UN, Scientists Alarmed Over Plan to Dump Dredged Mud In Great Barrier Reef

UN, Scientists Alarmed Over Plan to Dump Dredged Mud In Great Barrier Reef
Earth Island Journal
Abbot Point, Australia
UN, Scientists Alarmed Over Plan to Dump Dredged Mud In Great Barrier Reef

Australia’s coal port expansion project could place reef on UNESCO “World Heritage in Danger” list in 2015

After waffling about changing the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage Site status for the last two years, the United Nations recently let Australia off with a warning that the iconic reef could be added to the “World Heritage in Danger” list in 2015 if the country went ahead with a proposal to dump 3 million cubic meters of dredged spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

photo of a long pier on a coastline, wide sea and tropical clouds to the horizon

Photo © Tom Jefferson / GreenpeaceAbbot Point, surrounded by wetlands and coral reefs, is set to become the worlds largest coal port should the proposal to expand it go ahead.

At the UNESCO’s world heritage committee’s annual meeting in Doha in June, the committee said that Australia shouldn’t have approved the dumping “prior to having undertaken a comprehensive assessment of alternative and potentially less impacting development and disposal options.”

Most of the 46 sites in the current World Heritage in Danger list are in developing or war-torn countries, with Syria and Congo dominating the list.  Only a few sites, such as Florida’s Everglades National Park, are in developed nations. 

Australia has said in the past that the impact of the dredging would be offset by a series of programs to bolster the reef’s health, which would improve the water quality by 150 percent. But the UN world heritage committee says it hadn’t seen a clear proposal for how that would be achieved. Australia now says it will provide a long-term plan for how it will care for the reef before the UN committee meets again in 2015.

The Australian and Queensland governments have approved the dumping proposal as part of the massive expansion of the coal port Abbot Point, which is located near the reef – a decision that’s been met with protests from the public, environmentalists, and the World Heritage Body. Government officials say they’ve looked closely at the issue and cite the 47 safety stipulations attached to the approval of the dumping. The port, they say, will greatly increase Australia’s ability to export coal and will bring jobs to Queensland.

Environmentalists and 233 scientists disapprove of the plan, saying that the effects of the dredging are yet to be really studied and adding more stress to the already struggling reef is perilous to its health. A recent report by the Australian Marine Conservation Society, an environmental NGO, came out stating that the impacts of dredging and dumping are worse than previously thought. And just last week, a new ABC News investigative report found that the Australian government’s own marine research agency had serious concerns about how far dredge material could spread in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

In May, Deutsche Bank, one of the world’s leading investment banks, announced that it was not going to fund the Abbot Point expansion because of the controversy between the World Heritage Committee and the Australian government.  

The Australian government and the Great Barrier Reef’s defenders are locked in a battle between coral and coal, the result of which may very well dictate not just the future of this world treasure, but how society values nature in the face of potential greater economic gain from development.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living ecosystem on the planet, home to about 3,000 coral reefs, 600 islands, 300 coral cays, and about 150 inshore mangrove islands. At nearly 1,430 miles long, it can be seen from outer space. To put that in a more land-based perspective, the reef is equivalent to the size of the West Coast.

photo of a couple snorkeling over a coral reef in clear water from a boat, they are happy

Tropical North Queensland Tourism / Wikimedia Commons

The reef brings in $4 to $5 billion tourism dollars annually and provides about 69,000 jobs

Apart from acting as a barrier that provides the Australian coast protection from cyclones, the reef is also culturally significant to the Australian people. Economically, the reef brings in $4 to $5 billion tourism dollars annually and provides about 69,000 jobs. Australians and people from around the world flock the reef every year to marvel at one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

The Australian government has been tasked with protecting the reef, no easy feat with the effects of climate change bearing down. In 2009, Australia acknowledged that threats from climate change, which include ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and the invasive crown-of-thorns starfish (which feeds off nutrient runoff from agriculture), were real and alarming problems. In 2012, the Australian Institute of Marine Science reported that in the last 27 years the Great Barrier Reef had lost 50 percent of its coral.

But despite that warning, Australia’s new conservative government is pushing for heavy development in the coal industry, especially coal port developments near the fringes of the reef. That’s because the Great Barrier Reef happens to be positioned in a place where coal, Australia’s second largest export, can be loaded onto behemoth shipping vessels and exported to China and India.

UNESCO, which classified the reef as a World Heritage Site in 1981, has been threatening to change its mind about that prestigious designation in large part because of Australia’s plan to expand the Abbot Point coal port and dump dredged material into the reef.

“One thing that I’d be confident in saying is that the more boats that are using it, the more dredging that is taking place, the more dumping of slurry onto the reef, these are all new influences and I’d say they’re all detrimental to the longevity of the Great Barrier Reef,” says Michael Healy, director of sales and marketing at the Quicksilver Group, one of the largest tour companies on the reef. Healy has spent the last 20 years out on the reef both as a tourist and as an ambassador of the reef. He says, Australians take great pride in the natural wonder and feel obligated to protect it, which helps explain the great debate this issue has evoked.

