Environmentalists and tourism operators in Australia have vowed legal action to block a supervisory agency's approval of a plan to deepen a coal export port and dump waste near the Great Barrier Reef.
Australia's coal industry and environmentalists exchanged criticism on Saturday after approval was given to dump 3 million cubic meters of dredged sediment inside the coral reef maritime park, which is listed as World Heritage.
That listing is to be reviewed this June by the UN agency UNESCO. In 2012 it had warned that the reef, which is facing ecological pressure, including storm damage and a starfish outbreak, could lose its status.
The permit granted Friday by Great Barrier Reef Marine Part Authority (GBRMPA) clears the way for an Australian mining company, GVK-Hancock, and Indian coal importers to expand the port of Abbot Point in Queensland state.
The mining giant said an expanded Port Abbot would enable exports of coal reserves from the inland Galilee Basin and create 20,000 jobs.
Reef smothering, warn scientists
Some 240 international scientists had warned that sludge will smother corals and sea grass, and that increased shipping will raise the risk of collisions and oil spills in the fragile area.
Tour operator president Colin McKenzie accused the authority of "pandering to politicians" and failing to do its "job of preserving the environment."
McKenzie said his Association of Marine Park Tour Operators would take Environment Minister Greg Hunt "to court" before Australia's Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
State-owned North Queensland Bulk Ports Corp. said the sediment would be clean and comprised natural "seabed materials."
GBRMPA, which gave the approval, said the dumping would take place under "rigorous safeguards," 25 kilometers (15 miles) away from the reef.
Queensland premier Campbell Newman said environmental protection could not be at the expense of state's economy: "We are in the coal business."
'Exactly the wrong thing'
The reef campaigner for the conservation group WWF, Richard Leck, said dredging of Port Abbot was "exactly the wrong thing you want to do when an ecosystem is suffering."
University of Queensland marine biologist Selina Ward said the dumping of 3 million tones of sediment would place further stress on the reef.
Australian Marine Conservation Society spokeswoman Felicity Wishart said fine sediment stirred up by dredging could travel 80 kilometers and reach the coral reef.
UNESCO is expected to discuss the port's planned 70 percent expansion and the reef's World Heritage status in June.
Massive coal exports planned
The Great Barrier Reef in its entirety covers an area larger than the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined.
GVK-Hancock and India's Adani Enterprises plan two terminals at Port Abbot and have longer term plans to export 120 million tons of coal annually.
ipj/mz (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)