What Abbot Point Will Do To The Reef

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The Great Barrier Reef is by far Australia’s most treasured landmark. Our love of the reef transcends politics. Recent polling suggests over 90 per cent of Australians believe protecting it from environmental damage is important.

And why not? The reef is a delight, and is richly bio-diverse — home to dugongs and clownfish, whales and turtles, crocodiles and colourful corals. Many Australians dream of sharing the natural delights of the reef with their children or grandchildren — and many do.

It was these natural values that the World Heritage Commission recognised in 1981 when it inscribed the Great Barrier Reef region as a World Heritage area, in recognition of "superlative natural beauty above and below the water … containing some of the most spectacular scenery on earth."

Sadly, however, the reef is not in good shape. Already threatened by agricultural runoff, crown of thorns starfish, climate change and a range of other threats, it faces a new — and entirely unnecessary — threat from a coalition of government and big business, which have targeted the World Heritage area for industrial development.

A string of super coal ports are planned for the reef, intended to service vast new inland coal mines from Gladstone to Cape York, with projects underway at Hay Point and Abbot Point and new terminals proposed at Wiggins Island, Raglan Creek, Balaclava Island, Dudgeon Point and Cape York. Cumulatively, these projects will have a huge impact. Indeed, they already are.

LNG facilities servicing coal seam gas developments have been gouged from World Heritage protected Curtis Island environments. The island itself is now scarred and hyper-industrialised, with deep shipping channels sliced into the ocean floor. Soon, and for the first time, massive LNG carriers — ships that are among the largest objects humans have ever created — will carry their volatile contents through the reef, risking spills of super-cooled natural gas.

Coal ships are huge and, like LNG carriers, getting them close to shore requires deep channels to be cut into the sea floor. Further, the sharp spike in Queensland coal mining is anticipated to increase the number of coal ships moving through the reef by up to four times, between 2012 and 2032.

These ships create pollution risks, introduce feral species and create greater risk of accidents — such as that experienced by the Shen Neng, which ran aground in 2009, destroying a 290,000 square metre section of the reef.

In addition to environmental damage, according to the Grattan Institute these projects will result in an estimated 200 per cent spike in the price of natural gas in the east coast gas market. Petroleum Corporation CEOs may be smiling, but the Australian community loses, as higher energy prices are coupled with the destruction and pollution of one of Australia’s most cherished natural environments.

Dredging is the issue that has gained the most public attention recently, because of a decision by Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt to approve a startlingly large port expansion at Abbot Point. If Abbot Point is enlarged as planned, it will become the world’s largest coal export terminal — and right at the doorstep to the Great Barrier Reef.

A huge coal export terminal will be built just metres from a turtle nesting ground, for instance. Plumes of silt will spread out through the environment during the initial dredging process, while longer term impacts will flow from habitat created by alterations in tidal patterns and water flow — such changes often have large-scale degrading impact on existing ecosystems.

In cases like Abbot Point, areas that have seen industrial activity in the past, pollution that has settled in sediment — heavy metals for instance — can re-enter the food-chain.

Of course, the damage inflicted spreads. Dredge sludge needs to be disposed of. If dumped at sea, the spoil creates plumes, with silt smothering delicate ecosystems.

The strange, inconsistent process that has led to this project’s approval highlights the power the resources sector has over decision makers with the responsibility of protecting the reef’s environmental values.

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s December approval required consideration of alternative dump sites to the one originally proposed, which lies well within the World Heritage protected Reef area. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) then approved the project — only for the project proponent (North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation) to identify an alternative dump site (also World Heritage, but anticipated to create less environmental damage).

Meanwhile GBRMPA chairman Russell Reichelt told radio he’d prefer it if dredge spoil wasn't dumped within park boundaries at all — but that his hands were tied and he was unable to protect the marine environment of the park.

Australians need to push back against the big businesses and governments that are combining to wreck the reef. The financial sums involved in some of these projects are huge — cumulatively, hundreds of billions of dollars. The pressure on regulators by companies and government decision makers to provide the "right" recommendations is intense. The language of "compromise" is used — which will mean a cherished environmental icon must be compromised to make way for roughshod resource extraction.

A couple of years ago at the company’s AGM I asked John Morschel, immediate past-Chair of ANZ, about the bank’s decision to lend money to projects that threaten the reef.

"We need to compromise" was his message. That’s not a message Australians should accept when it comes to their most cherished natural icon.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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