Australian, The, 09.07.2011, pg. 1

Locals are demanding the Queensland floods inquiry investigate whether a quarry wall played a role in the inland tsunami that devastated the town of Grantham

FRUSTRATED residents of Grantham, the Lockyer Valley township devastated by Queensland’s deadly summer floods, are demanding that the commission of inquiry into the disaster investigate whether an earth wall around a sand quarry helped cause the “inland tsunami” that killed 12 people and destroyed scores of homes.

The quarry, owned and run by prominent Queensland family business Wagners, has operated since 1984 in a horseshoe bend of Lockyer Creek, 2.6km west of Grantham.

Locals, including several who had homes swept away and who fled for their lives or were rescued by helicopter from the raging floodwaters, have told Inquirer expert analysis is needed to establish why Lockyer Creek jumped its bank at the bend in the creek where the quarry is established and raced into the town for the first time in living memory.

The local people are not asserting that Wagners or anybody else is to blame for the devastation visited on their homes and lives but just want the cause identified to ensure it does not occur again.

They feel the only body capable of establishing the facts is the independent Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry.

The assertion is that Lockyer Creek, full after its catchment received unprecedented heavy rain, reached Kapernick’s Bridge 6.6km west of Grantham and flowed normally within the creek banks in a virtual straight line until it reached the horseshoe bend and the quarry.

At that point the flooding water and tonnes of debris hit the earth wall barrier around the quarry and stopped as though it were at a dam wall.

The water, according to witnesses, ponded and began to run backwards for several kilometres, a phenomenon photographed by farmer Tony McIntosh, who has lived there for all his 51 years.

The quarry’s managing director, Denis Wagner, told Inquirer the worksite had no effect on the floodwaters in Lockyer Creek and added that the wall of soil surrounding the quarry “has been like that for a long, long time and it is not a levee bank in any way”.

“The flows in the creek have never been altered,” Wagner says.

“If anything, the hole [in the quarry] is a flood mitigation structure because what it does is take the water as it flows in.”

Landholders opposite the quarry saw floodwater begin to flow through the earth wall and fled their properties.

They estimate the floodwater built up to more than 4m in height and eventually broke through the quarry’s earth wall, forcing almost 2m of water into the houses nearest the creek.

The frightening wall of water then sped 150m to the railway line embankment, which is built up some 2m, and this effectively channelled the water along the bitumen road straight into Grantham township.

It carried with it nine-year-old Teddy Perry, who had been in a vehicle with his mother and father washed over the Helidon bridge at the foot of the Toowoomba range.

Grantham landowner John Gallagher said the flood picked up a cattle feeder of grain weighing about 2.5 tonnes and moved it about 800m towards Lockyer Creek and it was this piece of equipment that Teddy grabbed and clung on to before being rescued by helicopter.

The boy had been swept 8km down the flooded creek.

His mother, Jenny, was rescued but his father, James, is still missing, presumed dead.

Wagner disputes the claims that the quarry site contributed at all to the disaster, asserting it was caused by the heavy rainfall.

“You have to understand how severe this flood was, reportedly a one-in-370-year event so the local farmers have never seen anything like that before,” he says.

Wagner says the quarry site was inspected by police in the immediate aftermath of the flood and it also had been checked by the Environmental Protection Authority and the Department of Environment and Resource Management.

“Anyone who sees the quarry site and understands anything about this event says it is rubbish [that it contributed to the flood],” Wagner says.

DERM engineers who checked the quarry in recent weeks said the earthen wall around it was “a natural structure” and said approval had been given to Wagners to repair the sections breached and washed out by the January 10 flood.

However, that is challenged by many local farmers, who say before the quarry began operations in 1984, the land “pocket” was used to grow lucerne and potatoes, and that there was never a huge wall around it.

Gallagher says he wrote to the Gatton Shire Council five years ago telling it the quarry owners were constructing a high earth wall in alignment with the flow of the creek and that he was concerned about the effect it could have on water flows in a flood.

“I got no response,” he says. “I walk every morning and used to watch the wall getting higher and higher as soil was placed on it from the site and compacted by trucks and heavy machinery driving on the new material.”

Toowoomba-based environmental consultant and geomorphologist Jerry Maroulis says it is “nonsense, and provably so” to suggest the bank surrounding the quarry was “a natural structure”.

“It is man-made, but whether it changed the flow of Lockyer Creek and caused it to flow through the township of Grantham is something that could only be established through proper scientific modelling,” Maroulis says.

“It would not be a difficult task. The important thing is to respond to the calls of these local people who are concerned every time it rains now that they could be in for another flood.

