in the Great Barrier Reef region
The terms of reference for this inquiry require the committee to examine
the 'management of impacts of industrialisation of the Great Barrier Reef
coastline, including dredging, offshore dumping, and industrial shipping'.
This chapter therefore focuses on the management of industrialisation of the
Great Barrier Reef region, and in particular on issues relating to ports and
a general overview of the concerns about industrial development
including ports along the Great Barrier Reef;
an overview of existing ports and proposed expansions and new ports
in the Great Barrier Reef region, including the Queensland Ports Strategy; and
an examination of the impacts of ports and the associated
dredging and disposal of dredge spoil.
General overview of concerns
Many submitters and witnesses were concerned about 'unprecedented
growth' in industrial activities in the Great Barrier Reef region, particularly
port developments and the associated dredging and disposal of dredge spoil,
which they suggested would increase pressure on the reef.
For example, Mr Richard Leck of WWF-Australia told the committee that 'the pace
and scale of industrial development along the coast in the last few years is
unprecedented in the reef's history'.
Some submitters referred to a 'declaration by concerned scientists on
industrial development of the Great Barrier Reef coast', signed by over 140
scientists in June 2013. The statement expressed concern about:
...the additional pressures that will be exerted by expansion
of coastal ports and industrial development accompanied by a projected near-doubling
in shipping, major coastal reclamation works, large-scale seabed dredging and
dredge spoil disposal—all either immediately adjacent to, or within the Great
Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. We believe these activities will exacerbate
impacts upon an ecosystem already in decline.
The statement called upon the Queensland and Australian Governments to,
amongst other matters, restrict port developments to within existing major,
long‑established port areas until an agreed future coastal development
strategy for the entire Great Barrier Reef coastline is completed; require new
development to minimise its industrial footprint through efficient sharing of
infrastructure; and improve all aspects of the management of shipping through
the World Heritage Area to ensure maximum environmental protection.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg told the committee that the Great Barrier Reef
is 'now under serious threat due to the increasing and competing uses and the
cumulative impacts' of activities, including:
...dredging, offshore dumping of dredging spoils, and
international shipping, all of which further contribute to the problems that
Queensland is facing with respect to the health of its [Great Barrier Reef]...it
is absolutely vital that disturbances to catchments along the Queensland
coastline are being decreased as opposed to being increased.
He further suggested that recent port developments and expansions have
sent the wrong message to the world on the management of the reef:
They suddenly got a message that said that we were not really
the best marine park managers in the world and doing the best for the Great
Barrier Reef, that we were cutting corners...there is a real risk that we could
get to a point where the Great Barrier Reef is listed as World Heritage in
Professor Terry Hughes told the committee that 'if Australia does not
adequately address the issue of poor governance of ports and its energy policy,
I believe UNESCO will put the [Great] Barrier Reef on the endangered list'.
Response to concerns from ports and
related industry groups
In contrast, ports and related industry groups suggested that their
impact is relatively minor, that they are highly regulated and are strongly
committed to environmental sustainability.
For example, Ports Australia submitted that 'claims around the
environmental impacts of dredging and shipping in Queensland ports have been
exaggerated whereas scientific research has indicated that the impacts are at a
low or minimal level...port developments and shipping activities are not recognised
as the primary impacts upon the Reef'.
Mr Anderson from Ports Australia told the committee that port developments are
undertaken with a 'highly precautionary approach' and that:
...the science tells us that ports are not a significant
contributor to the damage to the reef such as it has occurred.
Mr Chris McCombe from the Minerals Council of Australia similarly told
the committee that:
...current debate on management of the Great Barrier Reef is
disproportionately focused on what are already highly regulated activities and
not the recognised major drivers of decline. Whilst it is entirely appropriate
that these activities are tightly managed and continually improved in line with
the science, it is important to ensure that government, industry and community
efforts are proportionally directed towards addressing the priority threats to
the outstanding universal value of the reef.
Ports Australia further submitted that:
...port development can and must be permitted to continue in an
environmentally responsible manner whilst ensuring that the Outstanding
Universal Value of the World Heritage Area is protected together with the
values of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Ports North similarly submitted that it strongly believes that 'port
operations and growth can continue whilst ensuring important environmental
values are protected'. It suggested that they 'have a long and successful
history of responsible, well managed operations near areas of high conservation
value', as well as a strong commitment to ensuring the 'long term capacity of
natural values in and surrounding port areas are appropriately conserved and
The Queensland Ports Association similarly emphasised that its members
'are strongly committed to environmental sustainability and ensuring that the
World Heritage values in and surrounding port areas are conserved and
Industry groups also emphasised that 'oil drilling, mining and
exploration' have been prohibited in the Great Barrier Reef region since the Great
Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 came into force.
Dr Russell Reichelt of GBRMPA noted that ports have had a lot of focus,
and told the committee that governments have endorsed the notion of 'fewer,
better managed ports is a better way'. He described the Queensland Ports
Strategy, which 'restricts the expansion of new ports' as 'a positive step'. He
further noted that there are opportunities to 'improve technologies and to
restrict the footprint of ports further'.
Ports in the Great Barrier Reef region
This section outlines the existing ports in the Great Barrier Reef region,
the proposed expansions, and the Queensland Ports Strategy. As the Outlook Report
Port activities in and adjacent to the Region are increasing
and there are proposals for further expansions, including new capital works and
continuing or increasing dredging in the coming decade. The direct and flow-on
effects of port activities generally occur in areas of the Region that are
already under pressure from an accumulation of impacts. Understanding of the
ecosystem effects of port activities, in particular the fate of dredge material
disposed at sea, is still incomplete but improving. While the effects of port
activities are significant, they are relatively more localised than the broadscale
impacts from land-based run-off.
