Thursday 30 January 2014

The Great Barrier Reef

Is Australia Going to Kill the Great Barrier Reef on Friday?

Image via

29 January, 2014

The largest reef network in the world may be half dead, but Queensland, Australia needs jobs and Asia needs coal—and coal jobs trump everything. We’ll be reminded of this again on Friday, when the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority decide whether it’s appropriate to dump about 106 million cubic feet of dredged sand on the reef. This is part of a master plan to turn a smallish coal port named Abbot Point into the world’s largest, enabling it to single handedly process half of Queensland’s current coal output, which is also projected to be a third larger by 2030. With 64.6 percent (194.5 million tons) of Australia’s coal shipped out of Queensland in 2012, upping the state’s export capabilities is a priority, even though a bunch of mega-ports sit right next to the Great Barrier Reef. So do we dredge carefully, or do we dredge like we mean it?
Abbot Point is currently one of the smaller ports, about 15 miles north of Bowen and the most northerly in the state. It’s one of several lined up for expansion, but it was the first approved for dredging by Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt, back in December. There were a few ideas for disposing of the dredge spoil, including pumping it back to land, before it was decided that dropping it in the deep water amongst the reef was the way to go/cheap. Allegedly the sand will settle within 7-10 days and the coral won’t be affected, but the locals are up in arms, and according to Felicity Wishart from the Australian Marine Conservation Society, it's for good reason.
The problem is that the fine sediment forms a cloud which can then be carried long distances, and recent modeling by the marine park showed it travels much farther than previously thought. This then reduces the light, which is critical to coral survival. What we’re saying now is that we already have a reef that’s struggling, we just don’t need the added stress of dredging.”
In the eyes of business, the same conundrum can be said of the Queensland economy. According to the Chairman for the Bowen Business chamber, Bruce Hedditch, “regional centers need job opportunities. If we don’t support something like Abbott Point,” he reasons, “our future is in a cloud. It’s just like a tree. If the tree doesn’t grow, it dies. There hasn’t been any information put forward that says it’s been an absolute disaster somewhere else. That to me, means that the Great Barrier Reef and the area around Bowen will be protected.”
The problem is that there have been problems elsewhere, as Gladstone Harbour brought to light in 2011. After an alleged cost cutting exercise, a retaining wall leaked potentially acid sulphate soil into the harbour, clouding the water and causing a ban on fishing that lasted weeks. When pointed to this, Bruce countered that there’d be no such retaining wall at Abbot Point and that, “In any situation something could happen, but if you adopt that attitude nothing will ever be done. And right now every effort is being made to make sure that it doesn’t.”
According to Felicity, the issue there is more about permitting the start of a more worrying trend. “We’ve seen a lot of focus on Gladstone Harbour,” she explains, “but the fact that it’s only one of several proposals which add up to 40 million cubic meters of dumped sand in the reef’s waters. So really it’s about saying we saw the damage caused at Gladstone and now we’ve got more damage planned for Abbot Point, including a whole lot of other proposals at Bathurst Bay and Mackay. So it’s a combination of all this stuff we’re worried about.”
Flaming the dispute is the irrefutable evidence that the reef needs help. An Australian Institute of Marine Science report released in 2012 revealed that 50 percent of reef cover has disappeared since 1988, a scary revelation primarily attributed to fertilizer run-off and outbreaks of the Crown of Thorns star fish. Ironically, these stresses are coupled with coral bleaching, which occurs when sea water becomes even slightly warmer than the average high. As the world chugs toward a changed climate these temperatures become only more common, while shipping coal to power stations in Korea, Japan, and India only exacerbates the problem.
In the end it all comes down to a gamble. Economic return is definite, whereas environmental damage is only possible. Get more money, or don’t. And according to Hedditch, the choice is simple. “If we put our heads in the sand and cross Abbott Point out, we lose all these jobs. Don’t think it won’t go somewhere else. If these companies want coal they’ll go to other countries and buy it if Australia’s shooting itself in the foot. In India there are 400 million people without electricity. What right do we have to sit back and say no, you can’t have our coal?”
Follow Julian on Twitter: @MorgansJulian

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.