Queensland is having a hell of a time of it at the moment. From record-breaking temperatures that have decimated populations of local wildlife to rainstorms that caused a floodwater emergency crisis costing millions of dollars.
Instead of having rest, it now has to fight its own government after it approved plans to allow more than 1 million tons of industrial dredge from port maintenance to be dumped in the waters housing the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef, as the entire world knows, is already under enormous stress. Following record years of bleaching, the recent flooding added to its woes as runoff, including water carrying pesticides from agricultural lands, trickled into the sea. Scientists warned last week that if it reaches the reef it could cause irreparable damage, as the smothering sediment may block out the sunlight, preventing the algae that the coral depends on from photosynthesizing, causing more bleaching.
Just a week later and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has issued a permit allowing waste sludge to be dumped in these waters. Despite strict laws regarding dumping waste in the reef World Heritage marine park, the government is using a loophole in the law that means it doesn’t apply when the waste is residue from dredging during port maintenance.
This means over 1 million tons of sediment scooped up from the seafloor during maintenance at the nearby Hay Point Port – thought to be the world's largest coal export port, and thus an important economic source for Australia – can be legally dumped in the ocean.
"The last thing the reef needs is more sludge dumped on it, after being slammed by the floods recently," Larissa Waters, senator for Queensland, and member of the Greens Party, told the Guardian.
"One million tonnes of dumping dredged sludge into world heritage waters treats our reef like a rubbish tip."
The North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, which operates the Hay Point Port, issued a statement saying they had worked closely with the Queensland government, undertaking a peer-reviewed 3-year study to ensure the risks to the environment are low (though not non-existent).
“Our assessment reports have found the risks to protected areas including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and sensitive habitats are predominantly low with some temporary, short-term impacts to benthic [bottom-dwelling] habitat possible," it reads.
“Government policy needs to change to ban all offshore dumping, so GBRMPA is not allowed to permit the reef’s waters to be used as a cheaper alternative to treating the sludge and disposing of it safely onshore,” Waters responded.
The dredging is due to start in March and is set to last 40 days.