and high temperatures in the tropics result in many rock constituents being chemically altered, often expanding and forming new clay materials. Deeply weathered slope profiles form rapidly, and may result in regolith tens of metres in depth. The vegetation cover maintains stability of regolith and when this is removed the potential for rapid erosion is always present. Disturbance of vegetation cover can result in erosion rates much higher than those seen in temperate environments, with streams carrying enormous amounts of material to the coast and affecting mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass beds. Denudation rates in Queensland for example range up to 703 tonnes/km2 per year, compared with typical higher temperate latitude rates of 5 – 275 tonnes/km2 per year (Pringle, 1986). Soils are also generally very poor once vegetation is removed and nutrient recycling interrupted. In the case of mangroves and former coastline soils, disturbance also brings with it the threat of acid sulphate soil formation when the Iron Pyrites (FeS2) commonly found within tropical coastal sediments is exposed or the water table lowered resulting in oxidisation and formation of Sulphuric Acid. This reacts with the Aluminium and iron in the soil, producing compounds toxic to fish and other marine life as well as crops, and promoting further acidification.

1.1. Acid Sulphate Soils

9In Australia, the presence of acid sulphate soils and their associated problems have largely gone unrecognised, despite the fact that local soil scientists identified them as early as 1963. The majority of acid sulphate soil related research in Australia has only taken place over the last two decades, and there are few books in print regarding this topic. However, the Dutch and others have known these soils and their related environmental hazards for centuries (Macdonald et al., 2002). Linnaeus, the father of biological classification described in 1735 the soils of Holland’s newly reclaimed polders as argilla mixta fusca, vitriolica salsa: ‘muddy brown class tasting of sulphuric acid salts’ (Creagh, 1993). Pons (1973) reported that ASS began to receive scientific attention in the 18th century when they were recognised in the Netherlands by terms such as argilla vitriolica, meaning “clay with sulphuric acid”. Terms such as the Dutch kattekleigronden or English “cat clay soils”, or German Maibolt to imply hayfields affected by an evil spirit or Gifterde for poison earth, were applied to these soils to indicate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the difficulty in producing crops on them (Fanning, 2002).

10The distribution of these soils is world wide, with large areas found in tropical deltaic and coastal zones (Hechanova, 1984). Smaller areas are also found in the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland (Astroem, 2002; Bloomfield and Coulter, 1973), and they are still being formed today in the mangrove forests and salt marshes, estuaries and tidal lakes of many Countries (Sammut, 2001). In an undisturbed state, coastal acid sulphate soils are relatively harmless. However, when exposed to oxygen, through drainage or excavation, sulphuric acid is produced in large quantities. After rain, particularly following prolonged dry periods, this acid is mobilised in the soil profile, carrying with it other liberated toxins such as heavy metals. This toxic cocktail eventually flows into surrounding waterways significantly decreasing water quality. Toxic slugs of concentrated acid runoff can form and flow into estuarine systems.

1.2. Coastal ASS Landscapes – Properties and Distribution

11Acid sulphate soils underlie significant areas of Australia's coastline (where the majority of Australians live – Sammut, 2001). In Australia it is estimated there are more than 4 million hectares of acid sulphate soils. Worldwide estimates suggest there are more than 40 million hectares, mostly located in former back-swamp coastal areas of the tropics and subtropics, but limited soil survey and even fewer reliable laboratory data make it difficult to properly put a reliability estimate on these figures (Barry, 2001, Sammut, 2001). Willett and Walker (1982) recognised that the geomorphic evolution of coastal embayments in New South Wales due to Holocene sea level rise has resulted in highly complex soil profiles, which often have ASS at depth. Sammut (2001) notes that in Australia iron sulphide layers are found along the coastlines of the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales. They are also found along the northern coastline of Western Australia, and around Perth, Adelaide and Westernport Bay near Melbourne.

12Sammut (2001) describes the production of acid as the oxidation of iron sulphides affecting both soil and water, and therefore potentially damaging the environment. For every tonne of pyrite completely oxidised, 1.6 tonnes of sulphuric acid are produced and more than a billion tonnes of pyrite are estimated to exist along the Australian coastline. On its way through the soil sulphuric acid strips iron, aluminium and at times manganese from the soil. Heavy metals such as cadmium can also be dissolved in the process. Few plants can survive in this mixture, which makes the soil acid and toxic. In some cases, where peat overlying the iron sulphide layer has burnt away, the iron sulphide layer is completely exposed to air. It produces so much sulphuric acid that nothing will grow, giving the soil surface a bare, scalded appearance (Sammut, 2001).

