Legal challenge launched to protect Great Barrier Reef from dredge dumping

FeatureReef-DecPhoto © Darren Jew / Greenpeace

Lawyers for the North Queensland Conservation Council have filed an application to challenge the decision to allow the dumping of three million cubic metres of dredge spoil in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef marine park.

The application was filed in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in Brisbane under the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981 by lawyers from the Environmental Defenders Office Queensland, acting for the NQCC.

Despite massive opposition, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) decided on January 31 to issue a permit for the dumping of dredge spoil about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Abbot Point.

The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Area, and is of huge environmental importance. Scientists have already expressed concern about the health of the reef and there was worldwide outrage when the dumping permit was granted.

“It is a shame that it came to this”, said NQCC coordinator Wendy Tubman, “but we believed that the decision could not go unchallenged.

Greenpeace Australia Pacific said it applauded the NQCC “and the thousands of people from around Australia and the world who have donated to a legal fighting fund to make the challenge possible”.

In its submission, the NQCC includes the following reasons for its application:

  • the decision was not made in accordance with the 1996 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter, 1972;
  • inadequate attention was paid to opportunities to avoid sea dumping in favour of environmentally preferable alternatives; and
  • pollution impacts from the proposed sea dumping were not adequately assessed.

The dumping permit was accorded to the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, which wants to make the port of Abbot Point, between Bowen and Townsville, the biggest coal export facility in the world.

The campaigning organisations GetUp and Fight for the Reef have raised funds to help the NQCC finance its legal challenge.

Reef condition already in decline

“We are proud to be leading this fight on behalf of so many who share with us well-founded concern about the impact of the dumping on the precious world heritage listed Great Barrier Reef,” Tubman said.

“Only last year, the GBRMPA and the federal and state governments determined that the condition of the inshore Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area south of Cooktown is ‘poor and declining’.

“This decision to allow the dumping of dredge spoil is shocking and bewildering.”

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Greenpeace’s Queensland campaigner Louise Matthiesson said the legal challenge showed that people would not stand by and watch while the dredging and dumping operation damaged the value of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

“In order to export coal from planned new mega-mines in the Galilee Basin, Indian coal giants Adani and GVK must build new coal terminals at Abbot Point and dredge three million cubic metres of seabed, with the dredge spoil dumped in the ocean within the reef marine park.

“These projects will have destructive effects from pit-to-port – draining water supplies, clearing native bushland, spreading toxic coal dust, damaging the Great Barrier Reef and resulting in more greenhouse gas emissions than in many small countries.”

The World Heritage Committee would be meeting in Qatar in June to consider a possible “in-danger” listing for the Great Barrier Reef, and this would add to their concern about the Australian government’s failure to enforce adequate safeguards to protect the natural icon, Matthiesson said.

“This court challenge is another nail in the coffin for Adani and GVK’s Galilee Basin projects, which are already unfinancial, given the low world coal price.”

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The marine park authority’s decision to grant the permit came just as the Australian government was submitting a report to UNESCO saying that there had been a serious decline in hard coral cover in the southern two-thirds of the reef area.

NQCC’s Abbot Point campaigner Jeremy Tager said: “As far back as 2009, the GBRMPA was warning that pressures on the reef must be removed if the world heritage icon is to have a chance of surviving climate change.

“Not only does this dumping permit add pressure, it is being done so that vast quantities of coal, which itself exacerbates climate change, can be exported through the reef.

“We will be presenting, on behalf of the community, the very best case we can so that the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is less likely to be given an ‘in danger’ listing by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO, and will be around to delight future generations.”

After the dumping decision was taken, the Australian Marine Conservation Society said the confidence which Australians and the international community had placed in the GBRMPA had been badly shaken.

 Global opposition

The Great Barrier Reef campaign director for the conservation society, Felicity Wishart, said that thousands of people from Australia and around the world had contacted the authority in the lead up to the Abbot Point dumping permit decision, calling on it not to permit the dumping of dredge spoil in the marine park, “but sadly their voices went unheeded”.

