Plans for five 'megaports' along Queensland coast threatens Great Barrier Reef

The controversial scheme is horrifying environmentalists and tour operators



Coal versus coral? For Queensland's ultra-conservative government, there's no contest. Never mind that the Great Barrier Reef is already in peril – the government has approved the development of five "megaports" along its coastline.

A 10-year port strategy, which will involve the seabed being dredged to create shipping lanes, and the dumping of waste in the reef's waters, is part of a plan to treble Australian coal exports by 2030, with much of the raw material coming from Queensland's massive coal fields.

While the state government claims the strategy – released earlier this month with little ceremony – will not harm the marine environment, scientists and conservation groups are horrified. The World Heritage-listed reef is already in such a dire state that Unesco has threatened to list it as "in danger" without radical remedial action.

Enlarging existing ports on the environmentally sensitive coastline into some of the world's biggest coal export facilities was probably not what the UN body's World Heritage Committee – which will discuss the Great Barrier Reef's health at its annual meeting in Doha, Qatar this week – had in mind.

Unesco has already expressed dismay at the federal government's decision to allow three million tons of dredge spoil to be dumped in the marine park during construction of new terminals at Abbot Point, north of the town of Bowen.

Those concerned by the latest plans, which will generate industrial activity on five sites, Abbot Point, Townsville, Mackay, Gladstone and Brisbane, include tourism operators, who fear they will hasten an already steep decline in water quality. They complain of water clouded by "plumes" of sediment, stirred up during dredging and able to travel large distances. "The visibility has been reduced considerably, so when we take people snorkelling and diving, they ask, 'How come the water's so dirty?'" says Al Grundy, whose tour company is based in the Whitsunday Islands.

Industry is only one of the pressures on the reef, a 344,400 square kilometre (133,000 square mile) mosaic of islands and coral cays recognised as among the world's natural wonders. Others include climate change – more frequent and intense storms, and warmer seas, which cause coral bleaching – as well as agricultural pollution and crown of thorns starfish, which prey on hard coral.

But larger ports and more shipping are the last thing the reef needs, say critics. "We don't deny there are serious existing environmental problems," says Felicity Wishart, director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society's reef campaign. "But these are new, emerging ones that will make matters worse."

As well as clouding the water, sediment deprives coral and seagrass of the light that they need in order to grow. An estimated 180 hectares (0.7 square miles) of seagrass beds – the main diet of endangered dugongs (sea cows) and turtles – will be lost as a result of Abbot Point's expansion.

The Queensland government insists that, by confining future port development to existing facilities, it is following Unesco's advice on protecting the reef, 2,300 kilometres (1,430 miles) long. But opponents say the strategy amounts to "business as usual", and note that the areas in which expansion will be permitted have not yet even been defined.

And while the government claims no dumping will be carried out within 40 kilometres (25 miles) of any coral, Al Grundy says that one of his dive sites – Holbourne Island, extolled on a government website as "a major nesting area for turtles and birds … [with] fringing reef and secluded beaches" – is only eight kilometres, or five miles, away.

The dumping of waste material in the reef's waters is being challenged in court by the tourism industry and environmental groups. So controversial is the Abbot Point expansion, in particular, that two international banks – Deutsche Bank and HSBC – have ruled out financing it.

Mr Grundy says that the tourism industry is not anti-development, but advocates a pause while scientists try to establish the reasons for water quality deterioration. He also questions why the spoil can't be dumped on land, or further out to sea – both more expensive options, but posing less of a threat to the reef, which has lost half of its coral in the past 27 years.

"The reef is already in a poor state of health, and declining, because of all the activities we've been up to for the last 200 years, so we have to try to halt and reverse that. This is not only our livelihood. We're the custodians of this amazing reef, and we need to do everything we can to ensure its survival."

Notwithstanding the ambitious export plans, some are questioning the coal industry's growth projections and the need for port expansion, noting that existing facilities are operating at only 65 per cent capacity.

Larissa Waters, a Queensland Senator and environment spokesperson for the Australian Greens, says of the port strategy: "It won't apply to any of the damaging dredging already applied for [and approved] … This is atrocious news for the Great Barrier Reef."

A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home