SYDNEY, Australia—The government agency that oversees Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has approved a plan to dump vast swathes of sediment on the reef as part of a major coal port expansion—a decision that environmentalists say will endanger one of the world’s most fragile and critical ecosystems.
In a report released in 2012, UNESCO expressed concern about development along the reef—including ports—and warned that the marine park was at risk of being listed as a World Heritage site in danger.
The federal government in December approved the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port in northern Queensland, which requires a massive dredging operation to make way for ships entering and exiting the port. About three million cubic metres of dredged mud will be dumped within the marine park under the plan.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt has vowed that “some of the strictest conditions in Australian history” will be in place to protect the reef from harm, including water quality measures and safeguards for the reef’s plants and animals.
But outraged conservationists say the already fragile reef will be gravely threatened by the dredging, which will occur over a 184-hectare area. Apart from the risk that the sediment will smother coral and seagrass, the increased shipping traffic will boost the risk of accidents, such as oil spills and collisions with delicate coral beds, environment groups argue.
Bruce Elliot, general manager for the marine authority’s biodiversity, conservation and sustainable use division, said in a statement that strict conditions would be placed on the sediment disposal, including a water quality monitoring plan that will remain in place five years after the dumping is complete.
Australia is home to vast mineral deposits and a mining boom fuelled by demand from China kept Australia’s economy strong during the global financial crisis. Though the boom is now cooling as demand from China slows, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his conservative government have vowed to focus their efforts on reviving the industry.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said his government would protect the environment, but not at the expense of the state’s economy.
Environmentalists were infuriated by the decision, saying that the reef is already vulnerable, having lost huge amounts of coral in recent decades.
“We are devastated. I think any Australian or anyone around the world who cares about the future of the reef is also devastated by this decision,” said Richard Leck, reef campaign leader for international conservation group WWF. “Exactly the wrong thing that you want to do when an ecosystem is suffering … is introduce another major threat to it, and that’s what the marine park authority has allowed to happen today.”