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Abbot Point dredging will ‘put more pressure’ on Great Barrier Reef

Abbot Point, Australia

The government’s decision will open up Abbot Point to large-scale coal exports. Photograph: AAP


Powered by article titled “Abbot Point dredging will ‘put more pressure’ on Great Barrier Reef” was written by Oliver Milman, for on Wednesday 11th December 2013 05.26 UTC

Dumping dredged material in the Great Barrier Reef marine park will “place further pressure on an ecosystem under stress”, Department of Environment documents have predicted, amid uncertainty as to exactly where waste from the controversial Abbot Point port project will be deposited.

A departmental assessment of the Abbot Point dredging project, which was approved by the environment minister, Greg Hunt, on Wednesday found that “mitigation measures” were needed to offset the impact of dumping 3m cubic metres of sediment in the vicinity of the World Heritage-listed ecosystem.

The documents show that alternatives to offshore dumping “would involve significant expenditure” with North Queensland Bulk Ports (NQBP), the project overseer, estimating that onshore disposal would cost between $120m and $460m.

The department added that full environmental assessments of alternatives to offshore dredging had not been conducted, although this is disputed by NQPB. To offset the impact of the dredging, proponents will have to reduce the amount of pollution running on to the reef from the land.

Although Hunt’s approval allows the dumping of dredged material in an area within the Great Barrier Reef marine park, at a site about 24km from Abbot Point, near Bowen, the project proponents are required to identify an alternative site, also likely to be within the marine park.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which is tasked with the preservation of the reef, will have to decide whether to provide a permit for the dumping within the next 10 days, or request more time.

Conservationists have strongly criticised Hunt’s decision, which will open up Abbot Point to large-scale coal exports, claiming that it risks significant harm to the Great Barrier Reef.

“Even though Greg Hunt has approved the dredging there isn’t a clear plan for the dumping,” Richard Leck, reef campaigner for WWF, told Guardian Australia.

“It puts the marine park authority in an invidious position because they are being asked to provide a dumping permit not knowing where it will be. It’s a bit like getting approval to build an office block but not having an actual location for it.

“The minister claimed he has put the strictest conditions in history on this project, but it’s strange there is no detail on where 3m cubic metres of sand and rock will be dumped. There will be enormous pressure on the marine park authority to allow this and we will be pushing them hard to reject it.”

NQBP said it investigated onshore disposal “in depth” and found that the dredged material was unsuitable for use on land. The company said offshore disposal in a “carefully chosen” location would result in only temporary impacts.

“The key to any dredging is the best outcome and onshore isn’t always the best way,” a spokeswoman for NQBP told Guardian Australia. “The site won’t be near any areas of national significance and it will be around 40km from the nearest piece of coral.

“We have dredged 22 times since 2002 and done months of modelling and looking at actual outcomes, so we’re pretty sure about this. Our experience speaks louder than anything.”

Critics of the dredging argue that dumped material will smother seagrasses, depriving dugongs and sea turtles of food, as well as damaging coral. They point to government-commissioned advice that stated dredged material travels far further with ocean currents than was previously thought, although the marine park authority has since backed away from this conclusion.

The tourism industry has voiced concern that any further damage to the reef, which has lost half of its coral cover in the past 30 years, would be disastrous for local operators.

Tony Fontes, who has led diving expeditions on the reef for more than 30 years, told Guardian Australia he was “disappointed and angry” at Hunt’s decision.

“The reef is clearly in decline and I think we are close to a tipping point,” he said. “I have seen the impact of dredging in the Whitsundays that is miniscule compared to Abbot Point and it isn’t good. The dredged spoil re-suspends and moves in extreme weather. It buries coral and cuts the sunlight out.


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