Tasmanian Times

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Bruce Ransley

Head in the sand …

Why we’ll never see preventative action on sea-level rise …


So far Tassie’s coastal communities haven’t suffered from Collaroy-like storm surge damage (above), though for a couple of decades we’ve been warned that the first of such occurrences is just around the corner.

The thing is, if you dig a little into how the various state authorities are managing the threat you find that not only is little being done, but at a site in southern Tasmania a mining operation is in full swing that seems to be hastening just such an event – with the full blessing of state and local government.

But it’s not my intention in this article to expose the authorities’ lack of action on sea level rise (Resign! Resign!) nor to incite a campaign for action. I’m far more interested in the underlying reasons why such a pivotal entity as a state government seems able to repeatedly sidestep important issues like climate change and sea level rise, all the while appearing – at least on the surface – to have matters fully in hand.

Part I – A case study

I have a story for you. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll probably need a break to go to the lavatory. Its conclusion neatly highlights my proposition that preventative action on sea level rise simply won’t happen.

Though it’s carefully hidden from view, if you look carefully you’ll find a sand mine at South Arm, half an hour south of Hobart. Of all the mining types, sand mining is probably the least environmentally contentious. It’s just digging up and washing sand before it’s carted away. Virtually no chemicals are used and the ‘damage’ is restricted to quite a small area. Unlike, say, coal, even the product is harmless. It’s just sand.

So sand mining hasn’t got a lot of critics. But in this case there’s something a little amiss, namely the mine’s location. This particular operation is on a narrow sandy spit that connects the townships of South Arm and Opossum Bay with the mainland.


At first glance (and second, and third) this seemed a little crazy to me. Is it wise to be actively removing large chunks of the natural sea wall that keeps Storm Bay – an infamously ferocious body of water – from inundating the highway?


But presumably they know what they’re doing, right? In this era of climate change awareness, surely someone must have done the sums and deemed the operation to be non-threatening? I decided to find out.

My first port of call was DPIPWE’s environmental protection division. There I spoke to David (not his real name), having emailed him a screen grab from a Google map of the area in question.

He told me that I shouldn’t be concerned, that the large ponds I can see in the photo were the result of mining operations spanning back to the 1930s and hadn’t been caused by the current operators. I was a little baffled. Surely, whatever the reason for the ponds’ existence, taking more sand away is hardly helping. I also learned that while there had been a ‘survey’ of the area done back in 2007, that survey did not include a climate change/sea level rise component. No-one had even considered it.

Not to worry, said David, the EPA was conducting a review as we speak, which would be available soon.

When I asked where liability would lie in the event that the mining operation was one day shown to be responsible for a road-severing storm surge, David said that he wasn’t sure, and that I should ask the local council. I did. Their response was that they weren’t sure and that I should ask the state government.

This was late in 2014. I did some digging (pardon the pun) and found an interesting map on TheLIST, which marks the area in question in big red lines as ‘most vulnerable to climate change’ 1.


Then on Clarence City Council’s website I found a report from 2009 written by the University of New South Wales 2. It found that the sand dune buffer along that stretch of coast is sufficient to prevent the ocean breaking through even in the face of a 0.9 metre sea level increase and a once-in-a-hundred-year storm event. But – and this is the important point:

“The dune elevation and sand volume should be monitored and maintained to prevent oceanic breakthrough … as the consequences of such a breakthrough are serious.”

It’s my understanding that no such monitoring or maintenance has taken place. I wonder if the authors are aware that this particular volume of sand is being diminished at the rate of 75,000 cubic metres per year (the amount the operator is allowed). There certainly was no mention of a mining operation in their report.

Imagine my relief when, in early 2015, I was alerted to the outcome of the EPA’s review process. Phew, someone was finally on to it. But it made for frustrating reading. There was plenty of detail on the plant species in the area (conclusion: no endangered species to worry about) and surface water quality (within guidelines, though the quality of water in the settling ponds, which have been dug well below the summer water table, was ‘unknown’). Plenty of detail about which parts of the site are to be excavated next, and even an explanation of the different types of sand they’d be digging up. It also notes that in terms of eventual rehabilitation “every effort will be made to establish a local provenance colonising plant community”.