The Outlook Report 2014 also states that:
The significantly elevated number of port development
proposals in the Region has accentuated concerns, both in Australia and
internationally, about the likely future impacts of ports and port activities
on the Region. Although some of the proposed port developments had the
potential to threaten the Region's ecological processes and integrity, it is
pertinent to recognise that to date port developments have not resulted in any
significant, widespread deterioration of the Region. Some localised effects are
recognised, for example at dredging and marine disposal sites.
Existing ports in the Great Barrier
There are currently 12 ports in or adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef region.
The Outlook Report 2014 states that Gladstone, Hay Point, Townsville and
Cairns are the busiest ports in relation to commercial vessel visits. In terms
of infrastructure and operational capacity, the largest ports are Abbot Point,
Gladstone, Hay Point and Townsville. The Gladstone, Abbot Point and Hay Point
ports are major hubs for the export of coal. Hay Point is one of the largest
coal export terminals in world.
Economic importance of ports and
shipping in the Great Barrier Reef region
Industry groups highlighted the importance and value of ports and
shipping in the Great Barrier Reef region. Ports Australia noted that
'Australia's seaborne trade is worth about 97% of our total trade in goods'.
Ports Australia further noted that Australia, as an island-trading
nation, is 'reliant on seaports for linkages to global markets' and identifies
shipping as 'the most environmentally efficient form of bulk transportation.
Ports Australia submitted that:
...Australia's shipping channels are key pieces of national
economic infrastructure and like our road and rail networks need to be
maintained and developed to support the competitiveness of our economy...a
substantial portion of Australia's GDP is generated by our seaborne trade with
direct implications for Australian industries and jobs.
Mr Michael Roche, Chief Executive of the Queensland Resources Council,
told the committee that exports worth around $40 billion per year are moved through
the ports along the Great Barrier Reef.
The Outlook Report 2014 notes that, for all Queensland ports
combined, coal makes up 63 per cent of the throughput volume, petroleum six per
cent, and metals and minerals five per cent. Other commodities include
agricultural products and general cargo. Ports in or adjacent to the Great
Barrier Reef Region account for 76 per cent of the total throughput for
all Queensland ports combined.
Queensland Ports Association similarly submitted that ports adjacent to
the Great Barrier Reef support the four key pillars of the Queensland economy:
the resources, agriculture, tourism and construction sectors. The Association emphasised
that ports in the Great Barrier Reef region:
...contribute significantly to the underlying economic
well-being and social infrastructure of Queensland by supporting thousands of
Shipping Australia also emphasised the importance of shipping routes
through the reef from an economic perspective, submitting that 'there is no
doubt that routine ship access to Queensland ports via the Great Barrier Reef
is crucial to Australia's economic future'.
Shipping Australia further submitted that:
Australia's economy is dependent on shipping to export vast
volumes of bulk cargo from ports located around Australia including the eastern
seaboard, which require vessels to transit the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and
Torres Strait. Unreasonable restrictions placed on shipping, which increase
cost and reduce reliability of the supply chain, will no doubt lead to overseas
consumers sourcing their products from other countries. This would be severely
damaging to Queensland's and Australia's economies and reduce the national
resources available to monitor and protect the Great Barrier Reef.
Shipping Australia submitted that the Great Barrier Reef 'is one of the
most closely managed marine areas in the world and already sets the example for
effective multi-use management of a particular sensitive sea area'.
Proposed port expansions
There has been a 'major growth in port activity' on the Great Barrier
Reef regions over the past two decades. Many of the existing 12 commercial
ports in the region have active proposals for port expansions, including, for
example, Cairns, Townsville, Hay Point and Gladstone.
In December 2013, the Minister for the Environment also approved four projects
at Abbot Point and the Port of Gladstone. These are outlined in further detail
in the next chapter.
However, Mr Anderson of Ports Australia told the committee that 'there
has been no explosion in port development'.
Mr Kaveney of Queensland Ports Association agreed that there is no 'rapid
expansion of port development'. The Queensland Resources Council further
advised that 'a large number of publicly announced projects do not proceed to
construction or completion': of 25 port-related projects referred under the
EPBC Act, only five have been approved, nine have been withdrawn and none have
Shipping Australia submitted its support for current and proposed port
developments in the Great Barrier Reef region and suggested that 'dredging and
offshore dumping are subject to very strict environmental conditions'.
Shipping Australia further submitted that:
...port areas should be excluded from the World Heritage Area
as their core purpose is industrial and inconsistent with absolute
conservation. That being said, their conservation achievements in concert with
recent developments have been commendable.
Port capacity issues
Some submissions queried the need to expand existing ports, arguing that
Queensland ports are operating at below capacity. For example, WWF-Australia
and AMCS submitted that 'it is crucial that there is an optimisation of
existing port capacity prior to further expansions'. They referred to reports
showing that 'existing coal ports are operating at 65 per cent of capacity'.
This issue was also identified in the GBRMPA Region Strategic Assessment
Report, which noted that the three major coal ports (Hay Point, Gladstone and
Abbot Point) operated at only 52 per cent of their combined capacity in 2011–12
and that 'the total capacity of planned infrastructure projects progressing
through the approval process exceeds the projected volumes of commodity exports
out to 2025'. At the same time, the report noted that 'a lower than expected
ability to make use of this capacity was identified as a key risk' and that 'further
capacity expansion may be required to compensate for the lack of consistent
In contrast, Mr Michael Roche of the Queensland Resources Council told
the committee that there is 'very little latent capacity' in Queensland Ports
'under the anticipated growth rates' and that 'our industry does not build Field
of Dreams ports. The ports are developed in anticipation of a need'. He
suggested that 'industry will make a judgement about whether and when further
expansions are required to meet demand'.
Mr Anderson from Ports Australia agreed that:
People are not going to make investments, and the private
sector certainly is not going to make investments, in increased port capacity
unless they have reasonable surety of contracts and supply.
Mr Kaveney from the Queensland Ports Association also explained that
'terminals never run at that 100 per cent' and that there are 'a range of other
factors that affect the ability to get product through the terminal, and that
includes supply chain issues and climate conditions'. He suggested that around
75 to 85 per cent of terminal capacity is what is achievable.