13The sulphuric acid produced upon oxidisation of pyrite lowers the pH in the soil to extremely low levels, at times less than 3.0. Highly acidic conditions in the soil result in toxicities including increased solubility of aluminium, iron and sometimes manganese, and nutrient deficiencies can be severe (Rorison, 1973). Oxidisation of pyrite can also contribute acid salts to the soil causing a high degree of salinity. These problems create challenges for farmers wanting to improve the agricultural productivity of an area. The fishing industry also experiences the off-site effects of acid sulphate soils. As noted, following dry periods heavy rains can cause flushing of extremely acid and aluminium-rich toxic water. Acid water contamination can have profound effects on the aquatic populations of estuarine systems, including massive fish kills and estuarine habitat degradation (Phuc Tuong, 1993). Callinan et al (1993) reported that a fish disease known as Epizootic Ulcerative Syndrome has shown a pattern of seasonal recurrence associated with drainage waters from areas of acid sulphate soils on the east coast of Australia. This has cost commercial estuarine fisheries about $1 million annually (in discarded fish).

14Engineers also have to cope with extremely aggressive soil conditions for construction when using concrete and steel in acid sulphate soils. Corrosion by acidity and salts can cause serious problems for pipelines, pylons, piles and other structures. Significant costs can be incurred to the community through maintenance of public structures such as bridges, pipelines and floodgates. Development on these soils, particularly large scale drainage and flood mitigation schemes, can lead to widespread acidification of land, lakes and streams and subsequent economic losses to other industries including commercial fisheries and oysters, recreational fisheries, tourist amenity and infrastructure (Stone et al., 1998; Powell & Ahern, 2000). In some cases multi-million dollar coastal developments (East Trinity, Queensland; Port Hinchinbrook) have been stalled or abandoned and millions of dollars worth of infrastructure have had to be replaced due to acid attack (Powell & Ahern, 2000).

15Acid sulphate soils are therefore commonplace in Australian tropical coastal areas and can be viewed as a significant environmental threat in many areas if they are not placed under some form of management. Such management may take the form of enhanced drainage patterns or systems, treatment of the soils themselves, treatment of the runoff from the soils or alterations to land use practices. Acid sulphate soils have become more problematic in recent years owing to their prevalence in the very areas that are occupied by humans in Australia, namely coastal areas. In fact, before 1989, there were very few academic papers published in Australian scientific journals, with those that were gaining little recognition by coastal land managers and farmers at that point in time. It is now recognised that poor or ignorant land-use practices have exacerbated acid sulphate soil problems, and have affected major urban centres, such as the Gold Coast, as well as in coastal rural and resort areas (Sammut, 2001).

2. Coastal planning in Queensland

16The primary legislation that facilitates management of coastal areas in Queensland is the Coastal Protection and Management Act 1995 (the Coastal Act). The Coastal Act was proclaimed on the 9th of November 1995 and is administered by the State Environmental Protection Agency. The tourism significance of the Coastal Act is that it applies across the land-sea interface, where most other planning legislation applies to either land (and in some instances the inter-tidal area) or the sea separately. The Coastal Act provides that coastal management is to be achieved “by coordinated and integrated planning and management involving, among other things … coastal management plans, control districts and the use of other relevant legislation to achieve the object of the Act” (Reynolds & Sinclair, 1999). The Coastal Act states that a State Coastal Management Plan (SCMP) for the coastal zone and Regional Coastal Management Plans (RCMP) for parts of the coastal zone must be prepared. The SCMP must describe how the coastal zone is to be managed and may include:

  • A statement of the principles and policies by which the coastal zone and its designated areas are to be managed;

  • A map or series of maps showing coastal resource information.

17The SCMP is subordinate legislation comprised of enforceable policy and regulations and includes principles and policies for the management of the coastal zone in Queensland. An RCMP must describe how the area covered by that plan is to be managed and show Control Districts in the region. The Control Districts are areas in the coastal zone requiring special development controls and management practices, which may take the form of regulations and penalties. The Environment Protection Agency has nominated twelve regions within Queensland for which RCMP are to be prepared: the Cardwell/Hinchinbrook (North Queensland) RCMP is currently in preliminary draft form, and others are currently being prepared for the Wet Tropical Coast around Cairns, the South East Queensland Coast (Gold Coast, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coasts), and the Wide Bay Regional Coast (Fraser Island).

