This is what our "Environment Minister" just did

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Feature Story - 23 December, 2013
Australia’s new Environment Minister Greg Hunt has recently approved massive construction projects that will have a major impact on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park while at the same time claiming to have taken a “significant step towards improving and protecting the Marine Park for future generations”.

Is it possible to simultaneously permit more fossil fuel export developments in this world heritage site as well as be its guardian? Given what’s at stake, this deserves a closer look.

What has Minister Hunt actually approved? At the Port of Abbot Point he signed off a coal terminal and three million cubic metres of dredging. Removing seabed from areas adjacent to the port’s existing coal terminal will create the deeper water required for up to six new coal ship berths.

Combined with the existing two berths this will enable ships to export 240 million tonnes of coal from Abbot Point per year, almost five times the current capacity of 50 million tonnes. If it goes ahead the port will be the largest coal export port in the world. So large in fact that if it existed today it would export more coal than every country in the world except two: Australia and Indonesia.

Low cost, maximum damage

In 2007, when opposing a dredging proposal for Port Philip Bay as the then Shadow Environment Minister, Greg Hunt wrote, “the main reason given for dumping this toxic sludge in the bay is that it would be too expensive to dump it in landfill. This is utterly unacceptable”.

At Abbot Point, according to the government’s own report, dredging can be reduced six-fold or prevented altogether if companies simply spend more building longer trestle jetties to move the berths to deeper water.

Sadly for the Reef, Minister Hunt has instead opted to dredge, then dump, the spoil in the World Heritage Area. Low cost, maximum damage.

Dumping on the reef

As eminent scientist Jon Brodie recently concluded, dredging for ports will swamp decades of reef protection. However, Minister Hunt stated that “conditions I have put in place for these projects will result in an improvement in water quality” by 150%, no less.

How can dumping millions of cubic metres of waste in the Reef be good for its water quality? In short, it can’t. Even Minister Hunt can’t sweep this kind of impact under the carpet.

Instead, he adopted conditions devised by the Queensland Government-owned dredging proponent, North Queensland Bulk Ports (NQBP) to simply buy their way to approval. NQBP will fund improvements to water quality in two rivers that flow into the reef to offset the water quality impact of the Abbot Point dredging. Rather like flowers after an affair, such an offset never undoes the damage in reality.

Sediment and nutrients from rivers are a real threat to the Reef but they are chemically different to dredge spoil. They enter the reef in different places, at different times and in different concentrations. So while reducing this is a good thing, doing so hardly balances out dumping dredge waste near to the Whitsundays. Surely, a true Reef guardian would stop the dredging and improve river water quality?

This is how it looked last time Abbot Point was dredged. If the expansion goes ahead, expect more of the same soon.

Capital dredging at Abbot Point (NQBP Supplementary Public Environment Report Part 2)
Capital dredging at Abbot Point (NQBP Supplementary Public Environment Report Part 2)

It’s the climate

Climate change and ocean acidification could result in the demise of the Reef this century. Most known deposits of coal must stay buried to prevent this. So, for the Reef’s protector to facilitate the world’s largest coal port seems perverse.

In practice, it’s legal. It’s even been tested in the courts a number of times. Australia’s environment laws are totally inadequate when it comes to managing climate change. The climate change impacts of burning exported coal are never a consideration when deciding to approve projects. So the Environment Minister can simply ignore the port’s greatest long term impact on the Reef and through cognitive dissonance claim he is “protecting the Marine Park for future generations”.       

The mess at Gladstone

During the recent hugely controversial dredging campaign at Gladstone, 21 million cubic metres of seabed was removed. The project had a massive impact on the harbour. Vast quantities of sediment were stirred up, multiple mass fish kills were blamed on the dredging and a breach of the bund wall containing land-dumped material resulted in a toxic algae bloom.

Much of this was designed to facilitate the three liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals already under construction on previously beautiful Curtis Island, facing the port of Gladstone. The 2010 approval of the terminals first raised alarm with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee which found that the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area was under threat from coastal developments.   

Last week, in the face of the potential listing of the Reef as World Heritage In Danger and on the same day as approving Abbot Point, the Environment Minister again thumbed his nose at UNESCO and green-lighted a fourth LNG terminal on Curtis Island. This included authorising another 1.4 million cubic metres of dredging, all within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

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after
Development of LNG terminals on Curtis Island caused alarm at UNESCO about the state of the reef

But what of the dredge spoil?

Minister Hunt recently trumpeted that a separate, larger Gladstone shipping channel duplication project would not be permitted to dump dredge spoil in the Reef.

While this announcement had the look and feel of environmental protection, in reality it will probably not impede any industry plans. The spoil didn’t have to be dumped in the marine park anyway. There is currently massive capacity in approved land creation projects at the port. Dredge spoil from both projects will most likely end up there. The public could be forgiven for reading this announcement as a choreographed prelude to the terrible recent approvals rather than the genuine actions of a protector.

Minister Hunt also promised “it is my intention that the first priority for all future capital dredging projects within the Central and North Queensland coastal zone will be for shoreline, near to shore or land reclamation disposal”. This falls short of Australia’s international commitments. Under the London Protocol Australia must give first priority to reducing the necessity of dumping at all. If this is not possible, reuse of material is the number one priority. Australia is obliged to consider dumping dredged material only as last resort.

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Dredging for an LNG terminal. Minister hunt has approved more of this.

Reef protector?

In 2007, while in Opposition, Mr Hunt wrote an impassioned plea to prevent the dredging of Port Phillip Bay, noting that “the damage to the peninsula's reputation for pristine beaches and sparkling waters may linger long after the physical effects of dredging have receded”.

As Environment Minister he has just paved the way for a near doubling of Queensland’s coal exports through the Reef, signed off on more coastal development and more dredging of both Abbot Point and Gladstone.

Minister Hunt clearly knows the impact his decisions will have, but has opted for sleight of hand rather than making the hard choices that will protect the Great Barrier Reef. Within three months he has already created a legacy which will far outlast his tenure in parliament.

By Greenpeace Australia Pacific Head of Research, Adam Walters

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