New documents made public through a freedom of information request show that the authority charged with protecting the Great Barrier Reef advised on multiple occasions last year against the dumping of dredged sediments from the Abbot Point coal port expansion project near the reef on environmental grounds.
‘The proposal to dredge and dispose of up to 1.6 million cubic metres of sediment per year … has the potential to cause long-term irreversible harm to areas of the Great Barrier Reef,” states one of the authority’s own reports, obtained by Greenpeace.
Another document says “The GBRMPA considers that even with best endeavours, the likely impact of the dredging and disposal on nearby benthic [sea floor] habitats and threatened species would be environmentally and socially unacceptable.”
Despite this, the project was approved in December by the environment minister, Greg Hunt, and then in January was issued permits by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) in apparent contradiction the their own recommendations.
The GBRMPA chairman, Russell Reichelt, said in a statement on Sunday that the documents had only been preliminary.
“Consistent with our Act we took into account the fact that the minister had provided an approval, as well as the recommendation report that the environment department had provided to the minister,” he said.
Reichelt claimed that “Absolutely no political pressure was brought to bear on GBRMPA.”
“These new documents raise very serious concerns about the federal government’s stewardship of the reef,” Greenpeace campaigner Louise Matthiesson told the Guardian.
“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.”
The Abbot Point expansion will create one of the world’s biggest coal ports, located about 25 km north of Bowen on the central Queensland Coast. It will handle exports from the $16 billion worth of coal projects planned in the Galilee Basin by Indian firms Adani Enterprises and GVK — and Australian billionaires Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer.
The Great Barrier Reef, the most extensive coral reef system on the planet, with 400 species of coral and 1,500 species of fish, was declared a World Heritage area in 1981. Recently, however, the 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 U.N. gave the Australian government a 12-month deadline to show that they were improving the health of the Reef.
In response to all of the controversy surrounding the dredging decision, the Queensland government has launched a website called “Reef Facts” ostensibly designed to debunk “false and extreme claims” about the dredging project.
The website claims that the Abbot Point dredging will be done “responsibly within strict environmental limits” and that the sediment dumped will be 40km away from the nearest reef. It also points out that the disposal area covers just 0.0005 percent of the total area of the marine park. The negative effects of the port development and dredging will be minor, states the site, especially in comparison to the damage already caused by storms, coral bleaching and the crown of thorns starfish.
In an interview with the Guardian Australia, however, Jon Brodie, a research scientist at the Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research at James Cook University, made it clear that he was not impressed with the website’s accuracy or relevance.
“It’s a political document and it’s best to think of it as that,” he said. “It’s a misdirection.”
“The average sediment coming from rivers onto the reef is 6m tonnes a year, so 5m from Abbot Point over three years isn’t an insignificant amount by any means,” Brodie added. “The concern is the precedent because there’s a huge amount of dredging to come in Townsville, Cairns and Gladstone.”