2.1. Existing control districts

18The Coastal Act established control districts throughout the coastal zone of Queensland, when it was proclaimed in 1996. These were established by transitional arrangements in the Coastal Act, which included within a new control district all the areas previously declared as Erosion Prone Areas or Coastal Management Control Districts under the Beach Protection Act 1968. These transitional arrangements also include existing ‘building lines’ under the earlier act as ‘building lines’ under the Coastal Act. Erosion prone areas as defined under the Beach Protection Act, can be generally considered as comprising two components, each with implications for coastal management:

  • The seaward boundary which is defined as the seaward limit of Queensland waters; and

  • The landward boundary (including islands) which is either the plan position of highest astronomical tide (HAT) or the area estimated to be vulnerable to erosion by tidal waters within the next 50 years (calculated by a formula and measured from the seaward toe of the frontal dune), whichever provides the greater erosion prone area width.

19Where erosion prone areas relate to high tide, they have been mapped in the past with reference to landform and estuarine vegetation (mangroves, saline claypans and swamps). These boundaries had previously been defined only by dimensions marked on plans and had never been mapped closely, including fixing the location of acid sulphate soils. Consequently, they have been reviewed during the preparation of each RCMP to more appropriately cover the land/sea interface and specifically include any areas that may require special development controls and management practices, such as acid sulphate soils.

20The control district is a statutory designation provided under the Coastal Act. It triggers provisions, able to be refined by a RCMP, primarily relating to referral and enforcement. Regulations can also be included in an RCMP to apply to the Control District, relating to any matter relevant to coastal management. These provisions apply to all persons, including State agencies. The control provides specific assessment criteria for the development of ports and harbour works, resort development, coastal landscapes and land containing potential acid sulphate soils. These assessment criteria are “called up” directly from the RCMP and applied to local government planning schemes (Integrated Planning Act 1997) and other plans of management. This will in future promote a consistent approach to the assessment of these important issues, and in the case of such problems as acid sulphate soils, provide ‘Desired Environmental Outcomes’ for their solution.

2.2. Coastal planning and acid sulphate soils

21Coastal management planning in Queensland therefore has the potential to be a primary coordinating tool for the multiple planning processes that affect the coastal zone. Implementation of regional coastal management policy at the local level, by local government, is perhaps the most critical requirement in the success of those management objectives. For this reason, Regional Coastal Management Plans (RCMP) must be drafted with local government planning schemes in mind as a key vehicle for policy implementation. The ‘process’ of coastal management plan preparation is also of critical significance in achieving the final policy outcomes sought by an RCMP. The process must involve many disparate stakeholders each with separate interests, funding priorities and responsibilities. The coastal management plan preparation process presents a unique opportunity for stakeholders with interests in the marine or terrestrial environment to engage in debate and negotiation on issues relevant to all. By embracing common objectives, a common intent and coordinated approaches can be developed and implemented by those stakeholders concurrent with and supporting the coastal management plan making process. As will be seen, in the case of the East Trinity and Port Hinchinbrook developments it has been the failure of this political process that caused most problems for tourism development.

2.3. Land management and acid sulphate soils

22Present day land uses within Australia were introduced by European settlement and have caused extensive changes to the land and seascape. Most major population and industrial centres are located along the coast, with substantial areas of major coastal catchments also dedicated to agriculture activities. Many areas of coastal Australia are undergoing rapid expansion and development of rural and urban land uses. Typical land uses associated with environments containing acid sulphate soils include not only grazing, dairying, and sugar cane production, but urban development, tourism development and sand mining as well. Various aquaculture industries are also associated with these environments. Such areas are increasingly subject to development pressures involving disturbance of the near surface materials. Areas where iron sulphide layers occur are waterlogged and often drained for agriculture, while those for resorts are often excavated for canal development. Drainage and excavation of these areas exposes these layers to air, with the consequent formation of acid sulphate soils (Sammut 2001).

23From the preceding discussion, it is manifestly obvious that tropical coast acid sulphate soils are not suitable for the type of major tourist landuses proposed. The main objective in managing these soils should therefore be to avoid any future disturbance of coastal acid sulphate soils after they have been identified, not to rely on re-mediation after excavation and disturbance has occurred. The National Strategy for the Management of Coastal Acid Sulphate Soils proposes a holistic and comprehensive approach to define the problem, prevent it from increasing and encourage remedial actions to reduce existing acid water runoff (National Working Party on Acid Sulphate Soils 2000). The challenge is now for government, the tourism industry and the community to implement the National Strategy to improve the prospects for sustainable coastal development and primary industries by ensuring proper management of ASS. Management strategies include:

  • Adopt and promote best management practices for ASS;

  • Avoiding lowering the permanent watertable below pyritic layers to prevent acid leakage into streams and drains;

  • Applying lime to increase pH and nutrient availability where appropriate; and

  • Constructing shallow drains in preference to deep drains to avoid exposing pyrite layers at depth and subsequent acid leakage.

