Legal action over dumping in barrier reef park
Two lawsuits have been launched against planned dredging and dumping in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) as part of a coal port expansion. The Mackay Conservation Group (MCG) lodged papers in March alleging that Australian Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt violated his international obligations in December 2013 by allowing the Abbot Point expansion within the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. “We have concerns about the ecological impacts, from destruction of sea-grass and issues with water quality, to what it will mean for inshore reefs and increased impacts on megafauna from more shipping”, says MCG's Ellen Roberts (Mackay, Australia). “The World Heritage Committee has already expressed concern about the number of proposed port developments. This is a system already under stress, nobody would deny it, and we are adding another stress.”
This follows the North Queensland Conservation Council's legal action in February, challenging the science behind the GBRMP Authority's decision to permit dumping of dredged material or “spoil”. Five million metric tons of sediment dredged at Abbot Point will be dumped underwater at a site consisting of silt and sand. But the Authority's environmental assessment unit warned of the potential for long-term, irreversible harm to nearby sea-grass meadows and coral reefs due to muddy plumes.
Russell Reichelt, the head of the GBRMP Authority (Townsville, Australia), argues that the assessment was conducted before the minister imposed stringent conditions, including no dumping during coral spawning and seagrass growing periods, or when currents could push plumes toward sensitive habitats. Reichelt claims the Authority understands the need to “learn the lessons” from past developments, including Gladstone, Australia's biggest dredging project. Approved in 2010, Gladstone coincided with mass deaths among marine fauna and is now the subject of a federal inquiry.
Jon Brodie, chief scientist at the Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research (Townsville), doesn't trust the reassurances when Gladstone also had strict conditions and when other options exist for Abbot Point, such as constructing longer jetties or dumping spoil on land. “Instead they chose the option that ensures the most damage to the reef.”