It was the role of the GBRMPA to protect, conserve, and manage the reef, Wishart said. It was an international icon that supported an AUD 6 billion tourism industry.

“All those who sit on the board of this important organisation should be focused on the one job of protecting the reef. The reef should come first. The community needs to know that this is the absolute priority for those who are charged with looking after it.”

Polls showed that Australians wanted to see dumping of dredge spoil completely banned in the world heritage waters of the reef, Wishart said. “Across the board, people expect them to defend the Reef, not approve its destruction.”

Construction company pull-out

In a major move this week, the construction company Lend Lease announced that it was withdrawing its involvement in any future port development at Abbot Point.

“Lend Lease have made the right decision,” Wishart said. “No company should want to be connected with damaging a World Heritage Area. We are relieved that they have seen sense and decided to pull out. Most Australians will welcome the move.

“No one should be industrialising the reef’s coast just 50 kilometres from the Whitsundays. People from around the world are very worried about the world’s biggest coal port being built inside one of the world’s seven greatest natural wonders.”

Australians had spoken up powerfully against the decisions of the Queensland and Australian governments to allow port expansion at Abbot Point, Wishart said.

“We call on all other companies considering participating in the biggest, fastest, and most widespread industrialisation of the reef’s coast to reconsider their plans. Lend Lease’s decision is an incredibly good sign for the reef – but there’s still so much more to fight for.”

Lend Lease let its planned joint bid to build and finance the Abbot Point coal terminal lapse after an internal review.

Aurizon, the other company involved in the joint bid, is reportedly continuing its dialogue with the government about the Abbot Point expansion project.

Youth action

The Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) is one of the driving forces in the campaign against the coal port expansion.

“AYCC members helped us launch an open letter and petition with 36 community groups and thousands of individual names,” said an AYCC spokesperson. “We made a splash at Lend Lease’s Annual General Meeting, and then followed up with actions at their head office over the summer.

“It’s time for us to celebrate Lend Lease’s announcement, and ensure that we use this opportunity to push all other companies to act to protect the Great Barrier Reef and our climate. We’ve still got a long way to go.”

The Australian Greens environment spokeswoman, Senator Larissa Waters, says the exit of Lend Lease raises doubts about the economic viability of the port expansion. “Companies are bailing on Abbot Point thick and fast. Lend Lease is just the latest, with BHP and Rio Tinto also getting out recently.

“With the coal price dropping and China opting for renewable energy instead, coal ports and coal mines are becoming as toxic to investors as they are to the reef itself. ”

Waters said that, with so many Australians voicing passionate opposition to the Abbot Point coal port, it should be clear to any company that involvement in the project would severely harm their reputation.

“If only the Abbott government would listen to the community’s outrage and wake up to the economic reality, instead of blocking their ears and pushing ahead to please the big mining companies,” she added.

On the day the permit was issued, WWF Great Barrier Reef Campaigner Richard Leck said the marine park authority and federal environment minister Greg Hunt had let down Australians and failed the reef.

“This is a sad day for the reef and anyone who cares about its future,” he added. “Mr Hunt failed to show leadership on this issue. He could have stopped the dumping of dredge spoil in reef waters, but, instead, he gave dumping the green light.

“That put the GBRMPA in the position of having to refuse or issue a dumping permit.

“The world heritage committee will take a dim view of this decision, which is in direct contravention of one of its recommendations. Committee members could decide at their June meeting in Doha to list the reef as ‘World Heritage in Danger’.”

The marine park authority defends its decision, saying “the seafloor of the approved disposal area consists of sand, silt and clay and does not contain coral reefs or seagrass beds”.

reef greenpeace GP0STO5TUDiving action of Greenpeace reef campaigners at Heron Island. The excursion to Heron Island was a fact-finding mission to a research station there as part of Greenpeace’s Save the Reef campaign.


© Dean Sewell / Greenpeace

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