24Queensland State Planning Policy under the Integrated Planning Act 1997 gives special recommendations on the treatment of this type of problem in its guidelines regarding each RCMP. Each Plan needs to specify all potential environmental impacts, performance criteria, and mitigation strategies together with relevant monitoring, reporting and, if an undesirable impact or unforeseen level of impact occurs, the appropriate corrective action. Resort developments of the type found in Queensland and Northern New South Wales can have serious impacts on the coastal environment by disturbing acid sulphate soils through dredging for canals and marinas, as well as by clearing of estuarine vegetation like mangroves. In fact urban canal development around Australia is a potential time bomb, because they have low flushing and high salinity content (Tarte et al. 1996). Southern Queensland canal estate housing and resort developments may have provided needed coastal urban settlement and resort areas, but evidence suggests that acid sulphate soil events have occurred in a number of these sites following excavation.

3. Acid sulphate soils and tourism resorts

25This section describes the problems encountered by existing and proposed tourism resort development on the Queensland and northern New South Wales tropical coasts. Major problems have been experienced, particularly on the Gold Coast, with the loss of expensive landscaping (especially with mature transplanted trees) to the effects of acid sulphate soils. Reclamation projects such as the Sanctuary Cove Resort, are reported to have suffered major losses in landscape material as acid sulphate soil have produced toxic concentrations of aluminium, iron and sulphuric acid which have entered the root zone of the already vulnerable transplanted vegetation, leading to death of the affected plants. Investigations at the proposed Club Med site, Byron Bay (NSW), indicated that the use of naturally occurring peat on-site for landscaping would have posed a significant risk because of the acid sulphate potential of such peats.

26Much of the land with potential for acid sulphate soils related problems on the tropical coast is held by land holders who see the potential for their land to be used for development purposes. Virtually all developments likely to be proposed in the lowlands have potential impacts through the disturbance or drainage of acid sulphate soils and potential impacts on the ecology of the adjacent receiving waters. Developments with the greatest potential to have adverse impacts include canal-based urban expansion, and canal and lake-based tourism resorts.

27Because of the large volumes of material moved in the formation of canals and artificial lakes, and because of the rapid oxidation that can occur in the sandy materials found in these areas, this form of development represents the greatest potential impact from disturbance of acid sulphate soil. One of the major developments proposed for the Cairns area of Queensland was the East Trinity resort and urban expansion site (see Figure 1). The East Trinity land was originally a mangrove swamp and salt marsh. A decision was made more than 20 years ago to drain this land and use it to grow sugar cane. This development required the exclusion of salt-water from the property, which resulted in the land drying and acid sulphate soils becoming active. The property was subsequently sold to interests that intended to develop it for a major tourism resort complex. However, this project was not given State planning approval and the property passed into the hands of the mortgagee, NatWest Markets Australia Pty Ltd, which then proposed development of an urban centre of up to 20,000 people.

28The Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC), a community lobby group, congratulated the Queensland State Government for biting the bullet and ensuring that the future conservation of East Trinity Inlet was safe (Cairns and Far North Environment Centre, 2000). CAFNEC notes that this surprise (authors emphasis) decision was based on a wider vision for the future of Cairns. The long-term threat of a large-scale resort and urban development at the East Trinity site has been removed and the significant environmental values of Trinity Inlet placed before the push for unnecessary development. The importance of the emerging consensus on the significant impact that acid sulphate soils can have on such values is contained in the realisation that for close to two decades CAFNEC together with other local groups campaigned against the development at East Trinity Inlet, and that the State Government has only just recently agreed to manage this land and to find solutions for the serious problem of acid sulphate soils which are degrading the Inlet and impacting on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (Queensland Department of State Development and Innovation, 2004).