The Department of the Environment similarly advised that 'the actual
capacity of port infrastructure is dependent on many factors, including
maintenance shutdowns and adverse weather'.
Mr Anderson from Ports Australia further noted that the Queensland Ports
Strategy (discussed in further detail below) has 'generated a more rigorous
conversation about supply chains and the utilisation and efficiency of our
supply chains' and will create an 'impetus' to get the best out of our supply
New port proposals
The Australian and Queensland Governments submitted that:
Since 2011 no port developments or associated port
infrastructure projects have been approved outside the existing and
long-established major port areas within or adjoining the GBRWHA.
However, there are proposals for the development of new ports on
previously undeveloped sites at Wongai (in Cape York) and Fitzroy Terminal (in
the vicinity of Port Alma).
These are discussed briefly below. The company involved in a proposed
development at Balaclava Island (near Curtis island, Gladstone) announced its
withdrawal of the project in May 2013, citing, among other reasons, 'poor
current market conditions', 'excess port capacity in Queensland' and 'specific
The Fitzroy River Delta
is the delta and coastal floodplain of the Fitzroy River downstream of the
barrage in Rockhampton. It is listed as a nationally important wetland.
Ms Ginny Gerlach of the Keppel and Fitzroy Delta Alliance described the Fitzroy
Delta as a 'unique and sensitive estuarine habitat' that 'requires urgent, long‑term
protection and definitive regulation that it is not included in the priority
port development area of Gladstone'.
Mr Leck from WWF-Australia agreed that the Fitzroy Delta deserves listed protection
as an area of high conservation value.
Some submissions and witnesses expressed concern about that status of a
'transshipping' proposal in the Fitzroy River Delta region.
Under the proposed Fitzroy Terminal Project, a coal export facility would be
developed and operated at Port Alma. The coal would be transported onto export
vessels via covered barges and transshippers in open waters.
The committee heard that the proposal had lapsed under the Queensland process but
was still active under the EPBC Act process.
These submitters and witnesses expressed dismay that, despite GBRMPA's
advice, the proposal had 'unacceptable high risks and should not have been
referred', the proposed development has progressed to the stage of the
development of Environmental Impact Statement.
In answers to questions on notice, the Department of the Environment advised
that 'the proponent is currently preparing a draft EIS [Environmental impact
There was some discussion as to how the Fitzroy Delta will be treated
under the Queensland Ports Strategy (discussed further later in this chapter). For
example, Mr Leck of WWF‑Australia expressed concern that 'there is no
explicit protection or measures given for the Fitzroy Delta' under the ports
Ms Wishart of AMCS noted that this was despite the fact that the Queensland Government
'gave undertakings to UNESCO recently that it would protect the Fitzroy Delta
from such development in its ports strategy' and that it would not be part of a
'Priority Port Development Area' (PPDA) under the Queensland Ports Strategy.
However, representatives of the Queensland Government informed the committee
that 'the boundaries of PPDAs will be determined at a later date'. There was initially
no clear evidence as to whether Port Alma in the Fitzroy Delta would be
considered part of a PPDA or not. Representatives of the Queensland Government
told the committee that 'would be speculation', whereas a Commonwealth official
told the committee that 'you would not expect it to be' since 'Port Alma is
recognised as part of the port of Rockhampton'.
However, in response to written questions on this issue, the Queensland
Government confirmed that 'Port Alma, also known as the Port of Rockhampton,
will not be declared a PPDA'.
The Australian and Queensland Governments also submitted that the
Queensland Ports Strategy 'will not seek to retrospectively prohibit projects
that have been previously approved or proposals that have begun the environmental
assessment and approval process'. They noted that the Fitzroy Terminal proposal
has been referred to the Commonwealth under the EPBC Act, but had lapsed under
the Queensland process in 2014. They noted that only the proponent has the
ability to withdraw a proposal under EPBC Act assessment process, and 'to date
has not elected to do so'.
Cape Melville and Bathurst Bay
The committee notes that its terms of reference refer to current and
proposed developments in Cape Melville and Bathurst Bay. Cape Melville and
Bathurst Bay are north-west of Cooktown on Cape York. There is a proposal
currently undergoing assessment for the construction and operation of a new
underground coal mine called the 'Wongai Project'. The proposed mine will
extract 1.5 million tonnes of coal per annum, and also involves the transport
of coal 'via a covered conveyor transport systems to a barge loading facility
where it will be barged prior to loading onto ships for export to market'.
The Wongai Project is currently undergoing assessment under the EPBC
Act, the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971 (Qld)
and will also require a permit from GBRMPA under the GBRMP Act.
While the committee received little evidence on this project, it is
noted that the GBRMPA website states that:
The Bathurst Bay and Princess Charlotte Bay areas are
biologically significant areas for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the
Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. It is home to a number of threatened
and endangered species. It is also an area of significant cultural and
heritage values associated with the Flinders Island group.
Several submitters and witnesses referred to the Wongai Project in the
context of concerns about the development of Northern Australia (as discussed in
the previous chapter). WWF‑Australia and AMCS commented that:
The Far Northern Section of the Great Barrier Reef is in good
condition and the impacts from coastal development are very limited given the
relatively intact condition of the coastal environments and catchments. It is
important to maintain the integrity of this region by not allowing any new
development in the Far Northern Area, This includes port development, including
trans-shipping infrastructure in the Cape Melville and Bathurst Bay area.
Mr Josh Coates from CAFNEC told the committee that the Wongai Project
was of particular concern to CAFNEC, as it would 'involve transhipping of coal
in a particularly sensitive area of the Great Barrier Reef'.
Representatives of the Department of the Environment told the committee
that an approval decision under the EPBC Act could be considered likely in the
fourth quarter of 2015.