Terrific. It’s a sand mine. It’s harmless.

The final section of the report is titled “projected sea level rise”. Its one-third-of-a-page analysis concludes “sea level rise over the next 85 years is … unlikely to significantly impact any infrastructure or surface water quality across the site”. (It’s probably just clumsy wording, but note that they’re considering the integrity of the site itself, not the adjacent roadway.) Never mind that recently yet another peer-reviewed article was published suggesting that severe storm surge events are becoming increasingly likely, and our coastal communities are at more risk as a result 4.

Still, the authors are the experts. They’ve got a logo and everything. The operation is fine, surely? Just to be on the safe side I decided to call the lead author to see if she could expand on the findings, in particular the sea level rise component. She told me that there hadn’t been the budget to undertake any investigation into the potential for storm-surge inundation. That section in the report simply comes from topographical data and sea-level rise projections that are available to the public on TheLIST – the very TheLIST, you’ll remember, that declares the area as most vulnerable to climate change. The problem with the analysis is that it considers sea level rise like a bath being slowly filled. Even if the water level comes to an inch from the top everything is dandy. It doesn’t help us understand what happens when someone jumps in.

Who set the criteria for the assessment? You guessed it – the state government.

So let’s recap.

Me: Is this sand mine safe in terms of sea level rise?

State government: Yep!

Me: How do you know?

State government: Umm … well we don’t really know, but we’re doing a report. If you’re concerned about liability ask the council.

Council: No idea – ask the state government.

Report: Plants – check. Maps ¬– check. Atmospheric emissions – check.

Me: Did you check for storm-surge risk?

Report: No! No-one asked us to. But there are no Aboriginal sites being disturbed and that’s the main thing.

You know what could fix this? A single visit by an independent sea-level-rise expert. A geomorphologist. There are lots of these folk around but no-one seems willing to invite one to the party. This sand-mining operation might pose no risk whatsoever but we cannot possibly know that unless we ask an expert.

Anyway, I said at the outset that this article isn’t about campaigning for action (though I would heartily join in if so called upon), so for now let’s leave our case study and move on to my main point: why inaction on sea level rise (and no doubt on many other environmental issues) is precisely what we should expect.

Part II – Somebody else’s problem

You might be familiar with the notion of the tragedy of the commons. It’s where you derive a personal benefit at the cost of everyone else. Say we’re each allowed one cow to graze on the “common”, and everyone chips in to feed and look after them. But if I sneak another cow onto the paddock late one night, I get two cows worth of milk while everyone else foots the hay bill. The tragedy of the commons is one of the underlying principles behind greed and corruption, and also simple social matters like not picking up my dog’s poo. Someone else will do it because it’s their land too and they’ll happily work to keep it tidy. I win.

But there’s more to our sand-mining issue than this kind of tragedy, and it has to do with isolation, both geographical and temporal. My mate at the Department is not, and will never be, personally affected if a storm washes away South Arm Road. He doesn’t live down there, the repair costs won’t come out of his pocket, and in any case when that day comes he’ll be long retired or at least working in another job.

Will we blame him retrospectively for not looking into the matter with more vigour? Fat chance. And because the question of liability has been avoided, chances are that someone else – maybe the Feds? – will cover the cost of repairs anyway.

In fact, he could argue (I say “he” but I’m talking about the department as a whole) that he did his due diligence, by commissioning that report way back in 2015. From a bureaucratic point of view, box ticked, job done. On the face of it, “we commissioned a report and it came back all clear”, is enough. Indeed most of the time it is enough because, for the same reasons of isolation, no-one is ever going to properly interrogate the foundations of the report nor its findings. We simply don’t care enough. Or at least, the people with any influence don’t care enough. What they might care about, perhaps, are the ramifications of making waves that could harm someone’s commercial operation.

I briefly mentioned the Clarence City Council’s stance on this. On my request they kindly looked into the issue of responsibility and subsequently sent me a report which said, it’s got nothing to do with us, ask the state government. Once again this is a case of job done, case closed. They took my request, looked into the matter, then sent me a written report to the effect that they couldn’t help. They did everything correctly; the fact that there was no real investigation into the matter is utterly irrelevant.