29The Queensland Government now considers that the property requires considerable rehabilitation prior to determining the most appropriate long-term use or uses of the site. An Interdepartmental Working Group consisting of representatives from the Department of State Development, Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Natural Resources and Mines, Department of Local Government and Planning and Tourism Queensland was formed to develop a future use strategy for the property to manage the effects of earlier East Trinity land utilisation and management practices. The East Trinity Property Remediation and Management Plan, which addressed short and long-term issues on the property and an Acid Sulphate Soils Remediation Action Plan (ASSRAP) were prepared in December 2000 (Queensland Department of Environment, 2000). The purpose of these plans is to explain the approach for addressing the planning, land management, land use, environmental issues of the property and the remediation of the acid sulphate soils on the site. The Queensland Government intends to rehabilitate the site and return it to a healthy environmental level prior to determining, in consultation with the community, final long-term uses. It is planned to complete this project at the end of the 2004/2005 financial year.

3.1. Port Hinchinbrook

30Perched between mainland mountains and Hinchinbrook Island, about halfway between Cairns and Townsville is Port Hinchinbrook resort (see Figure 1). The resort is of a type rapidly becoming common along the tropical coast of Queensland, where along with the luxury cabins, marina and resort facilities there are over 170 residential blocks right on the water. The marina houses 125 boats but will eventually house up to 200 boats from 10 to 45 metres. The next stage is an 18-hole golf course, a 200-room hotel and more residential developments. Steeped in controversy from its beginnings in 1988, the development has been subject to many government enquiries and considerable community protest.

31Subject to a Deed of Agreement between the Developer and the State and Federal Governments, which was to include an effective management plan for acid sulphate soils before excavation work commenced, the initial site works nevertheless released sulphuric acid from the exposure of acid sulphate soils into the surrounding waterways, endangering these estuarine and marine environments and the Hinchinbrook World Heritage Area. Subsequent government enquiries criticised the development and the government agencies involved (Commonwealth of Australia, 1999). The 1999 Senate Report concluded that the Port Hinchinbrook dispute was caused by the regrettable lack of a thorough up-front environmental impact assessment of this major development proposal before approval. The most important question - Having considered environmental impacts, should the development be approved or refused? - was never asked (Commonwealth of Australia, 1999). This omission left the field wide open for ongoing argument about what the environmental impacts would be, and is at the root of claims by environment groups that all subsequent environmental management actions were prejudiced by the political need to justify the initial approval decision. In turn, the Senate Inquiry hoped that all would agree that the resulting conflict had been unsatisfactory for all concerned - unsatisfactory to the developer who suffered uncertainty and delay, to the environment groups who believe that post-approval environmental management had been inadequate, and to the authorities who have had to handle the matter with vastly more trouble and expense (both administrative and political) than if the recognition and assessment of acid sulphate soils had been done properly in the first place. The same comment applies equally as much to the initial decision in 1988, when the local council of the day, in spite of the concerns of environment groups at that time, exercised its discretion not to demand environmental impact assessment of this major development adjacent to a World Heritage Area.

3.2. The need for upfront environmental impact assessments

32There is a fundamental difference between monitoring and mitigating environmental impacts of a development already approved, and upfront environmental impact assessment as an input to deciding whether to approve a tourism development. The purpose of upfront environmental assessment is to ensure that decisions are based on the best possible information, so that decision-makers can weigh in the balance all the costs, benefits and risks involved. In the Port Hinchinbrook and East Trinity cases there were no upfront environmental impact assessments. The controls of the Deed of Agreement in the Port Hinchinbrook case focussed on monitoring and mitigating, because the Queensland government in 1993-94 and the Commonwealth in 1996 were clearly unwilling to contemplate the possibility that the development should not go ahead. But the `monitor and mitigate' approach disregards the possibility that some environmental impacts may prove intractable, suggesting with the wisdom of hindsight that the development should not have been approved.

33In the case of Port Hinchinbrook, if the various ad hoc controls in the Deed of Agreement had succeeded in preventing environmental harm, this would have been coincidental: they did not retrospectively justify the lack of upfront environmental assessment (Commonwealth of Australia, 1999). In important respects the Senate Inquiry doubted that such controls would be able to prevent harm - referring to the risks to dugongs from increased boat traffic, the obvious impact of the waterfront development on the aesthetic values of the renowned natural landscape of the Hinchinbrook Channel, and the likely long term impacts from pressure of increased tourism in the island national parks – but interestingly, not to the acid sulphate problem identified in the years preceding the inquiry.

