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article imageThe Great Barrier Reef: The battle rages on

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By Elke Nagy     Aug 24, 2014 in Environment
Once again, serious questions are being raised about the decision to allow the dumping of dredge spoil in Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Last January, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved a plan to dump three million cubic metres of dredge spoil inside the marine park to expand the Abbot Point coal port.
Internal documents obtained by Australia's current affairs program, Four Corners has revealed the decision was made against the recommendations of senior scientists. The story was televised last week.
Journalist Marian Wilkinson reported,[T]he Abbot Point decision was bitterly fought inside the Marine Park Authority right up until January this year. For months the Authority's key experts in Townsville advised their superiors and the Federal Environment Department that the dumping was unacceptable... The advice of the Marine Park Authority experts is contained here in hundreds of internal documents. Released under Freedom of Information to environmentalists, they include candid emails revealed tonight for the first time.
The reef has already lost half its coral cover in the last 27 years as a result of storm damage (48 percent), crown of thorns starfish (42 percent), and bleaching (10 percent).
In his introduction, the program's presenter Kerry O'Brien lamented,
As a child, one of the first memorable things I learned about Australia's geography was that we could boast of having one of the seven great natural wonders of the world. Not only could we be proud of having the most extensive and most spectacular reefs, but it was also a great little earner.
Perhaps the fact that it had been created without any pain or effort to the nation made it easier for us to take it for granted. But the bottom line is that, for nearly half a century as a journalist, I've been reporting, reading, watching and now presenting stories on its decline.
First it was the crown-of-thorns starfish and our rather tepid response to the risk. But bar cyclones, every threat ever since has come from human hand.
Now, just last week, another major report to Government with another dire warning that the Barrier Reef is in poor condition, has worsened since the last review five years ago and is expected to decline further.
Yet the same authority that released the latest alarming report on the reef, the authority that's charged with protecting the reef, has at the same time approved the dumping of dredged waste near the reef despite big problems the last time that happened - and even its own scientists are up in arms.
The Abbot Point coal port expansion would become one of the biggest coal terminals in the world. And for the first time, scientists have been able to confirm a link between port dredging and coral disease.
Former Director Jon Day, GBRMPA told Four Corners, We're dealing with a World Heritage area, the most important World Heritage area on the planet... Our own legislative mandate says 'the long-term protection and conservation of the values', and we're not doing that.
Jon Day resigned last month. He had worked at GBRMPA for two decades.
Russell Reichelt is the current chairman of GBRMPA. When asked for his response, given "nearly every leading marine scientist in the country is opposed to this decision," he replied,
Look, I respect the, my scientific colleagues. Um, the... the... their view of the decision is couched on a very narrow view of the state of the system and this proposal. Um, I would agree with them that, overall, dredging should come down.
Dr Charlie Veron, Former Chief Scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science said, That decision has to be a political decision. It is not supported by science at all. Um, and I was absolutely flabbergasted when I, when I heard of that decision. To dump it in the middle of the Marine Park, adding further stress to the environment of the Great Barrier Reef, is utterly reprehensible...
I regard Russ [the chairman] as a good friend and he's always had a very sharp eye for science. And so I am completely mystified by that decision. I would be most interested to see how it came about because it is certainly not based on science.
And I wonder about the independence of the Marine Park Authority. I don't know the politics of it but there must have been something going on because it's completely out of kilter with Russ's normal way of operating.
Terry Hughes, Prof., Arc Centre Of Excellence For Coral Reef Studies added, My reaction was disappointment because the scientific evidence is, is very clear. Dumping dredge spoil is, is a dangerous thing to do to the Marine Park. The Marine Park is in declining condition and the last thing it needs is yet another stressor.
Jon Brodie, Research Scientist, James Cook University concluded, In the end they wanted the cheapest, quickest, dirtiest option at Abbot Point and that's what they got.
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee is highly critical of the dumping decision, and may place the Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage "In Danger" list in 2015.
GBRMPA's decision is being challenged in court.
The full transcript from the program can be read here.
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