More than 70 years after the bombs dropped in the Batttle of the Coral Sea, a new battle is being fought over the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a war of words between environmentalists, independent scientists, rival governments and developers. But it’s not sexy enough to win a blitzkrieg in the mainstream media, which runs hot with issues such as sex appeal and shaving cuts.

Greens leader Senator Christine Milne has announced a three-year $176 million plan that involves “no more port development, no more dumping of port sludge onto the reef”. But so far the issue has slipped below the radar of the major parties. Many billions of dollars in existing and proposed mining and port developments in central and north Queensland are at stake, with the United Nations’ international scientific body UNESCO poised to declare the reef’s World Heritage Area at risk unless it can be convinced otherwise.

The Great Barrier Reef is a world icon that raises about $6 billion annually in tourism dollars and supports thousands of jobs, but cash-strapped governments at federal and state level are putting that in the balance against expanding coal and gas exports. There have been some significant skirmishes during the past week.

Freshly installed federal Environment Minister Mark Butler delayed approval for the construction of the world’s biggest coal port at Abbot Point near Bowen in north Queensland until after the federal election, effectively defusing it as a major election issue. Butler said several new reports into the impact of dredging for the expanded coal-loading terminal would be released to the public before a decision was made.

[pullquote position=”right”]The project is vital for a massive expansion of coal exports from Queensland’s Galilee Basin[/pullquote], which would involve dredging and dumping 3 million tonnes of silt in the Great Barrier Reef marine park. This has been strongly opposed by groups such as Greenpeace, Save the Reef and Australians for Animals, which welcome the delay but call for the reef dumping to be abandoned in the light of environmental impacts from a much bigger dredging project at Gladstone to the south.

A group of “Save the Reef” walkers arrived at Gladstone last Thursday after a 1200-kilometre trek from Cairns, led by 72-year-old great-grandmother June Norman. She sees the battle for the reef as part of an ongoing commitment to fight for a better future for the next generation. “We know the reef has many challenges, but those don’t outweigh the huge damage that dredging will do. We’ve lost half the coral, more developments are too much, too quickly for a reef already under pressure,” she told Crikey.

Last year she led another trek following the 520-kilometre natural gas pipeline from the Surat Basin gasfields to Gladstone during a hot summer in time to meet visiting UNESCO delegates Dr Fanny Douvere and Dr Tim Badman, who later wrote a scathing report on the scope and potential combined impacts of  resource developments.

UNESCO called for an independent investigation, and a scientific review panel has finally just released an interim report for the federal government, originally due by June 30. This focuses on Gladstone Harbour, home to more than $70 billion in developments, including three liquefied natural gas plants on Curtis Island, a fourth in final planning stages and a major coal export terminal expansion on neighbouring Wiggins Island.

It is also the scene of a massive 46 million-cubic-metre dredging program, the largest in the southern hemisphere. A disease issue affecting fish, turtles, dolphin and other marine life first became apparent in 2011, several months after access dredging started around Curtis Island. Previous studies by state government departments have blamed flooding, but a report by independent aquatic disease expert Dr Matt Landos linked it to dredging.

A scientific review commissioned by the former Bligh government failed to confirm or clear dredging as the primary cause, and the latest federal review has also raised more questions. The review panel suggested further studies were necessary, there were multiple stressors involved, but flooding was the most likely cause:

“It appears from the evidence available that compliance and enforcement is being managed in an appropriate way, relative to the environmental risks of non-compliance.

“There has been variable consideration of world heritage and environment matters in the state and port strategic planning processes for the Port of Gladstone. When these matters were considered, there was inadequate avoidance or mitigation of impacts to world heritage values.”

The review recommended the federal government should:

  • Reaffirm its position against mining exploration and exploitation within the reef’s World Heritage Area;
  • Implement an effective information management system for sea dumping permits and subject the information to the same level of transparency as assessments under the Environment Protection and Biodiversitry Conservation Act; and
  • Build on the offsets policy launched in October 2012 and establish a list of appropriate offsets for the World Heritage Area.

Environmentalists have been quick to attack the report. Save the Reef spokesman Dr Andrew Jeremijenko drew a cricket analogy: “The way I see it this is a bit like the third umpire decision. Gladstone Ports Corporation has hit the ball with a thick edge, and they have been caught out. The umpire somehow missed it, but all the players on the field know that he did it.  The public also know he was caught out. It has gone to the third umpire, and they have had a look at the evidence, and said he is not out. Everyone is outraged by the decision.”

[pullquote position=”right”]President of the Gladstone Conservation Council Jan Arens claims there has been “a cover-up” in relation to dredging[/pullquote], with authorities refusing to hand over water quality data as required under environmental conditions. He says an average of one turtle a week had been washing up dead on a Curtis Island beach over the past 10 weeks, and it’s “untenable” to blame the floods.

“Blood analyses of over 50 turtles have been shown to be unusually high in metals, pointing at recent high level exposure to contaminants in Gladstone Harbour. Turbidity and correlated metal levels have been statistically well above 2003-2004 averages,” he said.

He also refers to significant pH (acidity) variations, “two associated with fish kills”, and algal blooms caused by high nutrient loads similar to those causing crown of thorns population explosions which are “directly associated with dredge spoil dumping”.

Ecological stress such as the red rash on almost every species of fish in the harbour remains unexplained, but the Ports Corporation denies any possible link with dredging activities, Arens says.

The port’s outgoing CEO, Leo Zussino, says the dredging project has successfully met all of its environmental conditions. “We commit to the Gladstone community to continue to take every action to mitigate our impacts on the environs of Gladstone Harbour whilst developing a world class commercial harbour,” he said.

Zussino’s contract was not renewed by the Queensland government, and he is to be replaced by Craig Doyle next month. Meanwhile, the ultimate umpiring decision seems to rest with UNESCO.