34Planning authorities must commit to thorough, independent, up-front environmental impact assessment of significant tropical coast tourism development proposals. Environmental impact assessment of important aspects of proposals after the approval has been given instead of before should have no place in environmental management. This is particularly the case in management of World Heritage, where the highest standards, and the most cautious application of the precautionary principle, should apply. As well, there is a need for better processes to ensure the independence and impartiality of environmental impact statements. Care by the authorities in setting the terms of reference for environmental impact studies are also most important. However, environmental impact assessment alone, no matter how expert, cannot objectively decide whether a development should be approved. That decision must take into account all factors, environmental, economic, and social. Where there are conflicting interests the decision is usually a compromise, which - hopefully - reflects broad community values. The purpose of environmental impact assessment is not itself to decide the question, but to ensure that decision-makers can decide the question on full information. The precautionary principle should apply: lack of scientific certainty should not be an excuse for allowing development that may have serious or irreversible environmental impacts.

35Since decisions on development applications must often mediate between conflicting interests, it is all the more important that their processes are fair and seen to be fair. In the Port Hinchinbrook and East Trinity debates a chief complaint of environmental groups concerned the lack of public process. The Port Hinchinbrook Deed of Agreement was an ad hoc one-off response to the situation - a private contract that contained no public input and no possibility for interest groups to initiate prosecution of breaches. Unfortunately this has been a common process in the past on the tropical coast where major tourism and other developments are concerned. A transparent public consultation process, set out for all to see in development control law, is important for at least three reasons. It is most likely to elicit all the relevant information, as different interests compete to put their cases on the record most persuasively. It is less likely to be captured by one interest group and, above all, it is necessary to promote trust in the fairness of the decision. Due process will not stop people from having conflicting interests, and in the individual case it will not stop some from being unhappy; but it will, hopefully, encourage all to respect each other's differences and to respect the fairness of the system. In the case of Port Hinchinbrook, the Senate Inquiry noted considerable evidence that objectors to the development, and scientists who had given unwelcome advice on it, had been harassed and intimidated (Commonwealth of Australia, 1999).


36This paper has shown that, despite the existence of State planning legislation oriented towards environmental sustainability in Queensland, it is apparent that little, if any, regard is being paid to the long-term effects of tourist resort and canal-estate development on the underlying biophysical environment of the tropical coast and islands. In particular, developmental choices are often made in ignorance of, or disregard of, the widespread existence of acid sulphate soils in that coastal environment. Reactive soils such as these can, and do, greatly affect the biophysical outcomes of a development if they are exposed. The case studies of the acid sulphate soil problem provided suggest that part of the solution is for the Queensland State and Local Governments to insist on enforceable standards relating to their development for tourism in the coastal zone.

37Many witnesses on both sides of the coastal tourism debate stress the need for better regional planning policies to give clear ground rules to developers about what sort of developments will or will not be acceptable. Regional plans (RCMP) are most important to prevent future disputes, by giving more certainty to developers and giving more confidence to environmental groups that regional and local environmental issues have been adequately considered. Also, a key purpose of regional planning is to set out a long-term vision that can be followed from the start, so that the environment is not unintentionally degraded by the accumulation of small changes. Incremental changes may seem innocuous when viewed from day to day, but over time may add up to a situation which no-one has planned or wanted and which might be very hard to undo later. It is not hard to think of places around the world where incremental tourist developments over many years have spoilt the very thing that the tourists came to see. No one would want that fate to befall the Australian tropical coast.

38In Australia, the presence of Acid Sulphate Soils and their associated problems has largely gone unrecognised in the past. This situation arose for a number of reasons, perhaps the most important being that farmers and the early coastal urban dwellers could afford to bypass pockets of the most obvious occurrences. As settlement has intensified however, the incidence and impact of these soils has become more important. The cutting of canal estates on the east and west coasts of Australia for new urban settlements and tourist resorts brought the problem to the forefront of scientific research, and the political debate that followed on the release of such information to the public has further focussed attention on the problems associated with them. In fact, so much so that new estates and resorts have been frozen on the tropical coast of Queensland and New South Wales until effective remediation or other methods of control are available and affordable.

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Titre Figure 1. Queensland Australia showing locations of sites described East Trinity (Cairns)
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Patricia Erfurt-Haupt et Malcolm Cooper, « Management of the coastal biophysical environment in tropical Queensland under conditions of heavy developmental pressure: the case of tourist resorts and acid sulphate soils »Études caribéennes [En ligne], 9-10 | Avril-Août 2008, mis en ligne le 15 août 2008, consulté le 04 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Patricia Erfurt-Haupt

BA(Geography & Planning), University of Southern Queensland, Hervey Bay, Australia

Malcolm Cooper

PhD, Professor of Tourism Management and Environmental Law, tsumeikan Asia Pacific University

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