Dumping dredged material in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park will “place further pressure on an ecosystem under stress,” Australian Department of the 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 Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt on Wednesday found that “mitigation measures” were needed to offset the impact of dumping 3 million cubic meters 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 US$120 million and US$460 million.
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 onto 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 six days or request more time.
Conservationists have strongly criticized 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,” WWF reef campaigner Richard Leck said.
“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,” Leck said.
“The minister claimed he has put the strictest conditions in history on this project, but it’s strange there is no detail on where 3 million cubic meters 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,” he added. 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 said. “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 modeling and looking at actual outcomes, so we’re pretty sure about this. Our experience speaks louder than anything,” she added.
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.