A plan to dump three million cubic meters of sediment near Australia's Great Barrier Reef has been approved. The move will unlock billions in coal projects, but there are concerns about the effect on the reef.
Approved by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), the permit clears the way for a major expansion of the Abbot Point Port for a joint venture between one local and two Indian firms.
The dredging of the sediment will lift the Abbot Point facility's capacity by 70 percent, making it one of the world's biggest coal ports. But there has been criticism of the decision to dump the sediment within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, with the smothering of coral and sea grass one potential risk. Increased shipping traffic - bringing with it the chance of accidents, oil spills and collisions with delicate coral beds - is another concern for environmental groups.
"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 the international conservation group World Wildlife Fund. "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."
But the Marine Park Authority has defended the decision, pointing to strict conditions that include a water quality monitoring plan that is to stay 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," said Bruce Elliott, the general manager of the Authority.
GBRMPA chairman Russell Reichert added via a statement that it was "important to note the sea floor of the approved disposal area consists of sand, silt and clay and does not contain coral reefs or seagrass beds."
Australia's Environmental Minister Greg Hunt described the safeguards as "some of the strictest conditions in Australian history." Hunt approved the plan in December, but it was at that time unknown where the sediment would be dumped.
The reef's world heritage site listing is already under threat, with a 2012 report by UNESCO expressing concern about development along the reef, including ports. The reef already faces challenges from climate change, pollution and starfish outbreaks.
ph/pfd (AP, AFP, Reuters)