By ERWIN CHLANDA
The awarding of the NT’s biggest ever groundwater extraction licence for a cattle station tuned food producer 380 km north of Alice Springs to a company mostly exporting to China has triggered a firestorm of protest.
The permit would empower Fortune Agribusiness Funds Management at Singleton Station to draw, free of charge, 40 gigalitres a year, about four times the amount used by Alice Springs, according to Katherine political observer Bruce Francais and Arid Lands Environment Centre CEO Jimmy Cocking.
The Independent MLA for Araluen Robyn Lambley and the Central Land Council (CLC) are calling for any work to cease pending a review of “this seriously flawed” decision.
The row coincides with a national discussion about the Federal Government’s power to overturn deals made by a state if they are not in the public interest.
But Jo Townsend, NT Controller of Water Resources, claims: “The application was granted after rigorous modelling and data showed the licensed amount is sustainable and can be managed without adversely impacting other users, as well as environmental assets or cultural assets, if conditions are met.”
Mrs Lambley says the licence for the “foreign-backed company primarily for foreign food production” is “on par with the leasing of the Darwin Port to the Chinese for 100 years in 2016.
“But at least with the Darwin Port deal the NT got $506m and an upgraded international transport facility. With this deal it seems Territorians will get nothing but a potentially permanently depleted ancient aquifer.
“In any other part of Australia a company would pay many millions of dollars for this enormous volume of pristine artesian water.
“The chairman of Fortune Agribusiness has stated that more than 70% of their produce from Singleton will be exported to Asian markets, mainly China.
“The company claims there will be approximately 100 permanent positions and approximately 1000 seasonal workers employed, but provided no detail of where these workers will come from,” says Mrs Lambley.
“One can only assume that the viability of this business is based on bringing large numbers of foreign workers into the NT on temporary working visas.
“Foreign workers are the equivalent to domestic FIFO workers, investing and contributing little to the local community and the local economy, compared to permanent residents.
“And why would a 30 year license be granted? A lot can change in 30 years. There appears to be no justification for this very long, very generous water extraction license.
“The Gunner Labor Government have been scathing in their attacks on the former Country Liberal Government for awarding water extraction licences to agribusinesses that were tiny in comparison to this. The hypocrisy and irrationality of this decision is unfathomable.”
The Central Land Council is applying for a review under the Northern Territory’s Water Act as well an independent peer review of the “adaptive management” plan the Northern Territory Government has asked Fortune Agribusiness to complete.
The CLC has asked the government to stop the native vegetation clearance and non-pastoral use, says CLC chief executive Lesley Turner: “Meeting in Tennant Creek, an hour’s drive north of Singleton station, CLC delegates considered independent hydrogeological advice which confirmed that neither the government’s water license decision nor its approach to managing it come close to addressing the concerns of the area’s native title holders and affected community residents.”
A CLC media statement says independent hydrogeologist Dr Ryan Vogwill described the government’s water resource and impact assessment were “simplistic, based on inadequate investigations and very little site-specific data”.
The rushed approval process fell well short of what would be required for far smaller water allocation decisions in his home state of Western Australia, a world leader in groundwater management, Mr Vogwill says.
He found a major flaw of the allocation planning and impact assessment is that it ignores the most culturally and ecologically important places, such as numerous wetlands, springs and soaks.
He questioned whether the NT Government’s “adaptive management” approach will be able to deal with its “insufficient understanding of impact risk”.
Dr Vogwill said the government lacks the five to 10 years of data that would be required to “understand groundwater – environment – cultural linkages in sufficient detail to develop strong management criteria”.
Mr Turner said the only credible response to seek an independent peer review of Fortune Agribusiness adaptive management plan.
“This government has promised to be transparent, so we expect it to publish all the information independent scientists need to do their job,” he said.
Mr Francais says Ms Townsend has issued the license with the full support of Paul Burke of the NT Farmers Association.
“There has been speculation in recent times of bores around Darwin and Katherine being monitored by the government and charges being levied for water used.
“While this foreign organisation is to receive its water free of charge, the same volume of water withdrawn from the Murray-Darling basin would incur charges in excess of $20m per annum,” says Mr Francais.
“The Pepper Report on Hydraulic Fracturing recommended that gas mining companies in the NT should be charged $1m per gigaliter of water used.
“Based on this figure, Fortune Agribusiness would be compelled to pay $40m per annum for water used on Singleton Station.”
The full 40 gigaliter release will be reached over four two-year stages.
PHOTO (supplied): CLC delegates vote at Tennent Creek.