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EXCLUSIVE: Queensland Government damns the Paradise Dam

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The Queensland State Government may demolish or significantly reduce the capacity of Paradise Dam (Image via Bundaberg Now)

A scandal of megalithic proportions has blown up in Queensland, with critics asking why the State Government is so desperate to knock down or massively reduce a huge dam it built itself, less than 15 years ago.

A thriving multi-billion-dollar horticulture industry is at dire risk of collapse, with the State Labor Government considering options to either demolish or significantly reduce the capacity of one of its own dams. After expert reports having only being received in November, cutting back the Paradise Dam’s walls is scheduled to begin in April. The threat of failure to the dam is seen as being even more remote than a one in every 200-year flood event — or in other words, a 0.0033 per cent chance in any single year.

The Paradise Dam near Bundaberg – Queensland’s second most recently built dam – has been declared unsafe by SunWater, a fully Government-owned water authority. State Water and Resources Minister Dr Anthony Lynham appears to have endorsed this decision, despite significant concerns about the quality of testing performed by the authority.

Local fruit and vegetable growers are up-in-arms about the decision and have enlisted renowned American dam engineer Paul Rizzo to investigate. Mr Rizzo has built roller-compacted concrete (RCC) dams of the same sort as the Paradise Dam in many parts of the world. And there are more than 370 of these dams globally, with not one ever having failed since they began to be constructed, in the early 1960s.

At a meeting of growers in Bundaberg in January, Mr Rizzo pointed to SunWater’s own publicly available review of its testing to cast doubt on the decision to demolish or cut back the dam — full remediation having been ruled out by the authority’s primary engineers, GHD.

Due to the massive uproar caused by its drastic approach, the Queensland Government on Thursday launched a Commission of Inquiry into the decision. However, opponents of the Dam’s destruction say the terms of reference have been set such that any recommendations can only affect future infrastructure projects, not the one it is investigating.

As may be expected after such a hasty decision, Sunwater and the Government have conducted an abbreviated community consultation process. Nevertheless, the response from the Government has left many local residents aghast.

At a community forum on a Childers farm on Wednesday, 11 December, attended by the relevant minister, Anthony Lynham, SunWater chair Leith Boully and 80 to 100 angry growers, Sunwater and the State Government failed to win over locals.

Ms Boully's opening statement was as follows:

“The reports from the engineers have been up on the website for a couple of weeks, but I doubt any of you have read them.”

This provoked an audible gasp from growers.

At the end of her presentation, Ms Boully was asked why SunWater was not going to conduct any more testing before taking the drastic step of demolishing the dam.

The shed erupted into outright laughter and derision when Ms Boully replied:

“Well, if we do any more tests, the Dam wall will be like Swiss cheese!”

Sunwater has only taken nine samples of the Dam’s walls and the audience was knowledgeable enough to know that any cores taken are replaced with condensed concrete, making them more sound than the surrounding surfaces.

According to several Bundaberg growers who spoke to IA, Leith Boully is now known commonly known throughout the district as “the Swiss cheese lady”.

In the opinion of RCC dam expert Paul Rizzo, the decision by Sunwater to not even consider rectifying the Dam is a baffling one.

According to Rizzo’s estimates, the outlay to remediate the Dam structure, which would seem certain to alleviate any safety concerns, would be no more than US$58 million (AU$87.9 million), which was the cost of the significantly larger Bagnell Dam in the United States.

Mr Rizzo pointed to Sunwater’s reviewing consultant TatroHinds’ analysis, listed on the SunWater website, to support his viewpoint.

Despite SunWater relying on only two sentences of the TatroHinds’ report to support their decision to destroy a major water facility for Wide Bay, in his analysis, Rizzo pointed to several sections of the same report casting significant doubt upon the decision.

In a number of places in their report, TatroHinds clearly stated that the testing conducted by GHD appeared to be inadequate:

It is our opinion the method of testing … is problematic...

 

…  this would bring into question the method … or the appropriateness of the testing method…

 

In this program of shear testing it appears that an insufficient number of tests have been conducted given the high consequences of poor performance...

 

We recommend that many more shear tests be conducted to accurately determine the strength condition of the RCC. The current number is too few for such an assessment.

It is not clear why the Queensland Government is so eager to rip down this vital piece of infrastructure, however it is certain much more consideration is required before they do.

The State Government says the Paradise Dam failing – perhaps a one-in-200-year event ‒ will cause a catastrophic event in Bundaberg. But nowhere do their reports detail what this vanishingly unlikely event might mean in terms of loss of life. The Queensland State Government needs to produce such an evaluation before the wrecking crews come in.

It is not clear whether the Queensland Government has availed itself of all of the available evidence concerning the dam or has sufficiently canvassed the views of local people and industry who will be impacted by the decommissioning of this important local infrastructure. 

Because a government taking a slim possibility to justify causing a multi-billion dollar calamity is sheer recklessness.

IA contacted State Water and Resources Minister Dr Anthony Lynham for comment over a week ago, but at time of publication, no response yet been received.

You can follow managing editor Dave Donovan on Twitter @Davrosz. David Donovan was formerly a shareholder of Donovan Avocados, which purchases water from the Paradise Dam.

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