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Australia Will Dump Tons of Mud on the Great Barrier Reef to Expand Coal Mining

Talk about an environmental calamity.
January 31, 2014, 9:35pm
Image: Flickr/Paul Toogood

Here’s a catastrophic environmental doubly-whammy out of Australia today: The government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has voted to allow a massive sand-dredging project that will dump tons of sand on the world's most endangered reef to move forward. Adding insult to injury, it’s all so the country can greatly expand its coal production.

The plan calls for dredging 3 million cubic meters of mud from North Queensland’s Abbot Point coal port, the spoils of which will be dumped within the confines of the park. According to the authority, the project will be undertaken with 47 “rigorous safeguards,” some of which include limits on the amount of dredge spoil that can be dumped at any time and calendar year restrictions.


In a statement, Russell Reichelt, chairman of the marine park authority, said that the area where the dumping will occur is the best they could find.

“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,” he said.

Of course, it’s impossible to dig up that much of the seafloor and deposit it elsewhere without major impacts. It changes the makeup of the seafloor environment, even at its best. Throw it into an already injured and fragile ecosystem, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Previous studies have shown that dredging increases the turbidity of the ocean, decreases dissolved oxygen levels, and can directly injure fish and other sea life.

That’s not good for a reef that has already declined by 50 percent over the last 30 years and has been fighting against ocean acidification, climate change, coral bleaching, and, yes, an accidental bombing from the US Navy.

All of this is being done in the name of the coal industry. The plan is to make the relatively small Abbot Point port the largest coal port in the world, meaning there will be a huge increase in tankers and other ships passing near the reef. Greenpeace estimates that the number of ships passing through the reef will increase fivefold, from 1,700 a year now to 10,150 by 2020.

So, for all the talk about saving the reef, even pouring $200 million into fixing it, the World Wildlife Fund’s Richard Leck probably said it best earlier this week: “We’re going backwards on the Reef—that’s the sad truth.”