The alderman and staff member who handled my query are isolated from the problem too. When the road floods at some point in the future they’ll be long gone. It’ll be some future, unknown council’s problem to deal with. What then became of the suggestion from UNSW, seven years ago, that the area be monitored? Pretty much zero it seems, despite the council’s proudly displaying the report on its website as evidence that they’re doing something about climate change.



Even the operator of the mine doesn’t have anything to worry about. Let’s say that one day soon a massive storm smashes the ever-thinning dune system and destroys the roadway. Is it his fault? Not in the slightest. He did the right thing – he got the experts to look into it and they gave their blessing. A more cynical person than myself might also add that even if he did suspect his operation might be a little risky in the circumstances, he, personally, will have benefitted from years of profitable activity. He and his family can afford to move away. The rest of us will be left with the bill. This is tragedy of the commons, writ large.

The point is that all this business takes effort. I have no doubt that the people involved are quite busy during their working day, commissioning reports, holding consultation meetings, responding to emails like mine. But what’s the point of doing all this work if the outcome has no meaning? From a sea level rise perspective, writing the environmental management plan for the site at South Arm was a complete waste of time, though it clearly took a long time and cost a tidy sum.

Why bother? Because it’s how our bureaucracy needs to work. Everyone must be kept busy doing stuff even though there’s not much point to lots of it. David does his job. The consultant is engaged. There are meetings. The mining operator pays some money. We get a report to show how everything is working smoothly. And around we go again, with the answer we’re really looking for remaining just out of reach (though you could argue that we’re not reaching very hard, nor in the right direction). Meanwhile, the lucky few who benefit from this lack of action are free to drive off into the sunset, their trucks loaded with the goods.

In biology there’s a concept known as ‘futile cycling’. To cut a long story short, imagine a reaction where two metabolic pathways run simultaneously in opposite directions and have no overall effect other than to dissipate energy in the form of heat. It’s actually a useful phenomenon, and has the result of generating energy, perhaps to power an insect’s wings or to keep a bear warm during hibernation.

Bureaucracy is a bit like that: lots of activity but not much to show for it apart from hot air. Does it serve a purpose? You betcha. Jobs and growth, mostly.

At a time when the rest of the world is building seawalls and preparing for more-frequent extreme coastal storm surge events, why the heck are we digging a big hole on a narrow sandspit – the only way in and out of the South Arm peninsula – without the blessing of a sea level rise expert? Sadly the answer is clear to me now. It’s somebody else’s problem.

I emailed David from the Department one final time with a question I hoped would bring the matter to a resolution.

“In light of the recent events in Collaroy, which demonstrate the sensitivity of coastal dune systems to storm surge and subsequent liability issues that can arise, is the Tasmanian Government satisfied that the sand mining operations on the South Arm spit do not pose a significant risk in terms of inundation of the spit/highway resulting from a storm surge event?”

For the first time in our long correspondence history I got no response.

One more piece of information that might tickle you. The sand mine I’m talking about is at one end of a narrow isthmus. Guess what’s at the other end? Another sand mine.



References …

1 http://maps.thelist.tas.gov.au/listmap/app/list/map?layout-options=LAYER_LIST_OPEN&cpoint=147.43,-42.85,50000&srs=EPSG:4283&bmlayer=3&layers=366

2 http://www.ccc.tas.gov.au/webdata/resources/files/CCICCA-Final-Report-A415375.pdf

3 Environmental Management Plan Review for Males Sand Mine South Arm, July 2015, Pitt & Sherry.

4 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-22/pacific-beach-erosion-set-to-worsen-with-climate-change-storms/6783480

*Bruce Ransley is a former commercial diver who got tired of being cold and wet. He now runs Impress, a communications consultancy, working with people of all shapes and sizes to help them get to the point: www.impress-cc.com.au

