Australia approves controversial port project

Expansion of Abbot Point to support coal mining criticised for environmental threat

Abbot Point port is currently at capacity. Critics fear expanding it will threaten the Great Barrier Reef.
Abbot Point port is currently at capacity. Critics fear expanding it will threaten the Great Barrier Reef.PHOTO: THE STATE OF QUEENSLAND (DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORT AND MAIN ROADS)

SYDNEY • Australia yesterday approved a controversial port expansion to support mining projects and the dredging of 1.1 million cubic metres of spoil, despite fears that it threatens the Great Barrier Reef.

The decision, creating a huge port capable of handling up to 120 million tonnes of coal per annum, comes two months after the government approved an Indian-backed A$16.5 billion (S$16.7 billion) plan to build one of the world's biggest mines in the same area of Queensland state.

Greenpeace said the go-ahead was "irresponsible for the reef, illogical and unnecessary".

"Adani hasn't got the A$16 billion. No one's lending it to them, and coal prices are tanking. Even the International Energy Agency is questioning the project," said Greenpeace reef campaigner Shani Tager.

The Carmichael project by Adani Enterprises in the Galilee Basin, home to vast coal reserves, has attracted fierce criticism, requiring the fossil fuel to be shipped through the deepwater Abbot Point Coal Terminal, which is currently at capacity. Environmentalists have argued that any expansion at Abbot Point risked the World Heritage-listed reef's health and would destroy local habitats.

"The Queensland state Labor government's Abbot Point Growth Gateway project has been approved in accordance with national environment law, subject to 30 strict conditions," a spokesman for Environment Minister Greg Hunt said.

Earlier plans were for at least three million cubic metres of material to be dredged and dumped into waters around the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, but this was later abandoned after an outcry.

The approval now permits 1.1 million cubic metres to be dredged, allowing more freighters to dock at Abbot Point, near the town of Bowen, but spoil must be disposed of on existing industrial land.

"No dredge material will be placed in the World Heritage Area or the Caley Valley Wetlands," said Mr Hunt's spokesman. "The port area is at least 20km from any coral reef and no coral reef will be impacted."

Adani, which has previously accused environmental activists of exploiting legal loopholes to stall its massive open-cut and underground mine, which is forecast to produce 60 million tonnes of thermal coal a year for export, welcomed the decision.

"The expansion of Abbot Point, the lifeblood of Bowen, is key to Adani's plans to deliver 10,000 direct and indirect jobs and A$22 billion in taxes and royalties to Queensland," it said in a statement.

Critics argue that plunging coal prices make the development financially unviable, while major European and US banks have refused funding due to environmental concerns.

WWF-Australia said the waters around Abbot Point are home to dugongs, sea turtles and snubfin dolphins, while the dredge spoil would be dumped on land adjacent to wetlands used by migratory birds.

"It's disappointing that the minister has approved this project within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, despite the damage it will do," WWF's spokesman Louise Matthiesson said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'Australia approves controversial port project'. Print Edition | Subscribe