The Australian committee of the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) has warned of a tenfold increase in shipping on the Great Barrier Reef associated with existing and proposed port development projects. Much of it will be going through channels within a marine park far narrower than the English Channel.

When the IUCN arrives next week to inspect the liquefied natural gas development on Curtis Island in the World Heritage area, all the dredging in Gladstone will be suspended “for maintenance”.

The Gillard and Bligh governments appear determined to act as feisty developers rather than a responsible managers of the Great Barrier Reef. In doing so they are challenging the World Heritage body — testing its authority to maintain the reef as a World Heritage area. All this current and proposed mining development is supposedly “for the economy” — but it appears to be without regard to its massive potential impact on the existing Queensland and Australian economies that are dependent on a healthy reef.

According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the reef is worth more than $5 billion annually to the Australian economy. If the other Australian tourism it generates is considered it is worth far more.

The existing massive and diverse tourist industry — from the five-star island resorts to backpacker havens on Magnetic Island to luxury resorts at Port Douglas — is absolutely dependent on a healthy reef. It draws tourist from all over the world who then go beyond the reef and visit inland Queensland and the rest of Australia. Tourism is already suffering thanks to the high Australian dollar.

With a series of port developments planned for facilities to liquefy coal seam gas and for coal exports, the Greens have identified that this could  involve the disposal of 125 million cubic metres of dredge spoil. Then there is the unknown and unstudied amount from maintenance dredging, especially following cyclonic flood events that triggered the deaths of green turtles and dugongs, from 2008. A portion of this dredging will dig up long-buried contaminations already identified as being dispersed through the GBR.

The most contaminated sites are likely be the proposed port development for Townsville, near Magnetic Island, and the current and proposed development planned for Gladstone inshore from Heron and Keppel islands.

Now federal minister Tony Burke will allow the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to charge for dumping of dredge spoil and sediment at cheaper rates than using local tips at $15 per cubic metre. As Mackay’s Daily Mercury reports:

… according to federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, the GBRMPA is perfectly capable of making decisions to protect the reef regardless of how revenue is raised.

“Disposing of dredge material in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is absolutely a last option only and all proposals are subject to a rigorous environmental impact permit assessment process,” he said.

The government has asked the GBRMPA to consult on a proposed Environmental Management Charge for the disposal of dredge material. A GBRMPA spokesman said disposing of spoils in the marine park was permitted where there were no other feasible options and only if the material was non-toxic.

“A proponent must demonstrate all alternative options have been fully explored; for example, options of re-use or disposal on land,” the spokesman said. “All permit proposals are subject to rigorous assessment, including any impacts on seagrass, coral and marine animals.”

The revenue he refers to will likely be more than $1 billion if even little more than half of the dredge spoil is disposed of in the marine park.

Recent independent research, off Gladstone spoil grounds and in the port, is showing ongoing contamination of fish and crabs associated with dredging — long after cyclone-driven floods originally were blamed. It also reveals a dead turtle with seagrass still in its digestive tract — despite earlier claims by other scientists that all the green turtles were dying of starvation from a lack of seagrass. Even clean sediment will smother seagrass beds, the pastures that much of the Great Barrier Reef’s marine life and fisheries — its “economy” — relies on.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is also undertaking a strategic assessment of the future of GBR — but as Larissa Waters discovered, it excludes mining development in almost all of the catchments and any port development, including Gladstone. It certainly does not yet include the impact of using this World Heritage site as a dumping grounds for millions of tonnes of dredge spoil.

As Richard Kenchington, of the Australian committee of IUCN, said on the ABC’s AM this morning:

“It is not simply a matter of environment or development. We have to find a way … to address in an open consultative way this issue of environment and development.”

A good place for the strategic assessment to start would be banning the use of the Great Barrier Reef as a “tip” for cheap dredge spoil disposal, including all proposed development and agricultural projects in the reef’s catchments and the subsequent potential economic impact on existing businesses.

Peter Fray

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