• William Boeder in Comments: Bravo Bruce Ransley …

• Denis Cartledge in Comments: Great article. This would appear to be along the lines of what Fisheries people are experiencing worldwide. I suspect the wrong people are being targetted. If you want action (slightly) quicker than State and Local Government, try alerting the real estate trade. They are the ones who do have something to lose – their commissions, when land in Opossum Bay slumps due to its untimely inaccessibility.;-)

• Duncan Mills in Comments: Great and valuable case study of systemic failure. Be interesting to take it further to risk and economic analysis. South Arm residents and their insurers might be interested. The council once notified of the risk, becomes legally obliged to act to mitigate the risk, otherwise they (and the state) may become legally liable for compensation to all who suffer loss. A letter to the Insurance Council of Australia with cost/risk estimates might get useful traction. This is the paradigm governments/ treasurers comprehend … their only way to understand complexity.

• Di Elliffe in Comments: Brilliant case study of systemic failure in natural resource management in Tasmania – well probably this could apply in many places. Everyone ticking the boxes and no-one asking the hard questions or making the tough decisions.

Author Credits: [show_post_categories parent="no" parentcategory="writers" show = "category" hyperlink="yes"]


  1. Georg Eitelhuber

    January 27, 2019 at 4:49 am

    Bravo to this highly intelligent analysis, and to all the subsequent reasonably worded, timely comments.

    Now I wonder, from a far outside outsider’s perspective, if anyone was able to structure a seed of next steppedness to challenge the problems.

  2. David Irons

    January 16, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    I’m no geomorphologist but I spent some time on Google Earth taking a look at the shape, extent and history of the sites back to 2005 when there was decent photography.

    Disclaimer: Due to the nature of georectifying satellite photography from different sources, warping vector to the WGS spheroid, datum transformation and processing accuracy, this does not replace a proper study, but should be considered equivalent to on-site evaluation. I’m not going to include screenshots, but feel free to load Google Earth (a free product) and check my results if you want.

    The east mine is maintaining a 50m buffer of the dune to the south and a similar distance between operations and the road throughout its existence. It is creeping west into the isthmus at about 10m per year. With about 140m of dune left (and assume the same buffer distances are kept) they have about 14 years of operation left, although they seem to have slowed a lot, probably because of the raised height of the dune giving increased volume per horizontal meter opened. The elevation profile shows a consistent level with the road. Of note, only the active part of the mine is being used, the rest is being revegetated. There has been no visible work to encroach into the old site buffers for some 13 years. The lease expires at 2028.

    The west mine is maintaining 100m buffer between operations and the beach and a similar amount between to the pond, and moving about 20m a year westwards away from the isthmuth. With some 600m to go, they have around 30 years of operation left if they keep the same buffer in place. Elevation is the same as the other mine and some effort has gone into rehabilitating the exploited areas. Again, there has been no work to encroach into the old site buffers for some 13 years. The lease expires at 2023.

    I’m no expert but in my layman view it seems to be the buffers are probably adequate as long as they are maintained in light of erosion and change. Certainly, any storm large enough to take out a 50-100m-wide 10m high dune and then the inner dune, and then the road would probably need to cataclysmic, and in that case the road would be the last of your worries as everything on the coast from South Arm to Lewisham would probably be wiped out, if not most of the peninsula.

    I am concerned that they are excavating to basically road/beach height (1-2m) which given eventual sea level rise over time I don’t think will be sufficient however again, in the event of the sea coming into the mine, the road will already have been lost as it is basically at sea level already. Perhaps further monitoring should be done and clean fill used to raise and harden the site to prevent any future erosion after the mine is closed.

    Collaroy was a completely different situation. There was no real protective dune and an overhanging sandy face, the water simply raced up the beach and undercut it. Notably the hydrodynamics and geomorphology of this site seem to be extremely specific. This part of the beach has been damaged every couple of decades see website linked (I don’t think they’re allowed in text). Even though the beach is some 4km long, only 100m was damaged, the part not reserved or hardened by seawalls after the prior events which seem to be happening every 20 years or so. A completely different situation to South Arm.

