Battle brewing over Great Barrier Reef

STEPHEN JOHNSON
Last updated 12:43 14/02/2014
Great Barrier Reef

INCREDIBLE: Australia's Great Barrier Reef is a wonder to behold.

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The world's biggest coral reef was once earmarked as an oil field.

It took intervention from Australia's then prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1973 to end Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his old Queensland Country Party's ambitions to allow drilling along the Great Barrier Reef.

Since then, both sides of federal politics have supported keeping in commonwealth hands decisions about port developments along that famous 1500km stretch of underwater beauty.

For environmentalists, however, the fight to protect a unique marine ecosystem is far from over, with political activists this week raising more than A$100,000 (NZ$110,000) in a bid to try and stop another round of economic development in the World Heritage-listed area.

Greens groups lost a battle last month after the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) controversially allowed three million cubic metres of dredge spoil to be dumped inside the marine park's boundaries.

The dredging will help expand Abbot Point, northwest of Bowen, into one of the world's biggest coal terminals.

It will also enable a consortium - between Indian mining company GVK and billionaire Gina Rinehart's Hancock group - to export 60 million tonnes a year of coal from Queensland's Galilee Basin, once a 500km rail line is built.

To make this happen, the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation sought permission to dredge sea bed near the port, and dump the spoil in an area 25km from the port, and 20km from the nearest coral reef.

Dumping the sludge out at sea is cheaper and more practical than dumping it on land, where it would oxidise.

The proposed dumping is on a sand bed.

But a group of scientists is concerned at the potential for sediment to spread towards and cover the coral reefs, causing irreversible damage.

The non-profit Environmental Defenders Office of Queensland (EDO) is planning to challenge the dumping decision in the Federal Court but are yet to secure a court date.

They are representing the North Queensland Conservation Council, with the legal case being funded by activist group GetUp!, which has raised A$130,000 (NZ$145k) from 16,000 people.

Jo-Anne Bragg, the EDO's principal solicitor in Queensland, is framing the upcoming legal fight as a battle between ordinary people and powerful corporate interests.

''Community groups, environmental groups just don't have the resources to do litigation whereas large corporations and government find it comparatively easy to get the resources to propose and assist development,'' she said.

But the ports corporation said they had conducted thorough, three-dimension modelling over two years to show sediment from the dumping would not damage the coral reef, and challenged concerned scientists opposed to the dumping to produce the evidence.

''Our experience and our science obviously has more rigour than theirs,'' the corporation's senior manager of public relations Mary Steele said.

''If they have this evidence, why didn't they not present this to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority?

''I'm suggesting, and you can quote me, that they have no evidence that actually can stand up to the rigours of science and the work that we've done.''

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The Australian Marine Conservation Society has said fine sediment could travel up to 80km.

GBRMPA chairman Russell Reichelt says three scientists employe  by the authority considered how far sediment could spread.

''The science behind that looked at where it was proposed and where it could go, and what would happen it you did it,'' he said.

''Would the clouds of sediment move away from the area? Would it  be moved by cyclones? How close it is to corals?''

He also says the authority was given a choice of yes or no to the disposal and determined the action ''wouldn't harm the Great Barrier Reef if it was done in a certain way''.

Justifying the decision to allow the dumping of dredge spoil, he argued the authority wasn't formed in 1975 to stop development.

''When we were established, it was accepted that society will want its ports and agricultural and mining industries to be able to operate, but in a way that doesn't damage the reef.''

- AAP

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