Coal projects, port expansion could permanently damage Great Barrier Reef: report

The Great Barrier Reef is at risk of permanent damage should huge coalmining and a port development in Queensland go ahead, scientists say in a new report.

"Industrializing the Great Barrier Reef coastline will cause further stress to what is already a fragile ecosystem," reads an executive summary of the report by the Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS). The report was drawn from five reef scientists from Australian universities and submitted to the United Nations.

In it, the scientists say that nine proposed mines in the Galilee Basin will produce coal that, at capacity, will emit 705 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, making the basin the seventh largest source of CO2 emissions in the world. Warming ocean waters said to be caused by climate change can cause corals to bleach and die. According to the report, in the last 27 years the Great Barrier Reef has lost over half of its coral cover.

“ACRS believe that a broad range of policies should be urgently put in place as quickly as possible to reduce Australia’s record high per capita carbon emissions to a much lower level,” the report states.

“Such policies are inconsistent with opening new fossil fuel industries like the mega coalmines of the Galilee Basin. Doing so would generate significant climate change that will permanently damage the outstanding universal value of the Great Barrier Reef.”

The society is therefore calling for a halt to Galilee Basin mines, including the A$6.9 billion Alpha coal project and the US$4.2 billion Kevin's Corner mine which, at a production capacity of 30 million tonnes of thermal coal annually, would be Australia's largest coal mine. Both mines are being developed by GVK-Hancock, an Indian-Australian consortium. ACRS is also urging the Queensland and federal governments to rethink a planned expansion of the Abbot Point port, where the coal would be loaded into coal carriers for export.

The expansion calls for the dredging of 5 million tonnes of seabed in order to facilitate increased shipping through the reef.

"Dredging for the Abbot Point expansion will have substantial negative impacts on surrounding seagrass, soft corals and other macroinvertebrates, as well as turtles, dugongs and other megafauna,” the scientists say, adding that a further impact of the expansion will be an increase in coal dust pollution over the Great Barrier Reef.

This time last year the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority approved a permit for the state-owned coal terminal operator to dump as much as 3 million cubic meters of dredged sediment inside the Great Barrier Reef, a 345,400 square-kilometre marine park along the country's eastern coast. However last October, Australia’s Queensland state government backed plans for dumping dredging waste from the expansion of coal export terminals at Abbot Point onshore, instead of near the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2013 more than 150 marine scientists from 33 institutions signed a letter warning Australian authorities of the mounting threats new coal ports and other industrial projects pose to the reef’s habitat.