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In 2012, environmentalists petitioned UNESCO to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from the terminal expansion project. Greenpeace warns that the dumping, along with the dredging and expansion of the coal port "will drive the greatest threat to the Reef which is climate change." (Photo: Greenpeace/Dean Sewell)

Dumping Plan Scrapped, But Coal Terminal's Threat to Great Barrier Reef Remains

News met with cautious approval as environmentalists warn that expanded export terminal still poses grave threat to both World Heritage site and planet

Lauren McCauley

After international outcry and fierce opposition from environmental groups, developers of Australia's Abbot Point coal terminal are reportedly scrapping plans to dump millions of tons of dredged sediment on the Great Barrier Reef.

According to the Australian Financial Review, the developers—North Queensland Bulk Ports, GVK Hancock and Adani Group—are expected to re-submit a proposal as early as this week to Australian environment minister Greg Hunt proposing alternative, on-land dumping sites. The paper reported Tuesday that the new proposal is "designed to neutralize controversy over potential damage to the reef and avoid a court case launched by the North Queensland Conservation Council."

Reports of the change were met with cautious approval.

"If the reports are true, the cheapest, most destructive option for expanding Abbot Point may have been taken off the table," said Adam Walters, Greenpeace head of research. However, he added that the continued threat from the coal industry expansion plans is still "urgent."

“The community’s pressure has forced industry to look more seriously at land-based options. And it has put a spotlight on the failure of government to put the Reef ahead of the interests of mining companies Adani and GVK," said Felicity Wishart, Great Barrier Reef campaign director for the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

In January, Hunt had approved the initial plan to dump up to three million cubic meters of mud and ocean sediment within the perimeter of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in order to deepen Abbot Point for two new export terminals planned by the multi-national coal companies.

Scientists had warned that the dumping would irreparably damage the reef's corals and seagrasses. However, environmentalists note that the expansion of the port coupled with the associated rise of coal exports and subsequent carbon pollution are still cause for concern.

"Expanding the port—with its associated dredging—will bring with it damaging dredge plumes, destruction of sea grass beds, impacts for wetlands, increased shipping and will drive the greatest threat to the Reef which is climate change," Walters continued. Scientists estimate that the expanded terminal could still double ship traffic through the World Heritage marine park.

Wishart further cautioned that the new land-based dumping site for the controversial dredged materials still "remains unknown," adding that “any dumping of dredge spoil in wetlands would only replace one environmental problem with another."

The groups are calling for the dredging project to be cancelled altogether.

Last week, federal MP George Christensen—who had initially backed the Abbot Point development plans which is located in his jurisdiction—published an open letter announcing his change of heart, crediting the widespread outcry to the dumping proposal.

"I didn't foresee the angst the dumping of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef marine park would cause tourism operators and residents of Whitsundays," he wrote, adding that he has started talks with North Queensland Bulk Ports (NQBP) and they have agreed to consider land-based options. "You've spoken—I've listened."

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