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Great Barrier Reef Facing 'Unprecedented' Threat from Coal Expansion

Report slams Australian government for poor stewardship of the World Heritage site

Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland (Photo: Robert Linsdell/ Creative Commons/ Flickr)

Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland (Photo: Robert Linsdell/ Creative Commons/ Flickr)

The Great Barrier Reef is facing "unprecedented industrial development," and the damage wrought by seabed dredging as a result coal industry expansion has been significantly downplayed by the state government and mining industry, a conservation watchdog charged in a new report issued Wednesday.

“The state government is both the owner and the overseer of these dredging projects, which means that it is essentially checking its own homework and giving itself top marks," said Felicity Wishart, campaign director for the Australian Marine Conservation Society which authored the report.

To accommodate the expansion of coal export terminals along the coastline of the UNESCO World Heritage site, an average of nearly one million cubic meters of underwater soil has been dug up within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park each year for the past ten years.

Despite claims by the Australian government that this dredging has not inflicted any damage on the reef, the reportDredging, Dumping and the Great Barrier Reef (pdf)found a "deeply troubling" lack of monitoring of coral health. Further, the group uncovered coral "covered with lesions," that were not reported.

“In the monitoring report, corals with dead patches were grouped together with coral that had no damage at all, obscuring the fact that these corals were damaged," said Wishart.

Coral scientist Dr. Selina Ward added that some corals had up to 60% coverage by sediment, which she said "would have been damaging."

“How did they cope into the future?" Ward asked of the coral. "We don’t know because the monitoring stopped six months after the dredging."

The report highlights the untold harms to the underwater ecosystem caused by digging up undersea soil. Clouds of sediment called 'dredge plumes' block sunlight, hindering the growth of seagrass and coral. Also, the stirring up of pollutants buried in the sea floor can be "toxic to marine life," the authors note.

If the state proceeds with further expansion proposals, there could be a 3000% increase in the dumping of "dredge spoil" in the park, or a total of 83 million cubic meters of dredging in the Reef's waters. "The industrialization of the Reef’s coast through expanded ports will continue to cause environmental damage to the Reef if it goes ahead,” added Wishart.

The report follows threats made last week by UNESCO to re-list the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as a World Heritage in Danger site due to the "range of significant threats affecting the property and the conflicting information about the effectiveness of recent decisions and draft policies" in the protection of the property, saying that the organization has "significant concern" over the long-term deterioration of the site's Outstanding Universal Value.


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