Interview with Barry Carbon, chair of the Ichthys Project Expert Dredging Panel

What is better for the environment? An official document with 2000 conditions? Or the nation's best scientists keeping an eagle eye on the action?

Barry Carbon, the Ichthys Project Expert Dredging Panel chair, frequently uses the expression "a grown up approach" to describe the use of "wise and experienced judgement instead of prescriptive conditions" to manage the environmental impacts of the Ichthys Project's dredging program in Darwin Harbour.

"You just have to look at some of the developments in Queensland which have been topical. They have had 1500 to 2000 conditions and everyone is unhappy with the outcome because they have tried to make these things bureaucratically neat instead of using good judgement to manage it," he says.

Given gaps in scientific knowledge about Darwin Harbour, Barry prefers an adaptive management approach that collects data before, during and after dredging, subjects monitoring results to rigid scrutiny and adapts both monitoring and dredging activities as the results come in.

"What you will end up with as a result is an information set that will also be very useful for ongoing management of the harbour," he says.

Barry Carbon trained as a scientist with the CSIRO. He has been chairman, chief executive or director general of Western Australia's Environment Protection Authority (EPA), the Commonwealth and Queensland EPAs, the Queensland Department of Parks and Wildlife, New Zealand's Minister for the Environment and West Australia's Waste Authority. He was the second Supervising Scientist to the Alligator River Region in the Northern Territory.

He has worked as Manager of Environmental Activities for Alcoa, chaired various mining companies and a West Australian community marine consultation committee and review team for the WA Marine Science Institute. He has a Master of Science in Agriculture, is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and a Fellow of the Environmental Institute of Australia and New Zealand.

He has an Order of Australia for his work in environmental protection and was awarded the medal of the International Association of Impact Assessment.

Barry now chairs the expert panel established in October 2011 to provide advice to INPEX and the Northern Territory and Australian Governments about managing dredging impacts in Darwin Harbour.

The panel has drawn together some of the country's most prominent scientists to advise and review the dredge management plan and environmental monitoring activities in the harbour.

"Over a year ago, I was asked to make myself available. The governments and INPEX wanted someone who had experience across all aspects of the project, from dredging through to the natural environment and the people environment," he says.

"My observation is that we have had lots of big developments in Australia over the past five years and more and more government agencies have had to make a lot of detailed conditions to cope with these developments. It hasn't worked very well for the governments, the developers or the environment.

"So with this project, we have the opportunity to use people with enormous experience by using wise and experienced judgement instead of prescriptive conditions."

"There's no question that dredging will have an impact on the environment," says Dr Carbon. "The two Governments have determined what level of impact is acceptable and will ensure accountability to the conditions they have set."

"What you have here is a proponent (INPEX who wants to do a good job and two government agencies who, in my opinion, have the courage to say 'we are working in an environment where we don't know a lot so we have to be prepared to use our best judgement'. The panel then has collectively delivered 'grown up advice' to the governments.

"We have worked on the basis of having an expert who each will lead on their own topic of expertise; in other words people who are recognised Australia wide, giving expert comments on each section of the monitoring program. I have a lot of confidence in the advice that's been given, as have the governments," he says.

"The public should be given the confidence that there's lots and lots of science happening. The program is going to deliver a much better understanding of Darwin Harbour than we had before.

"Lots of it will never be visible to the public because it's boffin stuff. But we will get really fast feedback and if something is going wrong scientifically, we will know about it," he says.

He describes both the dredging and the environmental monitoring as a 'Rolls Royce' approach that demonstrates a serious commitment by INPEX to the environment.

The original dredging proposal covered four years. It has been reduced to between 15 and 21 months.

We now know more about the predicted response to dredging in the harbour partly because more recent geotechnical studies led to revisions in the sophisticated hydrodynamic modelling, Barry says. The key reason for the shorter timeframe, however, is the decision of the company to go for the world's best dredgers and carrying equipment using contractor Van Oord Australia.

The current plan is to preliminary dredging August-September, and then to start the more high impact dredging in November, at the start of the Wet season when turbidity levels are naturally higher.

Water quality, the behaviour of sediments stirred up by dredging and impacts on marine species will be carefully monitored before INPEX makes a decision on whether to apply to the Northern Territory and Australian Governments on dredging during the Dry season.

"There will be some impact, there will be muddy waters and visible plumes. It's critically important for the public not to be misled on that," Barry says. "The preparations are in place, the science is in place, but when it starts the water will get muddy so people shouldn't be surprised."

"However, there will be monitoring across a range of programs covering water quality, mangroves, corals, fish, dugong, dolphins, turtles, the whole package. It will be a very comprehensive package. There will be a combination of government agencies, INPEX and INPEX consultants looking at it all the way through.

"So there will be a high degree of scrutiny. It will be the highest standard (of environmental monitoring) ever seen in Darwin because there isn't a lot of knowledge of Darwin Harbour. So there's no point in a 'tick the box' approach that you might apply to a well-studied harbour like Sydney," he says.

That is the beauty of an adaptive management approach, says Barry.

"You should never go into a big exercise with environmental impacts assuming you know everything about the environment, particularly in Darwin, which is a very changeable environment with wet and dry and extreme tidal conditions. There is a lot of natural variation and so many unknowns, for example in relation to corals and seagrass."

"It will be a great opportunity for scientific research," Barry says. "Already we know more about coral habitats in the harbour for example, some existing studies of dolphins have been expanded and we have commitments from the NT Government and INPEX that all information will be stored in an accessible way."

The Ichthys Project Dredging Expert Panel has members from the Australian and Northern Territory Governments, INPEX and a range of experienced scientists.

"Our role is to help the government and INPEX to make sure this goes well," he says.

Until now the panel has met monthly. Once the project's dredge and spoil management plan is approved, the panel will meet quarterly but it will review monthly progress reports.

"It has been a very good process," says Barry. "I think we have been really lucky to have such a good panel."

Other panel members include:

  • Dr Lars Bejder, head of Murdoch University's Cetacean Research Unit and an expert on marine mammals
  • Associate Professor Michele Burford, from the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University and an expert on water quality
  • Dr Norman Duke, from the Australian Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research at James Cook University and an expert on mangroves
  • Dr Michael Guinea, a lecturer in zoology at Charles Darwin University and an expert on turtles
  • Dr Andrew Heyward from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and an expert on coral
  • Dr Hugh Kirkman, a private consultant with expertise on seagrass
  • Mr Johan Pronk, a private consultant with expertise on dredging
  • Dr Ian Wallis, director of Consulting Environmental Engineers and an expert on hydrodynamic modelling.

For more information and minutes of the expert panel, see www.ichthys-panel.org.au

Back to News articles