Queensland Ports Strategy
As noted in Chapter 2, the Queensland Government recently released the
Queensland Ports Strategy, which outlines the Queensland Government's framework
for port development over the next ten years. The strategy proposes a new Ports
Act, to prohibit dredging within and adjoining the Great Barrier Reef World
Heritage Area for the development of new, or the expansion of existing port
facilities outside 'Priority Port Development Areas' (PPDAs) at Gladstone, Hay
Point/Mackay, Abbot Point and Townsville, for the next ten years.
The Australian and Queensland Governments submitted that the Queensland
Ports Strategy 'reflects the Queensland Government's commitment to protect
pristine areas of the Great Barrier Reef from the impacts of port development'.
However, at the same time, they noted that the Strategy 'will not seek to
retrospectively prohibit projects that have been previously approved' or
proposals that have begun an environmental assessment process prior to the
commencement of the Ports Act.
The Australian and Queensland Governments noted that the proposals
(mentioned above) for the Fitzroy Terminal and the Wongai in Cape York have
been referred, and as such are exempt from the Ports Strategy restrictions.
However, they further noted that the Fitzroy Terminal proposal had lapsed under
the Queensland process in 2014, but at this stage the proposal had not been
withdrawn from the EPBC Act assessment process. In contrast, the Balaclava Island
proposal has been withdrawn and will therefore be prohibited under the
Queensland Ports Strategy.
Support for the Queensland Ports
Industry groups generally expressed support for the Queensland Ports
For example, the Queensland Ports Association submitted that, through the Ports
Strategy, the Queensland Government has 'responded appropriately' to the World
Heritage Committee's request to restrict major port development to long‑established
port development areas within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
Mr Anderson of Ports Australia also supported the Ports Strategy, noting
that the Queensland Government will 'legislate the requirement of long-term
master plans to be developed for each of the priority ports—each to be
supported by an environmental management framework and committed to high
Some submitters and witnesses noted that the World Heritage Committee
has welcomed Australia's intention to focus port development to the 'Priority
Port Development Areas' and the commitment to protect 'green-field' areas from
the impacts of port development.
Indeed, Mr Jon Black, Director-General of the Queensland Department of
Environment and Heritage Protection, told the committee that 'the Queensland
government made a very clear commitment to meeting the World Heritage
Committee's desires' and the Queensland Ports Strategy reflects that commitment.
In terms of the Priority Port Development Areas (PPDAs), the committee was
advised that 'the boundaries of PPDAs will be determined at a later date', but
...there is a process that includes
very, very rigorous public consultation on that process in terms of the
definition of those areas and that is obviously a matter for the proponents to
In contrast, Mr Brodie told the committee that the World Heritage
Committee wants the Australian and Queensland Governments to 'show some real
action on better port governance, and that is just not happening'.
Criticisms of the Queensland Ports
Other submitters were critical of the Queensland Ports Strategy. WWF‑Australia
and AMCS suggested that it:
...would still allow for significant expansion in the footprint
of port facilities within the port limits, a major increase in dredging and
dumping, and the number of ships traversing the World Heritage Area.
CAFNEC agreed that the strategy still allows significant expansions of
existing ports, describing the Queensland Ports Strategy as 'misleading'.
CAFNEC further noted that most of the concerns 'regarding port expansion on the
Great Barrier Reef are in response to significant expansion of existing port
For example, both CAFNEC and the Cairns Local Marine Advisory Committee
expressed grave concerns about the proposed expansion of Cairns Port in Trinity
Inlet 'to allow large cruise ships direct access to the city wharf'. This would
involve capital dredging of up to five million cubic metres of potentially acid
sulphate soils, followed by annual maintenance dredging of 580,000 cubic
Mr Coates of CAFNEC suggested that there is an existing solution for
cruise ships, whereby passengers are transferred to shore by smaller boat. He
further explained that the Cairns port development proposal sits outside the Queensland
Ports Strategy, and argued that this:
...is not in the spirit or the intent of the Queensland Ports
Strategy and it does not fit within what the Queensland government is telling
the international bodies like UNESCO...in restricting port expansions to those
five priority port areas.
Both CAFNEC and WWF-Australia and AMCS further submitted that the Queensland
contains very broad exemptions for projects which have already commenced
to the planning stage (such as the Cairns and Fitzroy Terminal proposals);
has a timeframe of only ten years, which is not in keeping with
the Strategic Assessment and long-term sustainability plan timeline (which is
out to 2050);
is being completed before the Strategic Assessment and long-term
sustainability plan are complete; and
does not adequately deal with cumulative and combined impacts of
Ms Wishart of the AMCS described the Queensland Ports Strategy as a 'serious
We had high hopes that the government here in Queensland
would increase protection but that is not the case. It is essentially business
as usual...we had high hopes that we would see constraints around the ports and
that we would see a commitment, for example, to no dredging and dumping in
Cairns. But those things are not clearly outlined in the strategy.
In terms of timeframes, the Australian and Queensland Governments' submission
noted that the ten-year timeframe:
...aligns with standard legislative review timeframes. The
legislation is required to be reviewed within ten years. The review will
determine whether the commitment is extended by the Queensland Government.
Impacts of ports, dredging and dredge spoil disposal
The Outlook Report 2014 identifies the impacts of the
installation, maintenance and operation of ports as including:
...clearing and modifying coastal habitats; disturbance,
displacement, dredging, disposal and resuspension of dredge material; injury
and death of wildlife; the risk of large and small chemical and oil spills;
some contribution to marine debris; altered light regimes; and diminished
aesthetic values. Noise pollution associated with general port activities such
as pile driving may be affecting marine life. However little is known of its
effects in the Region.
However, the key issue raised in evidence to the committee was the
impacts of dredging and disposal of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef region.
This is discussed in further detail below.
Levels of dredging and disposal in
the Great Barrier Reef region
A key concern with the proposed new ports and port expansions was the
associated dredging and dredge spoil disposal. 'Dredging' involves:
...the extraction of parts of the seafloor (predominantly sand
and fine silt, but also harder substrate such as rock) to deepen an area and
allow increased access for navigation.
