Why we can't safely ship through the reef

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Feature Story - 30 October, 2012
If new coal ports are opened at Abbot Point near the Great Barrier Reef, ship accidents are likely to increase. Big Coal might not want to face the facts, but for the sake of the reef, we must.
Shen Neng 1© Marine Safety Queensland

It’s time to set the record straight on the threat posed to the Great Barrier Reef by shipping. The coal industry has always dismissed Greenpeace’s concern that increased coal shipping through the Great Barrier Reef carries an increased risk of serious accidents.

Last Wednesday the unlikely combination of an Australian Traffic Safety Bureau (ATSB) report and a study sponsored by three coal miners and a Queensland government owned port authority finally put the matter beyond all doubt. Shipping through the Great Barrier Reef is unsafe and coal companies are planning to dramatically increase it.

The industry study was conceived at a time when getting coal terminals approved was looking tough. The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) was concerned about Australia’s willingness to industrialise a listed World Heritage area and an international treasure by approving huge LNG terminals at Gladstone. Massive developments were proposed along the Great Barrier Reef coast and Environment Minster Tony Burke had already told the Prime Minister in 2010 that it would be difficult to approve these as their cumulative impacts if the "World Heritage and other environmental values" of the reef were to be protected.

In what has been a business-as-usual approach for resource companies in Australia, Hancock Coal, BHP Billiton, Adani and North Queensland Bulk Ports threw money at the problem. They commissioned consultants (including the ex-director of a section of the Federal Government’s Environment Department) to ease the passage of their projects through the planning process and to pave the way for government approval of a massive expansion of coal exports from the Port of Abbot Point (near Bowen).

The Cumulative Impact Assessment includes an industry projection (pdf) of the scale of coal shipping increases through the Great Barrier Reef. It predicts the number of coal ships visiting Abbot Point could increase ninefold in the next twenty years and that coal ships visiting Great Barrier Reef ports may increase by two and a half times by 2020 and increase further to over 6500 by 2032 (a fourfold increase on today). This is a massive increase in shipping.

There is no question that increasing the number of ships will compound the serious threat to the Reef that already exists. The grave danger shipping poses to the Reef is not something of the future — it’s present right now.

Over the last decade or so, shipping through the reef has slowly but steadily increased. Despite this, the official number of major accidents and near misses has not. This has been heralded by coal companies as evidence that massively increasing shipping will come with no real increased risk.

On the same day that the Cumulative Impact Assessment of Abbot Point was released, however, the ATSB investigation shattered the illusion that shipping through the Great Barrier Reef is well-managed and safe. A "key defence against a serious shipping incident" in parts of the Great Barrier Reef — compulsory pilotage — is riddled with systematic failures.

The ATSB investigation’s findings are shocking. Since July 1993, there have been five collisions and nine groundings during a coastal pilotage. "All of those incidents were mainly the result of the inadequate management of the pilotage or navigation and not due to extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of the pilot or crew."

It concluded that pilots are competing for work, get paid for speed rather than safety, don’t properly understand other reef safety systems and that their fatigue is not properly managed. Pilots reported that they believe they may be personally disadvantaged by reporting near-miss groundings and collisions to such an extent that nine out of every ten of these may be going unreported.

In light of this investigation it appears the relatively few ship groundings in recent years may be partially attributable to good luck. Pilots claim that high risk events such as collision near misses between piloted ships happen about once a month. If coal shipping expands according to industry’s forecast without action these incidents could be weekly by 2032.

Of course there will be action, pilotage will be improved but only so much can be done. As the grounding of the Shen Neng 1, whose chief officer was jailed last Friday, showed, humans will always make mistakes, machines will never be perfect. Navigating ships through the reef which are hundreds of metres long and weigh tens or hundreds of thousands of tonnes will always come with a risk. The question is whether Australia has an appetite for this to quadruple in the next two decades.

Take Action : Save the reef

This feature by Adam Walters, Investigations and Research Co-ordinator first appeared in New Matilda

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