Dino Fossil Outcry Disrupts Australia Water Plant Plans

Dave Hansford in Wellington, New Zealand
for National Geographic News
December 4, 2007
Fears over the destruction of ancient polar dinosaur fossils are throwing a wrench into plans to build a 2.7-billion-U.S.-dollar desalination plant near drought-stricken Melbourne.

The fossil bed—part of a site dubbed Dinosaur Cove—sits at the mouth of the Powlett River near Kilcunda in Australia's southeastern state of Victoria (see map).

A rock shelf there holds the bones of small plant-eating dinosaurs called ornithopods that lived 115 million years ago, according to Tom Rich, curator of vertebrate paleontology at Museum Victoria.

But the site is now earmarked for the construction of a government-run desalination plant meant to supply 39.6 billion gallons (150 billion liters) of drinking water a year to the state's capital city.

Australia is in the midst of a record drought, and the plant would supply much needed freshwater to one of the country's most populated regions.

The Powlett River fossils, which scientists have known about for many years, lie in the path of the inlet and outlet pipes for the proposed facility.

Local newspapers last week predicted delays and budget blowouts amid calls for an inquiry into the impact of construction on the fossil-rich region.

"It's like boring through the tombs of the ancient emperors in Egypt or drilling holes through the terra-cotta warriors in China after they had been discovered," Liberal MP Ken Smith told The Australian newspaper.

Not an Emergency

Despite the media outcry, Australian water minister Tim Holding told the Herald-Sun newspaper last week that the remains would not be at risk.

"The existence of these fossilized remains in no way impacts on the ability of us to construct or operate a desalination plant on the site," Holding said.

"These fossilized remains exist in the first 10 meters [33 feet] of the beachfront … and it's proposed that our inflow and outflow pipes will be placed well below that."

Museum Victoria's Rich agreed: "He's right. In 29 years of working this coast, the deepest fossil we've found was half a meter [1.6 feet] down.

"They're talking about burrowing 20 meters [25.6 feet] below the surface, which makes good engineering sense," he noted.

"There is no emergency whatsoever," Rich said, adding that carefully dug construction tunnels might even reveal more fossils.

On December 1 The Age reported that Holding had released a project report to Planning Minister Justin Madden, who has 20 business days from that date to decide whether to commission an environmental impact statement.

Project manager Garry Seaborne said development on the 49- to 74-acre (20- to 30-hectare) plant would continue during the deliberation.

The facility—due for completion around 2011—would desalinate seawater through a process known as reverse osmosis and send it through a massive network of pipes to Melbourne, which is currently suffering severe water restrictions.

Chilly Dinosaurs

The Victoria coast is famous for yielding fossils of dinosaurs that lived about 200 million years ago, when the landmass that is now Australia lay much further south—well within the Antarctic Circle.

The climate would have been similar to the present-day U.S. Pacific Northwest: mild enough to support large numbers of herbivores but with harsh winters.

The so-called polar dinosaurs that lived there were warm-blooded and well adapted to the cold, Rich said.

They had keen night vision, which allowed them to forage among what were then forests during the long winter nights.

(Related photo: "'Polar Predator' Dino Tracks Found" [October 23, 2007].)

"It was a green world," Rich said, "but there were no reds, no yellows—basically, take out all the flowering plants. We're talking cycads, tree ferns, [evergreen trees called] podocarps, that sort of stuff."

His team has also worked at nearby Inverloch for the last 14 years unearthing the bones of meat-eating dinosaurs, turtles, lungfish, early mammals, and some of the few known remains of freshwater plesiosaurs, an otherwise largely marine group of aquatic carnivores.

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