Both 'capital' dredging and 'maintenance' dredging were discussed during
the committee's inquiry. The term 'capital' dredging refers to dredging
undertaken to create, lengthen, widen or deepen channels, berth areas, swing
basins, marinas and harbour areas. 'Maintenance' dredging is undertaken to
ensure that previously dredged depths are maintained (that is, removing
accumulated silt from the channel).
The Outlook Report 2014 noted that between 2001 and 2013, the
total volume of dredge material (from both capital and maintenance dredging)
disposed in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area was around 28 million
Dr Reichelt of GBRMPA advised that an average of around 1.2 million tonnes
is disposed of each year within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
The largest quantity of dredge material disposed in the Marine Park in a single
campaign was 8.6 million cubic metres associated with the Port of Hay Point in
In January 2014, a proposal for Abbot Point was approved to dispose of three
million cubic metres (discussed further in the next chapter).
In terms of future dredging and disposal projects currently under
assessment, the Outlook Report 2014 states that:
Proposals involving sea disposal [of dredge spoil] in the
Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area that are currently under assessment
include (but are not limited to): Cairns shipping development project (five
million cubic metres); Townsville port expansion (5.7 million cubic metres);
and expansions of the Dudgeon Point coal port facility (up to 13 million cubic
metres) and the Port of Gladstone (up to 12 million cubic metres).
WWF‑Australia and AMCS expressed concern that if:
...all new port and port expansions go ahead there will be at
least 70 million cubic metres of capital dredging required within the
Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. At least 43 million cubic metres of
this dredge material will be dumped back into the waters of the Great Barrier
Reef World Heritage Area. 
At the same time, Ports Australia submitted that dredging 'is not an
indulgence but an economic imperative', since shipping channels are 'key pieces
of national economic infrastructure and their capacity determines supply chain
Queensland Ports Association agreed that 'dredging is not an optional
Few ports in the GBRWHA are naturally deep and dredging is
needed to allow ships to enter ports efficiently, quickly and safely. Dredging
is not an optional activity and has been an essential element of operating
ports in the [Great Barrier Reef] for more than 100 years. Maintenance dredging
as well as periodic enlarging and development of navigation channels is
required to allow trade to occur and enable economic growth. All dredging and
at sea placement activities are subject to detailed management measures to
ensure impacts are effectively managed and do not result in unapproved impacts.
Impacts of dredging and disposal of
The committee notes that the GBRMPA Outlook Report 2014 rated
dredging as a 'medium risk' and disposal of dredge material as 'high risk' to
the health of the Great Barrier Reef.
Impacts of dredging
The Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment lists the impacts of
dredging activities as: seabed disturbance; removal or modification of
habitats; loss of, injury or mortality to species; changes to species
behaviour; degradation of water quality, including increased turbidity; changes
to hydrodynamics and coastal hydrology; increased underwater noise; and an
increased risk of oil spills.
The Outlook Report 2014 adds that:
The most severe effects are at the site of dredging but some,
including sedimentation, turbidity, noise and disruption of fish habitats, may
also occur some distance from the site.
Professor Mumby of the Australian Coral Reef Society told the committee
that until recently 'there has not been a real discussion about the actual
impact of dredging' in the scientific community, but 'there has been a lot of
Dr Reichelt of GBRMPA told the committee that 'there has been a lot of
scientific and technical monitoring of dredging operations' and that 'there is
no evidence that I am aware of that shows any impact in the short‑term...within
a five to 10 kilometre radius'.
Mr Jon Brodie referred to research indicating that 'dredging has large
effects on coral and fish'.
In particular, several witnesses and submitters referred to a recent study
which tied dredging to coral disease and coral mortality on the west coast of
Professor Pandolfi of the Australian Coral Reef Society told the committee that
the study has direct implications for the Great Barrier Reef:
One might say, 'What does that have to do with us? The
dredging was eight kilometres away from the reef. Is that really an issue for
the Great Barrier Reef?' In fact, the Great Barrier Reef and all reef
ecosystems share a tremendous amount of connectivity. The sediment plumes and
the oceanography dictate that any resuspended sediments caused by dredging or
run-off or any kinds of these issues will eventually make their way to the
Great Barrier Reef. We even have evidence that these kinds of sediments are
reaching the outer part of the Great Barrier Reef. If anybody wants to tell you
that it has nothing to do with the Great Barrier Reef, I would like to state
here quite unequivocally that it does.
Professor Mumby agreed that, due to this study, 'there is now
unequivocal evidence that sediment from dredging can have a negative effect on
However, in answers to questions on notice, the Department of the
Environment advised that:
There are no past approvals or projects currently under
assessment in the Great Barrier Reef that involve a dredging campaign over a
similar timeframe and in close proximity to the reef, that would be considered
comparable to the study.
Impacts of disposal of dredge spoil
Once material is extracted from the seafloor during dredging, it
requires disposal. Disposal sites may include ocean disposal sites, near-shore
reclamation areas and land-based receiving facilities. Chapter 2 outlined the
regulatory arrangements relating to 'sea dumping' in the Great Barrier Reef
region. There was considerable discussion during the committee's inquiry of the
extent to which all the impacts of the disposal of dredge spoil—direct and
indirect, short and long term—are understood.
Industry groups suggested that the risks and impacts of dredging and its
disposal are overstated and well understood. They also emphasised that dredged
material is subject to management measures and is never dumped on coral reefs
or on habitats of high conservation value.
For example, Queensland Ports Association submitted its view that the
draft Strategic Assessment 'significantly overstates the risks and impacts of
dredging and dredge material placement at-sea'. Queensland
Ports Association submitted that impacts associated with 'dredging and dredge
material placement in the [Great Barrier Reef] over recent years have been
localised and short term', and that 'approaches to predicting such impacts are
accurate and dredge management techniques effective'.
