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Concerns over plans to load coal ships in the Great Barrier Reef

A plan to load coal ships in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef has incited renewed calls for action to protect the World Heritage listed site.  The proposal, put forward by Queensland company Mitchell Ports, entails the operation of coal barges, trans-shipper loaders and large ships in the World Heritage area.  In response, UNESCO has voiced concerns, suggesting that approval of the development may result in the issue being referred to the World Heritage Committee.

If approved, the operation would be the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, loading 15 million tonnes of coal annually by 2018.  However, this figure could be set to increase to 30 million tonnes annually if the market demanded.

With shipping traffic set to almost double if the development is approved, conservationists have raised concerns regarding the potential impact this could have on the already threatened Great Barrier Reef. According to UNESCO’s co-ordinator of the World Heritage Centre Marine program Fanny Douvere, increased shipping traffic elevates the risk of damaging the reef as a result of accidents, spillages and collisions.  Importantly, Ms Douvere alluded to likely UNESCO action if approval was to be granted: ‘whenever any activity will impact, or could impact potentially on those exceptional values for which is it inscribed on the World Heritage list, then it needs to be raised’.  Moreover, conservationists have highlighted the dangers associated with emissions of toxic coal dust and other disruptions to local wildlife likely to be induced by the operation.

The local fishing community has already expressed apprehension towards the proposal for fear it may lead to an exclusion zone being declared in the area.  This could be particularly detrimental to the local economy as approximately 90% of Mackay’s king prawns are sourced from the region.

Importantly, only last year the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) considered a similar proposal put forward by Mitchell Ports.  In reviewing the development application, the GBRMPA recognised the potential for the operation of have ‘unacceptable and high risk impacts’, noting seven prominent risks which attracted extreme consequence ratings.  While that proposal was abandoned, some of the risks identified by the GBRMPA have reappeared in the present application such as the loss of habitat and pollution.

On the other hand, while Mitchell Points has conceded that some minimal impacts on Matters of National Environmental Significance are expected, it continues to advocate that its proposal is consistent with the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.  The company has stated that ship-to-ship coal loading is a safer alternative than the presently used seabed-dredging, which according to recent studies has more than doubled the level of coral disease in Australian reefs.  Moreover, Michael Roche from the Queensland Resource Council has defended increases in shipping traffic.  According to Mr Roche, despite increases in shipping traffic, strict regulation and monitoring practices have led to a reduction in shipping incidents from one incident occurring every year, to one incident occurring every 10 years.  However, such monitoring is yet to include the trans-shipping methods due to be employed by Mitchell Ports if the proposal is approved.

The ability of the Federal and Queensland governments to protect the reef has faced increasing criticism in recent times, notably following a UNESCO decision to add the Great Barrier Reef to the World Heritage In Danger List if Australia is unable to illustrate its commitment to protecting the site within the next 12 months.

The question thus lingers: Will approval of the Mitchell Ports development be the final straw and confirm UNESCO’s doubts regarding Australia’s ability to protect the Great Barrier Reef?


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Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: August 21, 2014.

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