By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE Jan 31 Australia's Great Barrier Reef
watchdog gave the green light on Friday for millions of cubic
metres of dredged mud to be dumped near the fragile reef to
create the world's biggest coal port and possibly unlock $28
billion in coal projects.
The dumping permit clears the way for a major expansion of
the port of Abbot Point for two Indian firms and Australian
billionaire miner Gina Rinehart, who together have $16 billion
worth of coal projects in the untapped, inland Galilee Basin.
"This is a significant milestone in developing our Galilee
Basin coal projects, which represent the creation of over 20,000
direct and indirect jobs and over $40 billion in taxes and
royalties," said Darren Yeates, chief executive of GVK-Hancock,
a joint venture between India's GVK conglomerate and Rinehart's
Environmentalists, scientists and tour operators had fought
the plan to dump soil 25 km (15 miles) from the reef, which they
fear will harm delicate corals and seagrasses and potentially
double ship traffic through the World Heritage marine park.
"It's a really disappointing decision," said Selina Ward, a
marine biologist at the University of Queensland who was among
240 international scientists who urged the Great Barrier Reef
Marine Park Authority to refuse the permit.
"What we need to do is to stop putting pressure on the reef,
certainly not to be adding further stress to it by dumping 3
million tonnes of sediment on it."
If all the dredged material were dumped on land, the pile
would be bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The reef authority, an independent government agency charged
with protecting the reef, said the permit was approved as one
third of the marine park was designated high protection and
two-thirds allows other uses, such as dredging disposal as ports
have always been a part of the area.
Authority chairman Russell Reichelt said expanding Abbot
Point would require much less dredging than other options along
the reef, which covers an area larger than the United Kingdom,
the Netherlands and Switzerland combined.
"It's important to note the seafloor of the approved
disposal area consists of sand, silt and clay and does not
contain coral reefs or seagrass beds," Reichelt, said.
UNESCO CONCERNED OVER REEF
The permit to dump 3 million cubic metres of mud within the
marine park could place at risk the World Heritage-listing of
the Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia's top tourist
attractions generating an estimated $5.7 billion.
UNESCO, which awarded the reef its heritage listing, last
year postponed a decision to June 2014 on whether to put the
Great Barrier Reef on its "in danger" list or even cancel its
World Heritage listing. It is awaiting a report from the
national government on steps taken to address its concerns.
The permit allows North Queensland Bulk Ports Corp to dump
dredged material in the reef marine park to deepen Abbot Point
for two terminals planned by Adani Enterprises and
GVK-Hancock, which have long term plans to export 120 million
tonnes a year of coal all together.
North Queensland Bulk Ports Corp and Reichelt said the
permit approval should not raise alarm at UNESCO, particularly
as the reef authority on Friday urged the state and national
governments and industry to come up with a new sustainable ports
plan that would reduce the need for dredging along the reef.
"What I've called for today is exactly in line with what
they (UNESCO) would like to see put in place," Reichelt said.
The reef authority imposed strict conditions on the dumping
permit, including no environmental, cultural or heritage damage
to areas beyond 20 km (12 miles) from the disposal site, and
urged the ports corporation to consider other dump sites.
Even with the permit, it's unclear how soon the dredging
will go ahead, as Adani and GVK-Hancock's projects have been
delayed amid funding challenges in the face of sliding coal
prices and China's efforts to cut coal use to battle smog.