Queensland Ports Association further submitted that 'where some dispersal [of
dredged material] does occur, monitoring studies have shown that this is
limited and has not affected areas of high conservation value'.
Shipping Australia agreed that:
...claims of widespread and unintentional effects of many
recent dredging projects in northern Australia are not supported by the results
of extensive monitoring that has been carried out.
As noted earlier in this chapter, Ports Australia submitted that:
Claims around the environmental impacts of dredging and
shipping in Queensland ports have been exaggerated whereas scientific research
has indicated that the impacts are at a low or minimal level. We reiterate that
port developments and shipping activities are not recognised as the primary
impacts upon the Reef.
Mr Anderson from Ports Australia reiterated this during the committee's
hearing, telling the committee that 'the impact of dredging on the reef is not
significant' and that 'the sediment impacts from dredging are minor in
comparison to those from river discharges and cyclones'.
Ports Australia also expressed its disappointment in the process for
dredge management research adopted by GBRMPA as part of the Strategic Assessment
(the role of GBRMPA and the Strategic Assessments are discussed in further
detail in Chapter 8). Ports Australia also supplied a report, Dredging and
Australian Ports, to 'bring factual information about the impacts of
dredging which had been deliberately misrepresented by some groups,
particularly in relation to impacts on the Great Barrier Reef'. Ports Australia
...the vast majority of dredging in northern Australian ports
involves clean sediments and, where any toxic material are identified, it is
disposed of on land not at sea'.
Ports Australia also suggested that ports put 'substantial effort and
resources' into 'responsibly assessing and managing dredging projects to
protect areas of high conservation value', and that they have 'a proven and
positive record in relation to dredging and continually strive to ensure they
adopt the latest dredging modelling and management techniques'.
Ports Australia further described the legal framework around dredging as
'detailed and complex', and the National Assessment Guidelines for Dredging
(as mentioned in Chapter 2) as 'internationally recognised as leading
Mr Kaveney from the Queensland Ports Association told the committee that
'the impacts that can occur from the placement of material in the marine
environment are well understood and can be well managed'. In relation to
dredging projects he told the committee that 'understanding what impacts can
occur and how you might manage them is a well-developed science'. He further stated
that most of the science shows that 'the disposal into the marine environment
does not have significant impacts'.
In contrast, many other submitters and witnesses argued that dredging
and dredge spoil disposal can have adverse impacts, and identified a need for
more information on the impacts of dredging and dredge spoil. For example,
Professor Hughes told the committee that:
...the claim by the port authorities that they are having no
impact on corals is simply not tenable. The issue here is that the monitoring
required of dredging operations and port expansions is woefully inadequate, so
there is a lack of information.
CAFNEC submitted that there is 'insufficient scientific information on
the effects of sediment dumping in or near coral reef and seagrass ecosystems'
and that 'more studies on dredge spoil components and their individual,
combined and cumulative impacts are needed prior to any more approvals'.
Decline in visibility in the
The committee also received anecdotal evidence, particularly from
tourism operators in the Whitsunday region, querying whether dredging and
dredge spoil disposal is impacting on water quality and reduced visibility in
that area. For example, Mr Colin McKenzie, of the Association of Marine Park
Tourism Operators (AMPTO), told the committee that 'we need more information'
on this issue:
There has been a drop in visibility in the Whitsundays. The
average visibility in 2006 was about 15 metres. The average visibility in 2007
dropped—and it was a very quick event—to less than nine metres and it has not
recovered from that.
He queried whether it had been caused by dredging at Hay Point in 2006:
The only major event that occurred in that time frame was in
2006 when we dredged Hay Point. A lot of people, particularly tourism operators
within the Whitsundays, are concerned that that dredge spoil just continued to
drift north and then we had a sudden and dramatic decline in visibility. The
water still looks beautiful from the top—a nice blue and it looks pristine—but
when you get into it and it is like trying to swim in milk.
Similarly, Mr Tony Brown queried 'why is our water quality diminishing,
compared to somewhere like Cairns, which has been stable? What is impacting our
water quality that is not impacting the Cairns water, because it has had
cyclones and flooding?'
However, in response to questioning, Dr Reichelt of GBRMPA told the
committee that it is difficult to distinguish the impacts of the Hay Point
dredging from the impacts of flood events, but that 'the signal from the floods
is much greater than the spatial extent of the dredging effects', although the
Hay Point dredging 'would have added to that plume from the rivers'.
In response to questioning on whether studies have been done regarding
the impacts of the dredging and disposal at the Port of Hay Point in 2006, the
Department of the Environment responded that the conditions of approval for the
dredging and disposal included a range of 'before, during and after monitoring
programs' which 'targeted water quality, inshore coral reefs, seagrass and
benthic assemblages'. The department further advised that 'all dredging and
disposal activities' permitted by GBRMPA since 2006 'have required monitoring
and management of potential changes in water quality'.
Movement of dredge spoil
However, many other witnesses and submitters also expressed concern
about the potential movement and resuspension of dredge spoil. As Professor
Peter Mumby told the committee, the concern is that 'the ocean is highly
connected by ocean currents. Therefore, the major concern is that you can dump
somewhere but they [the sediments] do not stay there, they move'.
For example, Mr Tony Brown of the Whitsunday Charter Boat Industry Association
How long is sediment considered sediment before it becomes
natural? How far does it travel? How long? When it gets resuspended through a
weather event, is it sediment? Is it natural now or was it part of the dredge
sediment. These are the questions that we keep going to and non-one can answer,
because the fact is that studies have not been done to really understand that
Similarly, Mr Jeremy Tager suggested that 'there is significant
resuspension of sediments, from dredging and dumping and things such as storms
and extreme events'.
Ms Margaret Moorhouse similarly explained that the issue is that 'every time
you dredge...you are re-suspending the solids and giving whatever is in them
another life, another time to do damage and to be carried out further towards
the outer reefs'.
