In a series of draft documents, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) deemed expanding ports for coal shipment through Australia’s Great Barrier Reef “environmentally and socially unacceptable”. However, the drafts were apparently never sent to the Australian Department of the Environment. The GBRMPA draft reports highlight foreseen damage caused by ocean floor dredging and necessary disposal of sediment, which can negatively impact the ecology of the reef, including threatened species. 

Australia’s Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who is set to grant himself retrospective legal immunity from future claims surrounding his approval of potentially damaging mining projects, approved the dredging project in December of last year. 

Pic: Wade Lehmann (Flickr CC)

Louise Matthiesson, a campaigner for Greenpeace Australia, had this to say about the development (via the Guardian):

These new documents raise very serious concerns about the federal government’s stewardship of the reef.

It is clear that Minister Hunt and his department were willing to put other interests ahead of the health of this world heritage jewel and Minister Hunt must explain why.

While the immediate dumping area for the sediment produced by the dredging may not contain vulnerable coral or seagrass beds, Matthiesson claims that muddy plumes from the dumping can spread up to 80km (50 miles) from the dumping site.

These documents reveal that GBRMPA was firmly against the dredging and dumping last year, but for some reason later changed its position. It is clear that the Australian government cares more about coal money than it does about the environment, particularly the Great Barrier Reef, which one of the world’s greatest ecological treasures. However, the job of GBRMPA and the Department of the Environment is ostensibly to protect the environment, not to simply be the arm of government or industrial interests. If they don’t protect it who will?

The GBR from space. Pic: NASA (Wikimedia Commons)

Fortunately, the North Queensland Conservation Council (NQCCC) has launched an appeal against the decision to dump the sediment offshore, arguing that the environmental impacts of sea dumping were not examined properly and alternatives were not sufficiently explored.

The NQCCC are not alone in their concern for the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

From Renew Economy:

[T]he United Nation’s environmental arm warned that the world’s largest coral reef could be listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger if Australia doesn’t act fast to protect it. In June, the UN gave the Australian government a 12-month deadline to show that they were improving the health of the Reef.

Already in danger from threats including toxic waste, climate change, coral bleaching, tropical cyclones and the crown of thorns starfish, the Reef is not simply a natural treasure, but a source of livelihood from another sector. It generates $5bn AUD per year in marine tourism. In light of the risks posed to the ecology of the reef by dredging, the port construction could end up pitting the energy and tourist industries against each other.