    Still it is wise to be cautious and both climate change and risk mitigation should definitely go into the management of the mine operations and licence conditions, as well as regular assessment to see if anything has changed. This should go into the

    Interestingly there is no mention of coastal risks in the EPA Quarry Code of Practice nor dune control and all erosion management is for works on-site. So yes, although DPIPWE is responsible for coasts in terms of reference for EPA this appears to be out of scope, so they’ve literally done their job to the extent of the site itself, but no further. I don’t know who does manage the bigger picture.

  3. duncan mills

    August 20, 2016 at 10:41 pm

    At issue I believe is how govt mismanages complexity. How would it be if critical reflection was part of PS training. Is there systemic State PS training? Would appear not!

    Each issue should be analysed using general systems theory and flow charted, then analysed for probable risks, costed and mapped on time impact chart. These reports probably need mapping at dpac level and publishing for citizen audit prior to handing to planning if not time critical.

    With the fact of climate change, we need to be on the ball, to mitigate disaster.

  4. William Boeder

    August 19, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    #11 & #13 are both exemplary in their analysis of the present incompetent and frightened political appointed pro Lib/Lab trough-feeders.

    This very topic is one of the better examples of measuring the general intellect of how this particular State and our others, also Australia as a Nation, is now headed downward in the journey into a politically created iconoclastic abyss.

  5. Simon Warriner

    August 19, 2016 at 7:30 pm

    re 11, and as clear examples of what happens when we neglect to focus on the real qualities of leadership I cite as examples in no particular order

    Bryan Green
    Kevin Rudd
    Malcolm Turnbull
    Tony Abbott
    Will Hodgeman
    Paul Lennon
    Lara Giddings
    The current liberal clown in WA
    The current Labor clown in Victoria
    All recent NSW premiers
    And on and on….

    Clearly, in agricultural terms the EBV’s being used to select leadership material at the party political stud farms are the wrong ones.

    Continuing with that metaphor, rather than continue waiting for the stud breeders (party selection committees’ to get their act together and recognise the inherent flaws in the seed stock, perhaps we voters should be importing a bit more mongrel to put some hybrid vigor into our political herd by voting independent more often, and using EBV’s that include superior resistance to bureaucratic bullshit and increased ability to see the obvious risks.

    It always ends up being a leadership problem

  6. Chris

    August 19, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    Discretion of the Minister, means I will decide who mines where and I will hold an enquiry into anything that takes my fancy, thats why I am a Minister.
    I can see the Woods from the trees and the seas.

  7. Mike Bolan

    August 19, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    Well written study on the results of our dysfunctional government and decision making structures.

    Bottom up thinking has the weakness of failing to deal with the big picture and the big issues, instead involving everyone in details that too often miss what’s really important. Focussing on details needs to be complemented with a clear focus on wider issues which is the role of leaders. As the author states, leadership is missing. Too often leadership has come to mean ‘figurehead’ in Australian government (interviews, ribbon cutting etc) resulting in failure of key requirements (e.g. service standards, ethics/morals, social outcomes) such as the NBN, employment creation and practical approaches to create and deliver a better Australia.

  8. Di Elliffe

    August 19, 2016 at 3:18 am

    Brilliant case study of systemic failure in natural resource management in Tasmania – well probably this could apply in many places. Everyone ticking the boxes and no-one asking the hard questions or making the tough decisions.

  9. peter adams

    August 18, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    No mining at Eaglehawk Neck beach on the Tasman Peninsula, but I do wonder when a storm surge will break through.

    • Ted Mead

      January 17, 2019 at 7:10 am

      Peter … according to local hearsay, sea wash did breach the Neck in a rare big storm during the1940s.

      This may end up being a common occurrence by the end of the century, that’s if humans are still around to witness it!

  10. William Boeder

    August 18, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    #7. Well said Duncan, the objective is to have both the local council and State government ministers made culpable for ignoring your early written advice.

  11. duncan mills

    August 18, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    Great and valuable case study of systemic failure.
    Be interesting to take it further to risk and economic analysis.
    South Arm residents and their insurers might be interested.
    The council once notified of the risk, becomes legally obliged to act to mitigate the risk, otherwise they (and the state) may become legally liable for compensation to all who suffer loss.
    A letter.to the Insurance Council of Austrlia with cost/risk estimates might get useful traction. This is the paradigm governments/ treasurers comprehend. Their only way to understand complexity.