The important thing is not apportioning blame but to find out the causes and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure there is no repeat of the event, or at least minimise the risk.”
Electrical contractor Jon Sippel, his wife, Annaka, and their sons Henry, 3, and Ned, 1, live on the bank of Lockyer Creek in the house nearest the quarry and were the first wiped out when the wall of water struck after 2.30pm on January 10.

Sippel contacted a Lockyer Valley Regional Council member on Boxing Day because he was worried about the quarry bank causing flooding on his property.

He was told it was not a council issue and should be referred to the Department of Environment and Resource Management.

The Sippels fled as the floodwater that had built up behind the earth wall began to pour across their land.

When he saw water coming towards his property, Jon Sippel jumped a fence to free his neighbour’s cows while his wife grabbed their sleeping children.

They drove two of their cars about 500m along the highway to slightly higher ground. As the flood rose, they were marooned on a section of road just large enough for them to stand beside their vehicles.

Moments later the levee bank gave way.

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“I heard one hell of a crash; it went on for 10 to 15 seconds. It was the wall giving way. Trees, tanks and debris that had banked up suddenly went as the wall let go. I heard the rush of the water go whoosh down the creek,” Sippel says. 

He says the wave of floodwater hit the houses on the western side of Grantham and ricocheted off the railway embankment, picking up houses and destroying others along the railway line.

“That was where the main force of destruction hit in town, not along Lockyer Creek,” he says.

Sippel says the direction in which the water travelled was also indicated by debris lines left when the flood subsided.

“My tanks and cable spools ended up under the railway bridge in Grantham,” he says.

Sippel gave a statement about the flood to police who were gathering evidence for the coronial inquest into flood deaths, but his evidence was not forwarded to the Floods Commission of Inquiry.

He says he is surprised that no one from the inquiry has contacted people in the area to find out what had happened.

Grantham locals John and Kathy Mahon were driving from Helidon to Grantham just after 2pm on January 10 and saw the floodwaters backing up against the quarry wall.

“I looked across and I could see the top of the Lockyer Creek and to me it didn’t seem to be moving,” John Mahon says.

“It was like a big pile of debris just sitting there, above the ground. It was like it was ponding there, a lot of debris and logs.”

They drove the kilometre or so past the quarry to their brick home, which was one of the first to be struck by the huge tide of floodwater.

Mahon was at his shed when he heard a noise and saw what looked like a mud landslide that was about 1m high, filled with sticks and logs, coming down the road and across the paddock towards his house.

He shouted to his wife and their adult daughters, Andrea and Jess, to get indoors but within moments the water was swirling around their knees.

They put Andrea’s boys, Liam, 5, and Lachlan, 3, on the kitchen bench but fridges, cupboards and other furniture began swirling around. Andrea phoned her husband and said goodbye, certain they were going to die.

Jess phoned her boyfriend and told him they would surely drown. The family held hands, prayed and kissed one another goodbye.

They put floaties on the little boys.

The water was then 1.5m high inside the house and getting deeper, so they decided to get out and try to climb on to the roof.

They pushed the boys on to the roof and the women clambered up, but John, heavily built, could not manage it and clung to the gutter.

The women and boys were the first in the flood to be rescued by helicopter, but it had to make a special trip back for John and was diverted twice for more urgent cases before he was finally winched on board.

On the short drive from the Helidon to Grantham road into Wagners quarry there is a house sign that reads “Friendly’s”.

It is the home site of Tom and Sandra Friend, the site where their low-set brick house stood before the January 10 flood wiped it out.

Their property backs on to Lockyer Creek opposite the quarry and Friend says he has watched for years as the wall around the enterprise was built up and then compacted by heavy machinery driving on it.

“The flood inquiry should convene here and take evidence from all of us who live or did live close to the quarry,” Friend says.

“Some did not give statements to police because they feared it would hold up their insurance payments if they complicated matters by blaming something other than the flood, but they are all prepared now to tell what they saw and experienced.

“We want somebody to explain to us how this has been allowed to happen and, more importantly, we want assurances that it will not happen again. We want to be able to go to sleep at night and not break out in a sweat if we hear rain on the roof.

“I worked this farmland for 40 years and can tell you with absolute certainty that the earth wall, levee bank, call it what you like, was not on that pocket of land until it was converted from a lucerne paddock into a sand and gravel quarry.”

Lockyer Valley Regional Council mayor Steve Jones says he has heard theories about the effect of the quarry’s earth wall on the disaster at Grantham but says it is the job of the inquiry to find out what happened and why.

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