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There is no need to dump Abbot Point’s dredge spoil on the reef

By the end of this week we will know whether the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will allow dredge spoil from the Abbot Point port redevelopment to be dumped within the park’s boundaries. The…

Dredging at Abbot Point will create three million cubic metres of spoil. AAP

By the end of this week we will know whether the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will allow dredge spoil from the Abbot Point port redevelopment to be dumped within the park’s boundaries.

The port expansion, which was approved by federal environment minister Greg Hunt in December, will generate three million cubic metres of spoil – weighing some five million tonnes.

That’s not all. Over the coming decade, projects at all of the major ports along the Great Barrier Reef coast – Cairns, Townsville, Hay Point (Mackay) and Gladstone – could create as much as 80 million cubic metres of spoil. And even more dredging will be needed at Abbot Point to make room for future exports from Waratah Coal’s Alpha North project.

Is there an alternative to dumping all of this material on and around the Great Barrier Reef? Yes. There are several options, the most obvious of which is to put the spoil behind a retaining barrier called a “bund wall”. But unlike at Gladstone Harbour, where the bund wall leaked, it will need to be done properly (as, indeed, it will from now on at Gladstone, where Minister Hunt has ordered the use of a non-leaking bund wall for future dredging).

Water conditions

Minister Hunt has put 95 environmental conditions on the Abbot Point project, insisting that the measures will “result in an improvement in water quality” for the Great Barrier Reef. He also pointed out that the site was “already heavily industrialised” before the current government came to power.

The conditions call for the negative effects of dumping dredge spoil on the reef to be “avoided, mitigated or offset”. These “offsets” aim to stop sediment entering the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park from land sources such as farm run-off.

Protests were angered by last month’s Abbot Point dredging approval. AAP Image/Dan Peled

By Minister Hunt’s calculations, the conditions will deliver a 150% net benefit to water quality for the Great Barrier Reef, with effects that will outlive the current port expansion plans along the coast.

But the likelihood of this promise being realised is very low. Dredging and spoil dumping will produce both acute turbidity and sedimentation effects on communities such as seagrass and inshore coral reefs in the marine park. And there will be longer-term chronic effects as the sediment is slowly redistributed throughout the reef by resuspension and coastal currents.

Meanwhile, it will take decades to deliver the promised offsets by reducing sediment discharge from land sources such as cattle rangelands. Management of many of the most important sediment sources (such as gully erosion) in the big grazing catchments like the Burdekin and Fitzroy are currently intractable problems.

Alternative option

Clearly, it will be preferable not to dump the dredge spoil from Abbot Point and elsewhere inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The most obvious alternative is to place the spoil behind a bund wall next to the coast. This would also have the benefit of increasing port land, an important consideration at Abbot Point as useable land is scarce. On the other hand a small area of the GBR World Heritage Area will be alienated. The idea of port land being built up from dredge spoil was already suggested in the plans for the proposed multicargo facility at Abbot Point, later cancelled by the Queensland government.

Of course, the bund wall would need to be built and managed well – not at all like the fiasco at Gladstone Harbour, where an improperly constructed bund wall leaked for six months in 2011 and 2012.

There are other options too, such as building longer jetties with less need for dredging. The emphasis should be on designing ports in ways that safeguard the Great Barrier Reef, rather than causing damage and then trying to fix it.

Join the conversation

27 Comments sorted by

  1. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks for this article, Mr Brodie, which refers to "other options".

    Please comment on the desirability and/or otherwise of dumping dredge spoil well outside the Eastern deep water boundary of GBRMP; if the material is dumped far enough out to sea, past the continental shelf, it is unlikely to affect turbidity on the Reef, and hence not aid recruitment of juvenile Crown of Thorns starfish.

    It further occurs to me that the 'offsets' that Mr Hunt proposes are of sufficient remediatory environmental benefit that they should be implemented in their own right.

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    1. Margaret Moorhouse

      conservationist and retired psychologist

      In reply to David Arthur

      Dealing with dredge spoil is not as simple as publicised.

      "Bunding" an area for dumping spoil is generally called "reclamation". This too damages the GBRWHA, permanently and irremediably. It immediately kills the benthic communities, mangroves, seagrass etc within the bunded area - all essential to the life of the GBRWHA. Ports already have a long history of reclamation.

