A toxic tide rolls in

Two days before Noosa’s Festival of Surf got underway this month, something evil began floating in on the tide.

It was the morning of March 2nd, and the first pontoons spat out by the churning floodwaters of the Brisbane River had begun to wash up on our already damaged and depleted beaches.

March 2, the first pontoon arrives. (posted on Noosa Council Facebook page by Sharyn Kerrigan)

Noosa Council staff and local emergency workers had moved into ‘recovery’ mode after the rain bomb of late February.  Noosa fared better than some of the worst hit areas of Queensland and NSW, but still the damage here was substantial.  The SES had more than 230 call outs, there’d been 30 swift water flood rescues, only a few homes were severely flooded, but another 45 received moderate to minor damage.  Across the shire, damage assessment was underway on 115 so-called ‘public assets’…roads, reserves and footpaths, as well as ‘community assets’ like halls, bus stops and picnic shelters.

This was all exacting and difficult work, but our emergency services were well prepared for it.  When the Local Disaster Management Group kicked in on February 23rd, it appeared to be a well-oiled machine.

But then, on March 2nd, the pontoons arrived.  Giant, ticking time bombs, breaking up on the rise and fall of each tide, and oozing millions of tiny polystyrene balls that would set off an environmental disaster from Moreton Island to K’gari (Fraser Island) and beyond.  Some called it the ‘white spill’. Those familiar with the impact of a flood of polysterene on marine life were ringing alarm bells.

This was our ‘Black Swan’ event.  Unexpected, unprepared for, catastrophic.

Two days later, on March 4th, Noosa Mayor (and Chair of the Local Disaster Management Group) Clare Stewart gave a video flood update, but the unfolding pollution disaster was not yet mentioned.

Nor did it rate a mention in Council’s special edition of “Flood Recovery E-News” on March 5th.

By this stage, three days in, individuals and coast environment groups were desperately, and in some cases, dangerously, trying to do what they could with the disintegrating pontoons and the spreading debris.  This has been a truly inspiring effort, day after day, by those who love our coastline.

But the frustration was rising with each tide. If there was much support coming, little was being passed on to the beach communities in the frontline.

To understand some of the issues here, it helps to have a little context.  All of our disaster response begins with the well-accepted foundation principle that people and property are the priority.

Another basic principle of local disaster management involves a ‘lead agency’ taking control depending on the nature of the disaster. Usually this is police, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, or the State Emergency Service (SES).

For this “white spill”, the ‘lead agency’ became Maritime Services Queensland (MSQ) from their Mooloolaba base, an organisation stretched for resources at the best of times.

MSQ’s Marine Pollution guidelines refer mostly to deliberate or negligent discharges from vessels.

A Wildlife Response Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies lies in the jurisdiction of the Queensland Environment Department, but – again – this is mostly about oil spills and a so-called “oiled wildlife plan”.

You may be starting to get the idea that as big as these pontoons were, they were falling between the cracks.

By March 7th, Clayton’s towing had been called in by MSQ and were trying to pick up some of the more manageable chunks of foam that could be easily lifted onto a vehicle.  The giant pontoons, at this stage, were firmly in the too-hard basket. And they had a whole coast to tend to.

On March 8th, the Council began providing bags at beach access points to encourage beachgoers to pick up those tiny, deadly foam pieces.  Almost all of the response remained in the hands of concerned individuals and environment groups. 

Some innovation was employed, including giant vacuums.

A vacuum helps to tackle the millions of tiny foam beads

Finally, on March 14th, now 12 days into the disaster (and a day after the Noosa Surf Festival ended) big machinery was employed, including a 36-tonne excavator, a backhoe and super-tilt truck, to remove the giant pontoon pieces.

Peregian Beach park

But millions of those deadly foam bubbles remained scattered along the shore. The waves and wind had been given more than 10 days to do their work.

Much of the effort now is focussed on more remote places like Noosa North Shore and K’gari (Fraser Island) where the Ocean Crusaders group has done a magnificent job of bringing in volunteers for the clean-up.

The disaster unfolds on K’gari (Fraser Island)

One of the first to ring environment alarm bells here in Noosa Shire was Sharyn Kerrigan who runs the Brahminy Beach Facebook page.  She’s calling for a ban on polysterene pontoons. 

What next?

Noosa Council have appointed the Healthy Land and Water group to compile information and pictures of the floods but the ongoing polystyrene environment disaster doesn’t seem to be part of this project.

This is not an exercise in pointing the finger of blame.  ‘Black swan’ events are, by definition, a surprise.

The question now, as the painstaking clean-up continues and the damage mounts, is how will we learn from this?   How will we respond more quickly, more efficiently, in future?  Will Noosa rise to its reputation for leadership in environment protection?

Will we brush this off as a one-off catastrophe that couldn’t be planned for?  Or will we learn from it and build in more flexibility to respond better to the next Black Swan? 

A continuing disaster for our marine life. (pic. Brahminy Beach Facebook page)

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