Abbot Point – What’s the plan?

In April of 2011, an Indian company, Adani Enterprises, acquired a 99-year lease over Abbot Point’s T1 terminal from the Queensland government for $1.8 billion.

The port, located 25 kilometers north of the town of Bowen, was built in 1984 to export 10-12 million tons of coal annually. Abbot Point is in the middle of its second major transformation. In 2011, the 1.8 mile long existing terminal, known as T1, underwent a major expansion growing in capacity to support about 50 million tons per year of coal exports.

Currently, the port has proposals in the works to expand from one to four terminals, which would more than quadruple coal export capacity. If all of the terminals are built, Abbot Point will go from being the smallest coal port in Queensland just six years ago to the largest in the world.

Adani hopes to extract coal from the Galilee Basin, a huge resource of thermal coal in central Queensland that has largely been undeveloped its isolated location was earlier considered too cost-prohibitive to reach. In early May, the Queensland government signed off on a $16 billion coal development proposal by Adani in the Galilee Basin named the Carmichael Coal Mine. If approved by Environment Minister Greg Hunt, the mine is scheduled to produce up to 60 million tons of coal each year and includes a 117-mile rail line, which could make it the largest coalmine in Australia.

Coal has long been a staple of Australia’s economy. In 2011, coal was the country’s second leading export, nearly $46.8 billion in revenue representing 17.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Currently, the price of thermal coal has dropped about 50 percent from the height of the most recent boom and bust cycle, but investors and the government alike are betting on demand from China and India to make the costly infrastructure investments worthwhile.  To export coal from the Galilee, railways, water lines, and other infrastructure have to be put in. Coal ports like Abbot Point are built solely to export one product – coal.

However, Tim Buckley of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, says the coal industry is in a structural decline and that by the time these mines and ports are ready to export coal, the markets will have turned to other more clean, renewable energy sources. Investing in these huge projects, he argues, creates stranded assets, or assets that, in the wake of climate change, will not be viable.

“If the coal industry disappeared tomorrow you would pull the port down, you would actually rip the railway line up,” says Buckley, who is director of the Cleveland-based nonprofit’s energy resource studies, Australasia. “So to go and build $20 billion worth of infrastructure for an industry that's in structural decline, knowing that if the government is wrong they're building assets that will actually become liabilities within five or ten years, why would you do it?”

photo of a open-pit mine covering a large portion of a landscapephoto by Lock the Gate Alliance on FlickrThe Indian company Adani Enterprises hopes to extract coal from the Galilee Basin, a huge resource of
thermal coal in central Queensland.

The why, he says, is two-fold: The royalties the Queensland government receives from the coal industry –7 cents on every dollar – play a big role; and King Coal has an entrenched lobbying presence.

But in light of the growing protest over the expansion of Abbot Point, multiple financial institutions and mining companies that would provide support for the construction have been pulling out.

Mining company Anglo American withdrew its bid, following company Lend Lease, which let its partnership with Aurizon lapse in May.  Last year Deutsche Bank helped refinance the lease on the port, but their recent decision to not fund the expansion of Abbot Point has been seen as a mark of solidarity for the reef. In a statement, the company said it would not finance an expansion without the assurance of both the Australian government and UNESCO that dredging would not damage the Great Barrier Reef. "Since our guidance requires such a consensus as a minimum, we would not consider a financing request," the statement said.

What this means for the reef?

Much of the debate over Abbot Point has center around this idea of dredging and dumping sediment within the reef.

“One of the big things about dredging [is that it] can release a lot of sediment and sediment has a number of effects on corals,” says Craig Humphrey, manager of the Australia Institute of Science’s (AIMS) new National Sea Simulator, a research facility that allows scientists to control for conditions such as temperature, pH, and water quality, to better assess how those can impact coral and other coral reef organisms. For instance, he says, “it reduces light levels by just having the particles in the water so the light can't penetrate or those particles might settle onto the corals.”

Humprey says studying the effects of dredging is on the top of the research facility’s list. AIMS is hoping to develop experimental systems to try and answer some of the questions surrounding dredging. For example, in addition to learning more about the effects of sediments at greater depths, something that hasn’t been researched much; researchers also want to study the effects of dredging during coral spawning.

The majority of corals only reproduce once a year, and Humphrey says it may be that their research could provide some science to help clarify the debate and allow for those developing dredging programs to make better-educated decisions.

“It may be that coral spawning is the most sensitive point and so you modify your dredging activities around the broadcast spawning period,” he says. “It may be that outer corals can handle a level of sedimentation. We don't know. There have been some studies, but it's not particularly comprehensive as of yet. “

And the not knowing is basically UNESCO’s argument to list Australia's Great Barrier Reef as an endangered site

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