- What is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's (GBRMPA) decision?
- Where is the approved disposal site?
- What is the disposal site made up of?
- Is the disposal material toxic?
- Is it possible the disposal site will change?
- What limits will be placed on the disposal of dredge spoil?
- What technical advice about dredging and disposal will NQBP be given?
- What conditions will be put in place to protect the Catalina WWII heritage wreck?
- What conditions will be put in place to protect the local tourism and fishing industries?
- What are the alternatives to placing the dredge material in the ocean? Can it be placed on land?
- What conditions are necessary to ensure disposal of the material can occur in a safe manner?
- What potential impacts will the disposal activity have on fish populations in the area?
- How were community views taken into account?
- Will there be an environmental site supervisor?
- Will long-term monitoring of water quality occur?
- Can the decision be appealed?
- What is UNESCO’s position on developments along the Great Barrier Reef coastline?
After rigorous assessment, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has approved an application by North Queensland Bulk Ports (NQBP) to dispose of dredge spoil at Abbot Point, subject to 47 strict environmental conditions.
This is in addition to stringent conditions imposed by the Environment Minister.
The conditions imposed by GBRMPA on NQBP's disposal of dredge material will help protect coral reefs, fish habitat and the Catalina WWII wreck, while recognising that the Marine Park is a multiple-use area which provides for a range of activities including tourism, fishing and shipping.
The approved dredge disposal site is located approximately 25 km east-north-east of the Port of Abbot Point.
It falls within a General Use Zone of the Marine Park — under the Zoning Plan for the Marine Park, dredge disposal is considered to be a permissible activity within such a zone, however it requires a permit.
The 400 hectare (four square kilometres) disposal site is 39–44 metres deep and is situated in a large band of sand, silt and clay. Based on studies by North Queensland Bulk Ports, there is no hard coral or seagrass within the disposal site.
The dredge material to be disposed of in the Marine Park is a mixture of sand, slit and clay.
All material destined for ocean relocation is tested by accredited laboratories and has to comply with strict requirements under the National Assessment Guidelines for Dredging.
Analysis of sediment from Abbot Bay has not identified any contaminants of concern at levels that would impact on the marine environment. As a result, it is deemed to be suitable for ocean disposal.
As part of conditions set down by the Federal Environment Minister, North Queensland Bulk Ports is required to assess an investigation zone located 20 to 30 kilometres from the dredge area to determine if there is a more suitable site for disposal of the dredge material.
If a site is found, approval by the Minister and GBRMPA will be required before it can be used.
The permit granted to North Queensland Bulk Ports is for the disposal of a total of three million cubic metres of capital dredge material. Of this, a limit of 1.3 million cubic metres can be disposed of in any one calendar year.
Disposal must only occur between 1 March and 30 June of each year. This four month window is outside times of the year where coral spawning and seagrass growth occurs.
The disposal of dredge material must not result in any harm to environmental, cultural, heritage values of:
- the Conservation Park Zone adjacent to Holbourne Island Reef
- a 500 metre buffer area around the WWII Catalina wreck
- the Habitat Protection Zone adjacent to Nares Rock
- the Marine National Park Zone
- any areas beyond 20 kilometres from the disposal site.
Under our permit conditions, North Queensland Bulk Ports must establish, fund and facilitate an independent dredging and disposal technical advice panel. This is in line with a condition imposed by the Federal Environment Minister.
The panel must include two independent scientific experts with expertise in water quality and marine ecology, an independent dredging technical advisor, an expert sediment transport modeller and a GBRMPA representative.
The membership of the panel must be approved by GBRMPA before work starts.
To provide further transparency and scrutiny over the project, North Queensland Bulk Ports must also establish, fund and facilitate an independent dredging and disposal management response group.
Group members must include representatives from North Queensland Bulk Ports, the Federal Environment Department, GBRMPA, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, the Bowen-Burdekin Local Marine Advisory Committee, fishing, tourism, Indigenous and conservation groups, as well as an independent coral scientist, an independent seagrass scientist, a dredging contractor, an independent dredging consultant and environmental site supervisor. Membership of this group will also require the approval of GBRMPA.
A dredging and spoil disposal management plan, which includes a heritage protection plan, will need to be approved by GBRMPA.
This plan must include forecast modelling to ensure there is no harm during disposal activities to a 500 metre buffer area surrounding the WWII Catalina wreck.
Other protective measures include monitoring during disposal activities, and for six months afterwards.
Disposal activities must also be stopped during adverse wind and current conditions to ensure sediment plumes do not reach the WWII Catalina wreck site.
A dredging and spoil disposal management plan, which includes a tourism, fishing and social impact program, will need to be approved by GBRMPA.
It must include forecast modelling to ensure there is no harm from disposal activities to waters adjacent to the Conservation Park Zone which is adjacent to Holbourne Island reef; the Habitat Protection Zone adjacent to Nares Rock; the Marine National Park Zone; and any areas beyond 20 kilometres from the disposal site.
In addition, NQBP must develop a social impact program to identify and measure any adverse impacts on the tourism and fishing industries, including any reductions in water quality. It must also detail how any lost income to the fishing and tourism industries will be compensated in the event that adverse impacts occur.
A report must be submitted to GBRMPA no later than two months after the end of each disposal activity detailing the actual disposal plume footprint and any real or perceived impacts on the tourism and fishing industry in the Whitsunday–Bowen tourism and fishing areas.
The National Assessment Guidelines for Dredging 2009 require alternatives to ocean disposal be evaluated, including the environmental, social and economic impacts of each disposal option. Potentially affected stakeholders or potential users of the dredged material must also be consulted.