      Spoil as dredged is wet - usually a pumpable slurry - so the volume of the dredged spoil is much greater than the nominal…

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    2. Jon Brodie

      Research scientist

      In reply to Margaret Moorhouse

      Hi Margaret

      Everything you say may and can be correct although IF the bund is properly constructed and maintained (not like Gladstone) toxics should not leak from it. However among all the possible alternatives that could be chosen at Abbot Point that do not propose impossible logistic issues e.g. dumping off the shelf edge as suggested by Davis Arthur or trucking/railing inland to 'somewhere', the least damaging to the GBR is still the bund options.
      Admitted I'm ignoring for the moment climate change implications of coal exports and the arguments between exporting thermal and coking coal. However my article was strictly about the best option, given the port expansion is going ahead, that caused the least damage to the GBR.

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    3. Margaret Moorhouse

      conservationist and retired psychologist

      In reply to Jon Brodie

      Hullo John

      Given your assumption that the port expansion/dredging is going ahead, another option would be disposal ashore, a more costly option for the profit-taking proponent but one which prevents further damage (whether seadumping or reclamation) to the public good.

      Your comment would be welcome on why land disposal is not seen as an option.

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    4. Jon Brodie

      Research scientist

      In reply to Margaret Moorhouse

      The problem with on land options are loss of high value lands e.g. wetlands. Also logistics of transport via truck etc and temporary storage areas. Overall I've not seen a sensible and doable scheme put up.
      Sorry for short response but am in meeting!

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    5. Margaret Moorhouse

      conservationist and retired psychologist

      In reply to Jon Brodie

      Thanks John.

      This sounds like another "cost" argument - or are you saying that there really is no "degraded" land that could be purchased/leased etc to treat and store dredge spoil?

      Trucking to suitable sites may be costly, but again: why should the public good (the GBRWHA) bear the disposal costs of private enterprise dredging?

      My guess is that you won't see a "sensible and doable scheme" until proponents are forced to it by law.

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  2. Brad Farrant

    Adjunct Research Fellow in Early Childhood Development at University of Western Australia

    Thanks for the article. We should be doing everything we can to protect the GBR for future generations. Dumping spoil within the park's boundaries is clearly irresponsible.

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    1. Mike Jubow

      Forestry nurseryman at Nunyara Wholesale , Forestry consultants, seedling suppliers.

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      I agree with you Brad. The statement,"By Minister Hunt’s calculations, the conditions will deliver a 150% net benefit to water quality for the Great Barrier Reef, with effects that will outlive the current port expansion plans along the coast", really has me tossed. 150% benefit to water quality? Does he expect us to accept this at face value just because it has been said? A moronic statement and he ecpects us to believe it? I believe that in the early planning stages of the project, that dumping…

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  3. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Can I offer another option which is not canvassed in the article.

    Don't bloody dredge at all!

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  4. Notta Mehere

    logged in via Facebook

    dump the spoils on

    a. every pollies garden who voted for the idea

    b. every golf course where the execs of the various corporations play.

    be surprised how quickly the whole concept would come up for reassessment.....

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  5. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I wonder who is going to gain from this.

    The port at Abbot Point is owned by Adani, which is an Indian Company.

    Adani plans to develop Carmichael coal mine, and build a rail line to both Abbot Point and Hay Point, and perhaps Dudgeon Point.

    Australians will be hired as labour, with some contracts going to local companies, but for the most part, it will be temporary or short term work.

    Meanwhile there are significant questions regards the quality of coal at its planned mine, and the amount of overburden to reach it, and the amount of debt that Adani already has, (and whether it can increase that debt to build more coal mines and ports).

    http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2013/12/3/energy-markets/remote-prospects-adanis-galilee-wish

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  6. Jeremy Tager

    Extispicist

    Hi Jon
    The best option of course is not to dredge or dump or expand the coal ports or allow more coal mines...but that has become almost irrational in an age of absurdity. If dumping is going to occur, why not onshore. Gina Rhinehart owns a block of land near Mackay? We could build here a toxic mountain from which to view her toxic business. Or put the spoil back on the empty trains and take it back out to Galilee to fill the repulsive holes our planet destroyers are building...

    We have to stop accepting that this insanity is inevitable and speak the obvious and the necessary.

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  7. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    "causing damage and then trying to fix it" is a national sport amongst our industries and is probably a given for almost any human activity. Pollution of subterranean aquifers by oil and gas extraction processes is a similar problem, where we know it will happen and we know it is effectively irreversible. Face it, humans are good at one thing: trashing the planet.