In terms of the fate of sediments that are disposed offshore, Dr
Reichelt of GBRMPA told the committee that there 'are some good scientific
papers' which indicate that 'sediment does move but you are talking category 4
or category 5 cyclones to make it move'. He further noted that 'it becomes
difficult to distinguish the sediments that have come from a one-off suspension
by dredging versus all of the other active sediments'.
The committee notes that the Outlook Report 2014 states that the 'major
direct impacts of sea disposal include the burial or smothering of plants and
animals on the sea floor, degradation of water quality, and loss and
modification of habitats'. It also notes that there is 'emerging evidence of a
higher prevalence of coral disease in areas exposed to dredge material'. The Outlook
Report 2014 states that 'recent modelling suggests resuspended sediment
could potentially travel considerably further than previously understood'. The Outlook
Report 2014 explains:
Dredging and disposal of dredge material can also remobilise,
redistribute and resuspend sediments and nutrients that were otherwise held
within seafloor sediments. Fine sediments can become resuspended over several
years by wind and waves, contributing to increased turbidity.
The GBRMPA Region Strategic Assessment agreed that the 'effects of
dredge disposal may be more widespread than previously understood':
Recent research indicates re-suspended dredge material may
move over much greater distances from disposal sites than previously assumed.
While the full extent of any effects on the Region's values is not well
understood, uncertainty regarding the additional effects of sea dumping is a
key concern, particularly given the potential for large volumes of proposed
dredge material to be dumped and resuspended in areas of the Region already in
The GBRMPA Region Strategic Assessment also identified a need to improve
understanding of the effects of sea dumping, as well as modelling of dredge
The GBRMPA Region Strategic Assessment states that:
There is evidence that material disposed at existing dredge
disposal grounds does not remain within the defined disposal area and that
previous modelling of predicted sediment plumes may have significantly
underestimated the dispersal and direction of sediments and thus the full
extent and potential magnitude of potential impacts.
Dr Oliver of AIMS told the committee that 'we actually do not have very
good data at all on the long-term fate of these dredged spoil disposal areas'.
AIMS noted that work on direct dredging impacts within the Great Barrier Reef
Marine Park 'has been carried out to a high scientific standard and with expert
peer review', but that:
The less direct impacts of spoil dumping and long-term
dispersal of spoil material, and the cumulative impact of repeated dredging or
multiple dredging in the region has received less attention...
To deal with the 'uncertainties in the science associated with
dredging', AIMS explained that GBRMPA and AIMS recently co‑convened an
expert Dredging Panel to review what is known about the impacts of dredging on
the GBRWHA, where key knowledge gaps exist, and to help provide guidance to
future dredging operations and assessments. AIMS explained that:
The results of the Panel's work will be communicated later
this year, however it is highly likely that work to address identified
knowledge gaps will require a significant investment of resources over several
As noted in Chapters 3 and 6, some submitters and witnesses queried, in
light of this uncertainty, why dredging and disposal approvals are still being
approved, given the legislative requirements to consider the precautionary
principle. The Department of the Environment responded that 'the precautionary
principle has been taken into account in making decisions of approval on
Impact of dredging and disposal on
A key concern was that the dredging and disposal will undermine other
efforts to reduce run‑off to the reef, as discussed in Chapter 3. For
example, CAFNEC described the dredging and disposal approvals and proposals as
'a slap in the face' for 'farmers and land managers who have been and still are
being asked to change practices, to prevent sediment runoff to the reef'.
Similarly, Mr Brodie told the committee that he has 'worked for 30 years
to get a scheme together to manage agricultural run-off to the Great Barrier
Reef' and it is having some success, but that:
All of that success is now at risk from what is happening in
port management, and the work of all those people is put at risk by the poor
governance we are seeing at port developments.
Mr Brodie suggested that the dredging proposals in the region 'dwarf'
the efforts to reduce catchment run-off, explaining that the 'anthropogenic
sediment delivery to the Great Barrier Reef from all of the catchments is six
million tonnes per year on average', which has been reduced by about 10 per
cent, or 600 000 tonnes. He calculated that the proposed dredging programs will
generate around 10 million tonnes per year.
Professor Mumby similarly told the committee that:
...if all of the ports were extended in the way that some plans
might have them, we would be more than doubling the current level of sediment
entering the system through human impact.
Professor Mumby also warned that the success of measures to improve
catchment run-off quality could be 'dwarfed' by port expansion and that:
...we have to be very careful that we do not, on the one hand,
invest in restorative activities in the watershed while we, on the other hand,
develop at a very fast rate in maybe not the most environmentally friendly way
and completely overwhelm those benefits we have had.
In the same vein, Mr McKenzie of AMPTO queried why 'hundreds of millions
of dollars' are being spent trying to clean up water quality and then 'we are
looking at proposals to dump ten or 20 times the amount of sediment that we
have saved back on the reef'.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg told the committee that, given that water
quality has been identified as one of the greatest threats to the Great Barrier
Reef, recent decisions to dispose dredge spoil into GBRMPA waters (and
particularly the recent Abbot Point decision discussed in the next chapter) are
'inconsistent with solving the problem of declining water quality within the
GBRMPA, and with the World Heritage Committee recommendations.
Alternatives to dredging and sea disposal
Several submitters and witnesses were concerned that alternatives to
dredging and, in particular, disposal of dredge spoil, are not being fully
considered and implemented.
For example, WWF-Australia and AMCS suggested that:
...all steps be taken to avoid dredging including maximising
the efficiency of existing port capacity, utilising alternative designs for
port infrastructure such as extended trestles, and introducing limits to the size
of ships for coastal ports.
Whitsunday Residents Against Dumping similarly submitted:
Factors and alternatives to consider to minimise the need for
capital dredging should include but not be limited to, maximising the use of
existing infrastructure prior to approving any expansions, using alternative
designs such as extended trestles, land based disposal, and limiting the size
of ships for coastal ports.
