The disastrous Queensland floods of 2011 turned a proposed feedlot site on the Condamine River floodplain in southern Queensland into a lake. If a group of local landholders, assisted with advice from EDO Qld, had not stopped the development by challenging it in court, large volumes of toxic, high-nutrient wastes would have contaminated the river and nearby wetlands.
A Queensland grazier, John Greacen, wrote to EDO Qld in February 2010 expressing the dramatic consequences that could have resulted if no action had been taken.
“It is a sobering thought that stage one of this environmental disaster would be operating now had this group not been able to rely on your resources.”
Despite the obvious risks of depositing effluent from a large (6000 standard cattle units) beef feedlot on a floodplain close to a river, and despite many objections from the local community, in November 2008 the Southern Downs Regional Council approved the feedlot near Pratten, west of Warwick.
Aghast at the environmental risks and the prospect of foul smells, a group of seven adjacent landholders decided to appeal the approval in the Planning and Environment Court. But they quickly discovered their modest budget would not stretch to cover the lawyers, barristers and experts normally needed to run such a case. So they delegated John Greacen, a semi-retired grazier, to represent them in court.
“I had no idea what to expect,” John says. “I’d never even seen the inside of a court room.” He turned his dining-room into an office and arranged for EDO Qld to become the group’s legal adviser. “If we hadn’t found EDO, we couldn’t have done it. The courts are a foreign place and speak a foreign language.” John also made heavy use of EDO Qld’s Community Litigants Handbook to guide him through the labyrinth of legal processes.
The residents group hired feedlot expert Peter Binns to write reports on the two main issues of concern – the disposal of effluent and odour impacts.
Peter Binns’ report on the scheme for effluent disposal demonstrated that the soils were unsuitable, and contamination of the Condamine River and wetlands was inevitable. John Greacen summed it up: “They would have had to try hard to pick a worse spot to deposit effluent.”
In response, the developers changed their proposal, necessitating another report from Peter Binns, which again pointed out unacceptable impacts. Again, the developers changed their proposal and again the expert identified major problems. Finally, after five alterations, with costs mounting and the developers seemingly prepared to drag it out indefinitely, John sought a court order for the case to be heard.
In summary, the issues identified in this report suggest that due to deficiencies in the design and proposed management, in its current form … the proposed feedlot development is likely to pose a significant risk to both surface and groundwater quality, as well as being at risk of causing severe land degradation and harm to the general environment.
However, prior to the full hearing a public servant noticed that the development site included state-owned land for which the developers had no authorisation – a detail overlooked until the court case focused government attention on the proposal.
The developers admitted this rendered their application invalid and agreed to a consent order allowing the appeal. Although John was confident their case would have succeeded on its merits, he and his fellow appellants decided to accept a court win based on this preliminary point. The case had already cost them $19 000, mainly due to the developers changing their plans. Although it left open the potential for the developers to re-apply, John is quietly confident that their evidence will prevent it being approved. “We weren’t prepared the first time, but this time we are armed with the knowledge we need to prove to the developers and council that a development of this nature, in this location is flawed,” John told the local paper.