Aerial photograph of Gladstone region, including the marina, taken in February, 2011.
Aerial photograph of Gladstone region, including the marina, taken in February, 2011. Chrissy Harris

Ecosystem report card delayed

THE body behind the only public ecosystem report card for the Gladstone Harbour area has brought in an independent chairman to oversee its environmental monitoring program.

The program monitors the environmental health of the harbour and Port Curtis area ecosystem, creating data to inform a triennial picture of the health of the local environment.

Funded by some of Gladstone's biggest companies, the $750,000 program has come under scrutiny recently due to water-quality issues and a fish disease outbreak.

It is understood a restructure of the program was prompted by growth in the number of program members and a lack of independent oversight of the monitoring program that creates the report.

The Port Curtis Integrated Monitoring Program (PCIMP) has been keeping score of water quality and other environmental indicators in the area since 2001.

The last report card from the program was released in 2007, and painted a healthy picture of the area's marine ecosystem.

Initially overseen by Central Queensland University, the program was privatised by two of its chief researchers in 2008.

Since then, sources say it has had no oversight independent of the company that undertakes the program or the companies and organisations which are members of the program.

The program has about 15 members, which are mostly industrial companies operating, or proposing to operate, in the Gladstone Harbour area.

Members of the program have included the Gladstone Ports Corporation Limited (GPCL), Fitzroy Basin Association, Queensland Gas Company, Gladstone Regional Council and the Gladstone Area Water Board.

During a recent interview, chief executive of GPCL,Leo Zussino, initially denied knowing which company ran the monitoring program, but later correctly identified it as Vision Environment Pty Ltd.

The company was created by two highly reputable scientists, formerly CQU researchers, Dr Leonie Andersen and Dr Felicity Melville.

Drs Andersen and Melville did not return calls for this report.

Vision Environment has worked on the PCIMP program and several other more detailed environmental monitoring programs for companies' industrial projects in Gladstone.

According to the company website, the program costs about $750,000 each year to run, and creates the Port Curtis Ecosystem Report Card triennially.

While other environmental monitoring programs are undertaken in the area, they are primarily used by companies to meet regulatory requirements.

In September this year, program members held a special general meeting to discuss the growth in members due to the boom in LNG projects in the area, and the pressing need to create a formal corporate governance structure for the program to help avoid any possible impression of "potential conflicts of interest".

The organisation appointed CQU's head of campus in Gladstone, Chad Hewitt, as the new independent chair of the PCIMP.

He said the possibility of perceived conflicts of interest in the group was a result of an insufficient corporate governance structure for the growing program.

In a separate issue for the PCIMP program, Mr Hewitt said its latest report card was delayed by nearly five months due to a "members' feedback" process on the findings of the report.

The latest report card was initially scheduled for release in July, but due to the feedback process it was delayed until late October, which was extended again until late November.

Dr Hewitt said: "The desire was to release it earlier, but unfortunately everything has just kind of snowballed, and so the report card will now be released on November 17."

He said the program had recently grown so much that the sponsors wanted to create a formal not-for-profit structure for it.

Dr Hewitt said: "I think we need to clearly articulate that a lot of people have the wrong idea about the role of PCIMP.

"It's about the general long-term monitoring of the entire area, is not state government-funded, and provides the sponsors with enough information to then fund their own more specific, detailed research into water quality or other things in the area.

"The members are quite cognisant of the fact that they do want to provide information back to the public, and they do fund more research and monitoring activity than is required."

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