The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s recent decision to allow 3 million cubic metres of dredge material to be disposed of 25 kilometres off Abbot Point in north Queensland has attracted passionate commentary around the world.
Millions of people from Australia and overseas have a fierce desire to protect one of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders. As the independent body managing the Great Barrier Reef for future generations, all of us at the Authority understand and share that desire: it’s what makes us want to come to work every day.
But the debate about Abbot Point has been marked by considerable misinformation, including claims about “toxic sludge”, dumping coal on the reef and even mining the reef. Late last week, it was confirmed that our decision to allow the dredge disposal will be challenged in court.
So what’s true, and what’s not? I hope with this article, I can clear up some of those misunderstandings on behalf of the Authority, particularly about our role, the nature and scale of the dredge disposal activity, and its likely environmental impacts.
If you still have questions at the end of this article, I and others from our team at the Authority will be reading your comments below and we’ll do our best to reply to further questions on The Conversation.
A sizeable challenge
At 344,400 square kilometres, the Marine Park is roughly the same area as Japan or Italy.
Of this vast and richly diverse expanse, one-third is highly protected; some places are near pristine, while others are feeling the effects of centuries of human uses.
But rather than locking the entire area away, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s (GBRMPA) role — as set out under Australian law — is to protect the region’s ecosystem, while also ensuring it remains a multiple-use marine park open to sustainable use. This includes tourism, commercial fishing, shipping and other operations.
While there are five major ports in the region, to this day only 1% of the World Heritage Area is set aside for ports. Most of the region’s 12 ports existed long before the Marine Park was created in 1975, and nearly all fall inside the World Heritage Area, but outside the park itself.
Responding to “toxic” claims
Among the many claims made about the Abbot Point decision is the assertion that the “Reef will be dredged” and that “toxic sludge” will be dumped in marine waters.
Both of those claims are simply wrong, as are suggestions that coal waste will be unloaded into the Reef, that this natural wonder is about to be mined, or that Abbot Point is a new coal port.
The reality is that disposal of dredge material of this type in the Marine Park is not new. It has occurred off nearly all major regional centres along the reef’s coastline before now.
It is a highly regulated activity and does not allow material to be placed on coral, seagrass or sensitive marine environments.
The material itself in Abbot Bay is about 60% sand and 40% silt and clay, which is similar to what you would see if you dug up the site where the material is to be relocated.
In addition, testing by accredited laboratories shows the material is not toxic, and is therefore suitable for ocean disposal.
Limiting new port development
As Queensland’s population has grown over the past 150 years, so too have the size and number of ports along the Great Barrier Reef coastline.
We recognise the potential environmental risks posed at a local level by this growth, which is why we have strongly advocated limiting port development to existing major ports — such as Abbot Point — as opposed to developing new sites.
This will produce a far better outcome than a proliferation of many, albeit smaller, ports along the coastline. And that’s not just our view: it’s a view shared by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which oversees the Great Barrier Reef’s listing as one of Australia’s 19 World Heritage sites.
Given Abbot Point has been a major port for the past 30 years, our approval of the dredge disposal permit application from North Queensland Bulk Ports is entirely consistent with this position.
The added benefit of the port is its access to naturally deep waters, meaning it requires less capital dredging than other ports. It also has a much lower need for maintenance dredging.
What’s being done to protect the reef?
With this as our backdrop, we analysed the potential impacts and risks to the Great Barrier Reef from disposing dredge spoil off Abbot Point within the Marine Park.
In this case, we reached the conclusion that with 47 stringent conditions in place, it could be done in a way that makes us confident there will be no significant impact on the reef’s world heritage values.
These safeguards are designed specifically to ensure potential impacts are avoided, mitigated or offset, and to prevent harm to the environmental, cultural or heritage values associated with the nearby Holbourne Island fringing reef, Nares Rock, and the Catalina World War II wreck.
Our conditions are in addition to those already imposed by the federal government in prior approvals.
Is “dumping on the reef” allowed?
Again, just to clear up any confusion: the dredge material will not be “dumped on the reef”.
Instead, we are looking at an area within the Marine Park that is about 25 kilometres east-northeast of the port at Abbot Point, and about 40 kilometres from the nearest offshore reef.
When the dredge disposal occurs, the material will only be allowed to be placed in a defined 4 square kilometre site free of hard corals, seagrass beds and other sensitive habitats.
If oceanographic conditions such as tides, winds, waves and currents are likely to produce adverse impacts, the disposal will not be allowed to proceed.
As an added precaution, the activity can only happen between March and June, as this falls outside the coral spawning and seagrass growth periods. As the sand, silt and clay itself will be dredged in stages over three years, the annual disposal volume will be capped at 1.3 million cubic metres.
