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Australia to dump dredged sand in Great Barrier Reef Park

Story highlights

  • Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority approves plan to dump millions of tons of dredge spoil
  • Waste material will come from the expansion of a coal port
  • Environmental groups decry decision

The Australian federal government has approved a plan to dump 3 million cubic meters of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Park. The dredged material will come from the proposed expansion of the coal port at Abbot Point, south of Townsville on the Queensland coast.

Final approval came from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and is subject to "strict conditions." The proposal, while controversial and opposed by environmental groups including Greenpeace, had already been approved by Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt last month.

Tony Abbott's government has come under fire for a raft of environmental decisions lately, including an election pledge to rescind expansion of Tasmania's World Heritage-listed forest reserve which has united environmental campaigners and the forestry industry, who see the plan as unworkable and damaging in the long term.

The reef is the largest living structure on the planet, and is a hugely diverse ecosystem stretching 2,300 kilometers along the Queensland coast. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is 345,000 square kilometers in size and home to thousands of species of coral, fish, molluscs, jellyfish, sharks and whales.

A statement released by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said the proposal was in line with directives to limit development of ports on the coast to existing facilities.

"As a deepwater port that has been in operation for nearly 30 years, Abbot Point is better placed than other ports along the Great Barrier Reef coastline to undertake expansion as the capital and maintenance dredging required will be significantly less than what would be required in other areas," said Dr Russell Reichelt, Authority Chairman.

"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."

The Authority's General Manager for Biodiversity, Conservation and Sustainable Use, Bruce Elliot echoes the statement, saying that the environmental safeguards -- 47 in total -- insisted upon by the Authority would protect the reef and seagrasses, along with the social and heritage uses of the marine park.

"By granting this permit application with rigorous safeguards, we believe we are able to provide certainty to both the community and the proponent while seeking to ensure transparent and best practice environmental management of the project," he said.

The plan has attracted widespread criticism and WWF Australia spokesman Richard Leck said the approval from the marine park authority marked a "sad day for the reef and anyone who cares about its future."

The Great Barrier Reef was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981 and environmental group Greenpeace warned that the move to allow dumping in the park may lead to that organization listing the site as "in danger" this year.

"This go-ahead for dumping is one more body blow for the Reef which further threatens marine life, its World Heritage status and Australia's tourism and fishing industries," Greenpeace Reef Campaigner Louise Matthiesson said on the group's website.

"Green lighting the reef's destruction makes a mockery of the Authority's charter which obliges it to protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the World Heritage Area."