The government agency that oversees Australia's Great Barrier Reef on Friday 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 ecosystems.
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.
On Friday, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority — the government manager of the 345,400-square-kilometre protected marine zone — approved an application by the state-owned North Queensland Bulk Ports Corp. for a permit to dump the sediment within the marine park.
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.
"By granting this permit application with rigorous safeguards, we believe we are able to provide certainty to both the community and the proponent while seeking to ensure transparent and best practice environmental management of the project," Elliot said.
Environmentalists were infuriated by Friday's decision, saying that the reef is already vulnerable, having lost huge amounts of coral in recent decades to storm damage and coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.
"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."