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      "causing damage and then trying to fix it" is economic activity, adds to GDP - crikey, I think you've just worked out how the LibLab Party has developed its approach to environmental issues.

      Unrestricted, unthinking overpopulation also adds to GDP. Crikey, I think I've just worked out how the LibLab Party has developed its approach to immigration policy.

      Only problem is, GDP is not a useful guide to long-term goals such as sustainablity. https://theconversation.com/topics/gdp

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  8. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Thanks for this article and the useful critique of Greg Hunt's "offsets".

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  9. Kate Newton

    logged in via email @ymail.com

    What the hell do they think they are doing exporting coal across the Reef in the first place. A travesty of humanity and the environment.

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    1. Jon Brodie

      Research scientist

      In reply to Florence Howarth

      Hi Florence

      Abbot Point is an existing port and all the alternatives such as Hay Pt (Mackay) are also inside the GBR.

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  10. Roger Currie

    logged in via Facebook

    good article John , your suggestion to make the jetties longer sounds like a 'common sense approval condition', would the SEWPAC referral assessment staff be game to suggest it?, if so, would they have jobs next week?
    Would the longer jetties make the proposal economically nonviable?
    Should there be a threshold for dredging in the GBR? , ie an assumption is made that > than the threshold automatically indicates 'significant impacts', as defined by the EPBC ACT 1999, will occur? and therefore it is a 'non conforming use' within the GBR ?
    Would this become a 'shopping item', with a barcode , available over the counter of the 'one stop shop', you push the EIS over the scanner and you are told, ' i sorry , your purchase has triggered the threshold, and is a non conforming use, please modify your purchase and try again , thank you for shopping at ONESTOP".
    Of course this would remove the need for assessment staff , just like at woolies?

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    1. Jeremy Tager

      Extispicist

      In reply to Roger Currie

      Roger
      GBRMPA openly advocated longer trestles with minimal dredging to north queensland bulk ports, which rejected the idea as too expensive. In any event, it does nothing about the massive increase in shipping into and out of Abbott Pt (it will become the biggest coal terminal on the planet) and does nothing about ensuring that we rapidly head for 4-6 degrees of warming. Finally, GBRMPA has said that the Reef is at a crossroads - we either ensure we build as much resilience into the system as possible or it will die. Allowing any coal port expansions along the GBR coast is doing just the opposite.

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    2. Jon Brodie

      Research scientist

      In reply to Jeremy Tager

      Hi Jeremy

      Once we enter into the whole business of coal exports, climate change and the GBR we are in a much bigger space. As I'm at home now having made cyclone preparations and almost finished my comments on the GBRMPA Strategic Assessment I'll elaborate further.
      There are two types of coal - coking (metallurgical) and thermal. As you all know coking is used as a form of carbon to remove the oxygen from ores to leave the metal e.g. in steel and aluminium production. It CANNOT be replaced by…

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    3. Jeremy Tager

      Extispicist

      In reply to Jon Brodie

      Hi Jon
      I think the starting point has to be that emissions from all coal have to be reduced by around 80%.That includes coking coal. There are cleaner ways of making steel (Guy Pearse has written a bit about this here - http://www.guypearse.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Pearse-Climate-Camp-Speech-Final.pdf). If we keep burning coal at current levels then the fate of the Reef is sealed and no amount of management is going to change that. The other thing about management of industrial ports in the…

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    4. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Jon Brodie

      Jon, my (ill-informed) understanding is coking coal is used as the carbon source in metallurgical applications because it is cheap and available, not because it is the only possible source of carbon. I believe recycled plastic has been used successfully in experiments, but cost an availability are against it.
      Either way, it doesn't solve the greenhouse gas emission problem, which is, roughly, the extraction of oxygen from ore by reacting with carbon to produce metal + CO₂. (Have I got the reaction right?)

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    5. Jon Brodie

      Research scientist

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Yes there are ways of making steel and aluminium using renewables such as charcoal from forests but the tonnage requirements are huge and the real potential for plantation forestry to provide these amounts for the amount of steel the world uses currently is miniscule. Options such as natural gas produce a little less CO2 but are still a greenhouse issue. Using only scrap steel to make all a significant part of our current requirements is not possible. We can and should move towards all of these…

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