The tourism industry in Tropical North Queensland was last night digesting the implications of a decision by Federal environment minister Greg Hunt to approve the dredging and disposal of spoil to create one of the world’s largest coal ports alongside the Great Barrier Reef.
The Abbot Point coal terminal is based near Bowen in Queensland and will be, under the new scheme, linked to a proposed colossal coalmine. Tourism operators in the Tropical North Queensland region had been fighting a legal battle against Big Coal over the issue.
The mine decision comes at a very awkward time for Tourism Australia, which has just hailed a new three-part TV series produced by BAFTA award-winning Atlantic Productions – ‘Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough’. It was launched just a couple of weeks ago in London, at a function with Attenborough present, along with the Duke of Edinburgh, Australian High Commissioner Alexander Downer and Atlantic Productions chief Anthony Geffen. The series will be broadcast around the world, including in Britain and Australia.
Tourism Australia managing director, John O’Sullivan, said the release of the TV series coincided with a new campaign it was launching early in 2016 and aimed at promoting Australia’s aquatic and coastal experiences.
“Our aquatic and coastal story has always been an important part of selling Australia, but has never before taken centre stage in a campaign. This film will show the Reef in ways never previously seen before and provides a wonderful vehicle for us to shine a light on Australia’s outstanding aquatic and coastal experiences.
“Our research shows that aquatic experiences, and particularly the Reef, are major drawcards for tourists from all of our major international markets,” O’Sullivan said.
In the midst of all that, a gigantic and controversial coal development has now landed. Approving the terminal’s expansion would allow coal from other projects, like Adani’s Carmichael mine, to be shipped for export.
Tourism in the region promotes the ecology of Reef and rainforest, a theme stressed in international promotions. Massive coal operations sit uneasily with the clean and green image of the Reef. Coal mining and coal burning are seen largely as dinosaur industries whose time is up – particularly after the recent Paris climate talks.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Imogen Zethoven told ABC News approval of the mine and dredging operation was not surprising, but still disappointing.
“We are extremely concerned that this decision has been made again,” she said, referring to the fact a previous proposal had been approved, but later abandoned in favour of this plan.
“This is the wrong development.
“It should not go ahead.”
Zethoven told the Guardian that thousands of tonnes of seafloor would be torn up and dumped next to the internationally significant Caley Valley wetlands.
“Sea grasses which feed dugongs and turtles will be torn up for the coal industry. Hundreds more coal ships will plough through the reef every year.”
She said the development would damage the region around Abbot Point “and from a big picture, it’s very bad for the Great Barrier Reef, because this is an integrated development with a coal mine and a rail link.
“The Carmichael coal mine would be the largest coal mine in Australia if it ever went ahead and that would lead to the mining and burning of 60 million tonnes of coal a year.”
The development has been approved on condition that the dredge spoils are properly disposed of. Instead of being dumped in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as had been originally proposed, over a million cubic metres of dredge spoil from the project will now be dumped in nearby industrial land. Environmentalists fear the effect of run-off.
Advocates of the mine development say polls show that 62% of residents in the Whitsunday Regional Council area believe the project can be carried out while keeping the reef safe. Another 29% say the project will harm the reef and 9% don’t know.
“All dredge material will be placed onshore on existing industrial land. No dredge material will be placed in the World Heritage Area or the Caley Valley Wetlands,” a spokeswoman for Hunt said.
“The port area is at least 20 kilometres from any coral reef and no coral reef will be impacted.”
For the sake of Australia’s tourism industry, that had better be right – because if it goes wrong it may be impossible to fix.
Written by Peter Needham