Dumping the Reef

The headlines have been horrendous. Australia to Dump Dredged Sand in Great Barrier Reef Waters; Great Barrier Reef Dredging Threat; Australia Oks Dumping Dredged Mud in Great Barrier Reef. All of these because the Australian Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority made the decision to allow the dumping of dredged mud in the park following much discussion around economic expansion versus conservation.  Their decision paints another picture of the way in which that struggle can work out, one that is a clear counterpoint to the recent Pebble Mine report in Alaska.

First, some background. The dredged mud will come from the Abbot Point port, the only deep-water port in northern Australia. This is important because Abbot Point is the only port than can accommodate the kind of mega freighters that the Galilee coal basin requires to handle its rapidly growing export traffic. It’s also important to note that the final dumping plan is, in many ways, an attempt at compromise between exports and the environment. While the decision has been roundly criticized by scientists and environmentalists, it is probably more environmentally friendly than the construction of a new port – the only other option put on the table – would have been.

However, the plan is by no means a good one. While the Park Authority has stated that the dredging and dumping will occur under the “strictest conditions,” there is legitimate concern that mis-dumped or drifting sediment will strangle existing (and highly threatened) seagrass beds, or the reef itself. Export proponents claim that the potential economic gains from the project justify the dangers, saying that the expanded port could support up to 25,000 new jobs and boost valuable coal exports. However, this one-sided analysis fails to take potential damages into account. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the largest and most diverse fisheries in the world. In addition to fostering much of Australia’s commercial fisheries, it also produces upwards of $4B in tourism dollars per year. Managed sustainably, it will produce $4B per year ad infinitum. By contrast, the Galilee basin only has 4-5B tons of coal. What happens to those 25,000 jobs when the coal is gone?

This again drives home the point that development vs. conservation is really a short-term convention. Dredging Point Abbot will create jobs and money now by potentially destroying the future value of the reef and its ecosystem. This begs the question: are such projects really creating value, or are they simply borrowing from future generations? In the case of the Pebble Mine, the EPA seems think the latter; it’s a shame the Marine Park Authority didn’t come to the same realization.


Image Credit: Leonard Low via Wikimedia Commons


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