  12. Peter

    August 18, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Dept of State Growth


    Mining leases in Tasmania are granted for a term commensurate with the life of the mining project. The term of a mine lease may be extended at the discretion of the Minister if the holder is able to show grounds for extension.

    Mine leases may be granted for one or more of the following mineral categories:

    Category 3: rock, stone, gravel, sand and clay used in construction, bricks and ceramics;

    Mining Lease Applicants must supply a security deposit to cover the cost of rehabilitation or environmental liability. The amount required is determined by MRT and reflects the cost to government for carrying out rehabilitation in the event of default by the lessee. The amount is determined according to proposed stages of development and rehabilitation in the mining plan.


    Brett Stewart Director (03) 6165 4741
    Peta Townsend Senior Executive Officer (03) 6477 7098
    Naomi Taylor Executive Assistant (03) 6165 4744

    Guy Barnett MHA

  13. Chris

    August 18, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    Perhaps the sand removed from the dunes at the Southern end of the airport runway, can be transported to South Arm to fill in the holes?
    Of course sea level rise in the Seven Mile Beach area will benefit tourism, more planes and Surf Road closed for the convenience of Macquarie Bank and the lowering/removal of a dune(s) will enhance the area.
    Sea level rise will probably, in the future, be mitigated by tipping large boulders onto the runway approaches at the beach area and dividing the beach into two distinct areas.
    Will access to that area of beach be prohibited for walkers on the beach?
    Would an extension of the runway at each end have solved this problem, but as Tourism is more important that the sea level rises on this area lets look the other way.
    Grant to Macquarie Bank of Abbott’s bribe, (38 Million) at our expense is more important than climate change and Tony denies climate change so there.
    Was sea level rise taken into account?

  14. Isla MacGregor

    August 18, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    Yet another disastrous tale about Tassie’s EPA and local Council stupidity. There are clearly serious risks posed to public safety from these sand mining activities and this points yet again to why a real Anti Corruption Commission is needed in Tasmania.

    Which Environmental Consultants firm in Tasmania would dare to write any report detrimental to mining activities anyway?

    One can only wonder [i]who[/i] met for a cosy chat in a Salamanca restaurant to discuss approvals for these sand mining works?

  15. Denis Cartledge

    August 18, 2016 at 2:32 am

    Great article. This would appear to be along the lines of what Fisheries people are experiencing worldwide.

    I suspect the wrong people are being targetted. If you want action (slightly) quicker than State and Local Government, try alerting the real estate trade. They are the ones who do have something to lose – their commissions, when land in Opossum Bay slumps due to its untimely inaccessibility.;-)

  16. Simon Warriner

    August 17, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    Bruce, I have a similar experience regarding log trucks on rural roads when the plantations went in.
    Long story short, one came with a split second of seriously injuring or killing my partner because of the arrogance of the half wit that was driving around the corner using more than his fair share of the road. We can all blame the log truck drivers, but the real problem lies much further up the tree.

    I must disagree with your conclusion to part 1, namely that an appropriately qualified specialist holds the solution. In my view, the real problem and thus the solution resides in those at the top of the decision making pyramid.

    we need to ask why at least 7 times

    like this:

    Why wasn’t the geo engaged?
    because it was not specified

    Why wasn’t it specified?
    because sea level rise was not considered as a threat

    Why wasn’t sea level rise considered as a threat?
    Because the prevailing political climate set by the governing party is antagonistic towards it

    Why the antagonism….

    and so on

    In my experience it all comes back to leadership, every bloody time.

    We need to pay far more attention to that aspect.

  17. William Boeder

    August 17, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    Bravo Bruce Ransley, you rise to the very top in my estimation of how a State citizen can provide timely information that the Local Council or even the State government can but will not listen to, especially somebody outside of their elevated comfort status.

    The fact that your referencing this vitally important land route and its futures seems of no importance to the above referred to keyboard bangers, nor the disinterested slack claque of State ministers.

Leave a Reply

To Top