Professor Mumby also expressed concern that alternatives to dredging are
not being adequately considered: 'some of the safer and more environmentally
friendly options, whilst being more expensive, do not seem to be considered
Mr Leck of WWF-Australia described Abbot Point (discussed further in the next
chapter) as a 'case in point' on this issue, arguing that sea disposal was put
forward 'because it was cheap'.
As Professor Hoegh-Guldberg told the committee:
...if there are other mechanisms to deal with that dredge, we
should take them, even if they are more expensive, because the value in
perpetuity of the Great Barrier Reef is enormous.
However, the Queensland Ports Association referred to the National Assessment
Guidelines for Dredging (as mentioned in Chapter 2), noting that they
require alternatives to be evaluated prior to any approvals being granted for
at-sea placement of dredge spoil. Queensland Ports Association further
Placement of material at sea is generally the best
environmental option in Queensland. Land based options are not viable as
coastal areas of Queensland have high conservation, residential or cultural
value. Land based options are viable only for small amounts of material or
one-off projects...land placement of dredged material (particularly fine grained
maintenance material) was not a viable long term option for the six major ports
in the Great Barrier Reef region.
Queensland Ports Association also suggested that 'in many cases the
material dredged is not suitable for reclamation or other land based uses'.
In response to questioning on this issue, Mr Kaveney from the Queensland Ports
Association argued that 'marine disposal is very often—not always—the best
outcome'. He explained:
What we are talking about is the dredging of marine sediments
and the placement of marine sediments back into the marine environment. It is
not a particularly alien concept to return that material to where it has come
from. Globally it is seen as best practice in many situations. Keeping that
sediment in the coastal process system is often very desirable...
The committee notes that this appears to be a somewhat simplistic view, given
the evidence received in relation to acid sulphate soils which are common along
the Queensland coastline and potentially present at some proposed dredging
Other witnesses suggested that alternatives such as trestles are not
necessarily a good alternative either. For example, Mr Simon Meyjes from
Australian Reef Pilots told the committee that from a port safety perspective,
'you are introducing another range of risks because the further out to sea you
are, the worse the weather conditions are likely to be'.
Prohibition on disposal of dredge
spoil in the Great Barrier Reef
Several submissions and witnesses suggested there should be a ban on the
industrial-scale dumping of dredge spoil anywhere near the Great Barrier Reef World
For example, Mr Leck of WWF-Australia, identified 'prohibiting industrial scale
dumping of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area' as a key
action to reduce the decline of the reef. He further suggested that in 2015,
the World Heritage Committee will be looking for a 'very different policy with
regards to dredging and dumping'.
WWF-Australia and AMCS and others argued dredging and dumping in the
Great Barrier Reef area is placing additional stress 'on an already stressed
The health and resilience of the reef is in serious decline
and drastic actions need to occur now in order to turn things around. While
land run-off, crown of thorns and increasing climate change impacts have been
the main contributors to the past decline of the Great Barrier Reef, these are
issues that will take a long time to be addressed. Proposals for dredging and
dumping along the Reef's coast are far beyond what has ever been seen before in
the region and it is unknown what this impact will have in addition to current
CAFNEC similarly advocated a 'ban on new (non-maintenance) dredging and
dumping in the World Heritage Area' until conclusive evidence can be presented
that the resuspension of sediments from capital dredging programs can be
undertaken with no impacts on World Heritage values. CAFNEC suggested a
'concurrent review of the impacts of maintenance dredging also be undertaken
'with a focus on implementing practices that lead to a drastic reduction of
As noted elsewhere, the committee was advised that as a result of the Strategic
Assessment, a dredging policy will be developed by the Queensland Government,
and that policy will be one of the elements in the long-term sustainability
plan (discussed further in Chapter 8).
Dr Reichelt from GBRMPA suggested that 'the principle behind the dredge policy
should be a capping and a reduction'.
In response to questioning about the potential for a cap on dredge
spoil, GBRMPA noted that 'a strategic reduction on dredge material disposal in
the Marine Park could form part of the port master planning process' under the
Queensland Ports Strategy. Further GBRMPA advised that it will be facilitating
'the development of a whole of government policy to provide a strategic and
consistent approach to the sustainable management of dredging and dredge spoil
disposal in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area'.
Ports and coal pollution issues
Other submissions and witnesses expressed a specific concern about the
pollution from coal particulates and its impact on the Great Barrier Reef.
In particular, Professor Hughes tabled a recent scientific study which
concluded that 'coastal sediments offshore of the Hay Point coal port are
already contaminated with coal residues which exceed the Australian and New
Zealand toxicity guidelines'. He told the committee that this is:
...a very damning conclusion based on samples that were
collected across the entire breadth of the Great Barrier Reef. It shows that
coal dust has already spread hundreds of kilometres from coal ports and that it
has now accumulated everywhere on the Great Barrier Reef and not just the
dredging sites or near the ports themselves. It is exceeding toxic levels in
The Mackay Conservation Group also tabled this study and similarly
submitted that 'coal ports are a significant source of sediment and coal
particulate pollution to the Great Barrier Reef'.
The Outlook Report 2014 noted this study, stating that:
High concentrations of coal dust have been detected around a
loading facility, but the potential effects of this and any other
port-generated atmospheric pollution are not well understood.
Dr Reichelt of GBRMPA acknowledged the need to do 'more work on the
impact of coal particles' as a 'very high priority' and noted that one option
might be to cover coal piles and coal stacks in the Great Barrier Reef region.
In response to questioning as to what action is being taken as a result
of this study, the Queensland Government advised that, while it welcomes new
...the coal dust study does not indicate whether the associated
aromatic hydrocarbons are bio-available and does not say whether the coal dust
would accumulate, absorb into corals and be toxic to marine species. The study
outlines steps that can be taken to improve port practices to reduce the
potential of coal dust entering the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem which will be
valuable to port operators and in the development of Port master‑plans.
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