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Australian Dredging Threatens Great Barrier Reef and Wetlands

Nov 13, 2014 02:36 PM EST

Last September, conservationists were thrilled to see the Australian government rescind its plans to dump sediment from dredging into Great Barrier Reef waters. Now however, it has been revealed that four more dredging projects near the reef are still likely to occur, and sediment from these digs could still be dumped within the greater World Heritage Area.

The dredging in question is part of a consortium for port expansion along Australia's northeastern coast to help facilitate the export of coal, with a great majority of the work being done inside and near the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Dumping Plans

After environmental minister Greg Hunt and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority actually approved the dump of dredged sediment onto the reefs back in June, conservationist communities and ecological experts used public forums to attack the decision.

That's because a great deal of research indicates that excess sediment from dredging dumps can cloud the water, blocking sunlight and hampering tropical corals' natural ability to sieve the ocean for food.

"The Great Barrier Reef belongs not only to Australians but to the international community as well," Michele Kuruc, the senior vice president for marine conservation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said in a statement at the time. (Scroll to read on...)

The WWF and its partners called for improved protections of the reef, which would disallow plans like the dredging project to be drawn up in the first place.

"At a time when our oceans are under more stress than ever, we must protect marine resources, not put them in further jeopardy," added Kuruc. "Australia has a year to change its course of action and fulfill its obligation to safeguard this natural wonder."

Following a petition signed by more than 230 scientists, the Australian Port Authority finally rejected the dumping plan last September, prompting Hunt and the port expansion committee to plan for a land-based sediment dump.

But the Fight is Far From Over

Now it has been revealed that while this first muddy disaster for the reef was avoided, there are four more ports that will be doing dredging and dumping. And unlike with the first port, it remains unclear if the resulting sediment dumps will indeed be done on land.

That worries conservationists, who are wondering if all their hard work was for nothing. But minister Hunt assured the decadal World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia today that he will do what he can to ensure the reef remains untouched.

"All of those proposals for disposal in the marine park are gone," Hunt said, according to New Scientist. "Secondly, in terms of future, we will use the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Act... to put in place this ban in legislative form." (Scroll to read on...)

"We congratulate Mr. Hunt for continued progress on an issue that is of deep concern to the vast majority of Australians," WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O'Gorman said in a reactionary statement, expressing his pleasure that "it is no longer acceptable to simply use the Reef as a dump."

However, he was quick to point out that while this is progress, the fight is far from over.

"More than 80 percent of dumping since 2010 has occurred outside the Marine Park but within the World Heritage Area where it can easily drift onto coral and seagrass," he added, urging for a dumping ban for the entire World heritage Area that the reef park is a part of.

"Australians want strong laws to protect the entire World Heritage Area, not just the Marine Park."

But Where Would it Go?

Unfortunately, if the dredged sediment is banned from being dumped along the entire protected area, environmentalists will still have a problem on their hands.

Australia is a huge country, with plenty of open space, but moving dredged sediment is costly, meaning that the project will not likely move it too far from shore. Unless they want to dump salty mud on local residents' homes, that leaves planners with few options.

That's why officials are now trying to fast-track plans to dump the dredged sediment onto the Caley Valley Wetlands, where they supposedly will have the least ecological impact. That's because the wetlands are a natural sediment filter for the adjacent reef waters.

But organizations like Greenpeace aren't buying it.

"This is a beautiful place, alive with extraordinary bird life - some of which are already endangered," the Rainbow Warrior recently wrote. "Coal industry assertions that this wetland is not significant for migratory birds have been exposed as false by recent surveys that found more species there than ever before, including a nationally important population of the threatened Australian Painted snipe." (Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: Greenpeace]

The organization suggests that the Australian government actually wants to dump sediment here because the region is already a prime candidate for a new coal terminal as part of the expanded port's new rail loop.

Muddy Politics

Senator Larissa Waters, of the Greens political party, recently told the Sydney Morning Herald that this is one of the laziest choices the port expansion planners could have made, as it is barely up the road from where the dredging will occur.

"The [planners] realized that the community was not going to let them dump dredge spoil into the Great Barrier Reef so now they've moved on to the second dirtiest option and are closing their eyes to its environmental impacts," she said.

But minister Hunt and his colleagues are arguing that picking a safe spot on land to dump tons of mud from the seafloor without breaking the bank is a lot harder than it sounds.

"This will be a very rigorous process," a spokesman for Hunt told the Herald. "Australia has some of the most stringent environmental protection laws in the world and these proposals will be assessed thoroughly."

Interestingly, as if knowing that Australia's popularity with the nature-loving masses is waning, Australia's foreign minister Julie Bishop and minister Hunt announced today that they will be donating an additional $6 million towards The Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security.

This initiative supports small coral-based communities off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste - a fact that might aggravate environmentalists who think Hunt should have his sights set on more immediate waters.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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