“We wouldn’t throw rubbish on World Heritage sites like the Grand Canyon or the Vatican City, so why would we dump on the reef?”
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority made the controversial decision on Friday to allow about 800 million gallons of dredge spoil — mud and ocean sediment — to be dumped in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, part of the world’s most famous and largest coral reef system.
The decision to dump the sediment into the Coral Sea follows a decision made in December by Australia’s Environment Minister Greg Hunt to allow for the expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal, which in itself was controversial, since environmentalists and scientists say the expansion jeopardizes the health of the already struggling Great Barrier Reef.
This port is in an area known as the Galilee Basin near Queensland in Northern Australia, which according to local news reports, contains lots and lots of coal.
In fact, business leaders from around the globe have championed Hunt’s decision, saying that the reef will remain strong, and this will allow for the world’s biggest coal port to open, allowing for some $28 billion in coal projects to begin.
“This is a significant milestone in developing our Galilee Basin coal projects, which represent the creation of over 20,000 direct and indirect jobs and over $40 billion in taxes and royalties,” said Darren Yeates, chief executive of GVK-Hancock, a joint venture between India’s GVK conglomerate and Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting.
However, environmentalists have been appalled by the decisions, especially the government’s latest decision to dump the dredge spoil in the water, and warned that the sediment will harm delicate corals and seagrasses and potentially double ship traffic through the World Heritage marine park.
“The rapid industrialisation of the reef comes at a time when climate change is already diminishing this precious place,” said Louise Matthiesson, Greenpeace climate campaigner.
“We wouldn’t throw rubbish on World Heritage sites like the Grand Canyon or the Vatican City, so why would we dump on the reef?
“Scientists are clear that the potential impacts of dumping the dredge spoil so close to fringing reefs and the WW2 Catalina plane wreck are significant. Saying yes to dumping will only add the pressures the reef is already facing from climate change, land-based pollution and crown of thorns starfish outbreaks,” Matthiesson said.
Although the government has tried to ease environmentalists concerns by explaining that the sediment will not be dumped directly on the reef itself, but 15 miles from the reef, which is a World Heritage Site and one of Australia’s top tourist attractions.
But environmentalists and scientists say that research has shown that dredge spoil moves much further than previously thought and can “smother corals and seagreasses and expose them to poisons and elevated nutrients.”
Originally, Hunt promised that the sediment would be used for land infill purposes. But as evidenced by the announcement on Friday, appears to have had a change of heart.
If all the dredged material were dumped on land, the pile would be bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza, or about 455 feet tall — which may be why Hunt decided to dump the sediment in the sea.
Jon Brodie is a senior researcher at James Cook University. He said that while Hunt and other lawmakers and businessmen interested in expanding the coal port may look at the dredge spoil dump as a one time thing, the decision to dump the sediment in the water sets a dangerous precedent.
Brodie pointed to projects along the Great Barrier Reef coast that have the potential to create some 21 billion gallons of spoil, which will only add to “the destruction of a system that is already going downhill badly.”
He added that he found it puzzling that other options for disposing of the sediment such as building a retaining barrier, called a bund wall, or building longer jetties, had not been proposed.
When the dumping will commence remains unknown. But what’s concerning for many environmentalists is that this is not the first time Hunt has made a controversial decision related to the reef’s health.
Hunt has also approved Arrow Energy’s Liquefied Natural Gas project on Curtis Island in central Queensland, and a transmission pipeline to the island, all the while promising new plans designed to protect the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef.
Felicity Wishart, spokeswoman for the Australian Marine Conservation Society and campaign director for the Great Barrier Reef campaign, said most Australians will be shocked and angry at this decision by the marine park authority and Hunt to allow dumping of dredge spoil in reef waters.
“Across the board, people expect them to defend the reef, not approve its destruction,” Wishart said, before adding, “If you’ve got someone who is not very well you don’t give extra illness to them.
“Dredging and dumping, port expansions and increased shipping is only going to increase the pressure on the Reef, particularly in the southern parts of the reef that’s suffering the most.”
And unlike other threats to the reef, such as runoff from agricultural developments, increased ocean acidity, rises in sea temperatures from fossil fuel burning and more, Wishart said the impacts from port expansions are easy to prevent.
“We can avoid those pressures on the reef,” she said. “The Queensland government doesn’t want to hear that – they are committed to wanting to expand ports and increase the amount of coal and gas and other minerals being exported overseas but the reality is the reef is telling us it’s not well.”
While Hunt continues to kowtow to the interests of big business, ignoring the concerns of “increasingly hysterical environmental activists,’’ Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters says his decisions show criminal disregard for the Barrier Reef.
“The Abbott government has sacrificed the climate and the Great Barrier Reef for overseas mining companies with its approval today of the world’s largest coal port and another CSG plant in our Great Barrier Reef,” she said.
“The coal to be mined from the Galilee Basin and exported through Abbot Point each year which will create more CO2 emissions a year than produced by both Denmark and Portugal combined,” she added, which may prompt the World Heritage Committee to list the reef as being in danger of extinction.
The Great Barrier Reef is made up of more than 2,800 separate reef sections, which takes up about 1,250 miles of Australia’s coast and houses many different types of marine life. But due to a variety of reasons, a 2012 government report found that the reef has lost about half of its coral in the past 27 years.
However, Dr. Russell Reichelt, the authority chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, said that while he understands people’s concerns, Hunt’s approval falls in line with the agency’s view that existing ports should be used and expanded upon, instead of creating new ports, to protect the Great Barrier Reef coastline.
“As a deepwater port that has been in operation for nearly 30 years, Abbot Point is better placed than other ports along the Great Barrier Reef coastline to undertake expansion as the capital and maintenance dredging required will be significantly less than what would be required in other areas.
“It’s important to note the seafloor of the approved disposal area consists of sand, silt and clay and does not contain coral reefs or seagrass beds.”
Though Hunt doesn’t appear to be concerned about the potential environmental damage the spoil could have on the Reef and its ecosystem, he seems to have forgotten that his decisions will impact how UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee classifies the Reef.
The WHC, which helps fund efforts to preserve places of special cultural or physical significance across the globe, has remained relatively silent throughout this controversy, other than saying that the reef could end up on its List of World Heritage in Danger, if the port and spoil dumping are approved.
Activists say this downgrade in the Reef’s classification would not only be embarrassing but economically devastating for Australia. However, the Australian government reportedly delivered a report to the U.N. on Saturday saying that dumping sediment near the reef would be a minor irritant over short time periods, and that there is no need to list the reef as being “in danger.”
”It is a permanent task for every Australian government to protect and maintain the reef. Nobody can ever rest on that, but there should be no way the reef can and should be considered ‘in danger’,” Hunt said.
The WHC is expected to decide this June when the committee meets in Doha, Qatar.