Compared with other sites in this region, it is much less than has been done in the past. For example, in 2006 there were 8.6 million cubic metres of similar sediments excavated and relocated in one year at Hay Point, near Mackay. Scientific monitoring showed no significant effects on the ecosystem.
The dredge disposal from Abbot Point will be a highly managed activity — and it will not, as some headlines have suggested, mean the Great Barrier Reef will become a sludge repository or that tonnes of mud will be dumped on coral reefs.
This is not Gladstone Harbour all over again
I have often heard during this debate that Abbot Point will become “another Gladstone”.
I can assure you that GBRMPA understands strongly the need to learn the lessons from past port developments, including ones like Gladstone that fall outside of the Marine Park. This is why the recommendations from an independent review into Gladstone Harbour have been factored into our conditions.
Much of the criticism of the development at Gladstone Harbour centred on monitoring and who was doing it. This is why one the most common questions we’ve heard at GBRMPA about Abbot Point is “Who is going to make sure this is all done properly?”
The answer is: there will be multiple layers of independent oversight. Indeed, past authors on The Conversation have used Townsville’s port as a good example of how local impacts can be managed safely through transparent, independent monitoring and reporting, and active on-site management.
This is why we will have a full-time staff member from GBRMPA located at the port to oversee and enforce compliance during dredge disposal operations. This supervisor has the power to stop, suspend or modify works to ensure conditions are met.
In addition, an independent technical advice panel and an independent management response group will be formed. Membership of both these bodies will need the approval of GBRMPA.
Importantly, the management response group will include expert scientists as well as representatives from the tourism and fishing industries, and conservation groups. Together, GBRMPA and those other independent scrutineers will be overseeing the disposal, and will have the final say — not North Queensland Bulk Ports, which operates Abbot Point, or the coal companies that use the port.
Water quality monitoring will take place in real-time to measure factors such as suspended solids, turbidity and light availability. This is in addition to a long-term water quality monitoring program that will run for five years — much longer than what is normally required.
It’s vital that there is utmost transparency and scrutiny of what happens. We believe that with our staff on the job, plus independent oversight that includes the community, it will be a highly transparent process.
What are limits of the Authority’s powers?
It is true to say that despite all these safeguards, placing dredge material on land rather than in the Marine Park remains our preferred choice, providing it does not mean transferring environmental impact to sensitive wetlands connected to the reef ecosystem.
Indeed, land-based disposal is an option that must always be examined under national dredging guidelines.
But we recognise onshore disposal is not always immediately practical. Some of the challenges include finding suitable land, the need for dredge settlement ponds and delivery pipelines, and potential impacts on surrounding environments.
Ultimately, what occurs on land is outside of GBRMPA’s jurisdiction. We do not make decisions about mines, railways and loading facilities, and have never had the power to compel a port authority to place dredged material onshore or to build an extension to existing jetties.
Nor do we have the ability to stop dredge disposal from occurring in port limits that fall inside the World Heritage Area, but outside of the Marine Park.
Our legislative powers simply enable us to approve or reject a permit application for an action in the Marine Park, or to approve it with conditions.
Based on the considerable scientific evidence before us, we approved the application for Abbot Point with conditions, on the basis that potential impacts from offshore disposal were manageable and that there would be no significant or lasting impacts on the reef’s world heritage values.
Improving protection for the reef
Our recent assessments show the dominant risks to the health of the reef are the effects of climate change, excess sediment and nutrient run-off (such as from widespread floods), outbreaks of coral-eating starfish, extreme weather, and some types of fishing.
Coastal development such as ports are assessed as significant but local in their effects. However, many small impacts can accumulate and we take the risks posed by local developments very seriously. Each proposal is assessed on its merits and an approval at Abbot Point does not mean the same action would be approved elsewhere.
It is GBRMPA’s strong view that the current situation where governments and agencies make decisions on individual parts of individual projects – in the absence of a larger strategic plan – needs to change.
Assessing development applications on a case-by-case basis creates unnecessary uncertainty for local communities as well as the ports sector. But it also heightens environmental risks. As a previous Conversation article explained, when we only consider development applications in isolation, we increase the danger of potential cumulative environmental impacts on the reef over a wide geographic area not being properly assessed.
This was highlighted in our strategic assessment and can be readily addressed through master planning of port infrastructure and operations, as proposed by the Australian Government’s National Ports Strategy 2011.
We support the intention of the Queensland Government’s draft Ports Strategy to keep future port development within existing designated port areas. However, the next step should be to incorporate consistent reef protection measures into the master plans for each port, as part of a much-needed strategy that considers cumulative impacts for the entire Great Barrier Reef region.
Russell Reichelt does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.