Through various workshops and meetings, as well as its supplementary public environment report released in May 2013, North Queensland Bulk Ports explored and assessed alternative options, including offshore disposal and trestle extensions — questions on the environmental, social and economic costs associated with each option should be directed to the company.
There are potential issues with onshore disposal:
- Current and future land uses may be impacted. The dredge material is a mixture of sand, silt and clay and can take up to 10 years to settle. Once settled, the soil is generally not suitable for building purposes unless additional structural material is added.
- Loss of coastal ecosystems and connectivity. For example, bund walls would need to be built to contain the sand, silt, clay mixture. This would isolate this land from its surroundings, resulting in loss of ecosystem function.
- Transporting dredge material is likely to result in significant pollution issues. For example, if coal trains were to carry the sand, silt and clay, they would very likely leak in transit as the trains are designed for transporting bulky solid material, not seawater-infused dredge material. While tankers are another alternative, some hundreds a day on rail or road would be needed to transport the large volume of material.
- Sufficient land needs to be available to hold the dredged material.
Another alternative to ocean disposal is the use of extended jetties (trestles). In order for trestles to be constructed, the proponent needs to consider issues such as navigational safety and engineering feasibility.
The most critical factor in determining whether disposal can proceed in a way that will contain the sediment plume is oceanographic conditions. Hydrodynamic modelling (which studies the motion of seawater) will be used to monitor conditions in real-time during the lead up to and throughout the disposal activity.
Modelling by North Queensland Bulk Ports, and previous dredge disposal campaigns — including those undertaken at Hay Point (near Mackay) and the Port of Townsville — show in average conditions sediment plumes travel north (this is the opposite direction to where the Catalina WWII wreck is located).
However, there are oceanographic conditions that can cause the sediment to move in a southerly direction. Monitoring around Hay Point showed a southerly plume, while satellite photos taken during dredging operations around Mackay also showed a southerly plume.
Modelling undertaken by North Queensland Bulk Ports for Abbot Point showed that under average conditions, the plume would not enter the Conservation Park Zone surrounding Holbourne Island which is seven kilometres away from the disposal site. It also showed that if oceanographic conditions meant the plume did reach Nares Rock, that the concentration of the sediment contained in the plume would have minimal impacts on corals.
Monitoring work also indicates — depending on the site and the material — that the site can recover to predisposal conditions within months, particularly if the material is deposited in a shallow layer, allowing benthic invertebrates to turn over and integrate the new sediment.
As part of GBRMPA’s conditions, North Queensland Bulk Ports must have a disposal management plan approved by the agency before disposal activities can occur. This plan must include daily forecast modelling to assess oceanographic conditions. Model findings must also be validated by other tools such as satellite imagery.
In addition, disposal activities are limited to the period between March and June as this falls outside the coral spawning and seagrass growth periods.
Before disposal activities begin, North Queensland Bulk Ports must also check for marine mammals and/or turtles within the monitoring zone. Disposal cannot occur if marine mammals or turtles are in the monitoring zone, and vessels must maintain a distance of at least 300 metres from these animals.
Commercial fisheries in the area include mackerel and scallops.
Fishers have expressed concern that changes in water quality may affect the health of mackerel fisheries and that disturbance to seafloor structures, such as rocks from dredge material, can prevent mackerel from gathering there.
The public environment report showed there are no endangered fish species in the area.
North Queensland Bulk Ports is currently assessing potential alternative sites within an identified investigation zone which would be further away from Nares Rock, considered to be important to local commercial and recreational fishers.
GBRMPA’s permit conditions also require that a tourism, fishing and social impact program be developed to identify any adverse impacts on the tourism and fishing industries caused by the disposal activities in the Whitsunday/Bowen tourism and nearby fishing areas.
This must include details of how the daily operational forecast plume modelling will be used to protect sensitive tourism and fishing sites, as well as details on how any lost income to the fishing and tourism industries (both short-term and long-term) that can be attributed to environmental impacts from disposal activities will be compensated.
Permit decisions are based on a risk assessment of potential environmental, social, cultural and heritage impacts. Community and stakeholder concerns are considered as part of the risk assessment, as well as relevant scientific and technical reports.
Comments submitted during the public comment phase of North Queensland Bulk Ports' public environment report were considered closely.
To ensure community views are taken into account during dredging and dredge disposal activities, GBRMPA has required that the community be represented on a management response group to be established by North Queensland Bulk Ports. This will ensure information and views are shared and considered in managing the activity. Membership of this group will require the approval of GBRMPA.
North Queensland Bulk Ports is required to develop an ecosystem research and monitoring program which must be approved by GBRMPA.
As part of this, a long-term monitoring program must be developed to detect any short-term or long-term impacts of the dredge disposal. This will inform any actions that may be needed to minimise adverse impacts.
This monitoring program must continue for five years or other such period as determined by GBRMPA after the last annual disposal campaign has been completed.
An environmental site supervisor appointed by GBRMPA will be in place during dredging and dredge disposal operations at Abbot Point to oversee compliance with permit conditions.
This supervisor is authorised to stop or suspend or modify works which have caused or are likely to cause harm to the environment or to heritage, social or economic values.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority was required to make a decision under two Acts, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 and the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981.
People who believe their interests have been affected by the permit approval under these Acts may be able to have the decision reviewed by the Federal Court, Federal Circuit Court or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
A report tabled at the World Heritage Committee meeting in June–July 2012 raised concerns about the potential impact that industrial development such as the LNG processing plan on Curtis Island, could have on the Great Barrier Reef’s outstanding values.
The Committee accepted a report by a UNESCO monitoring mission and its recommendations, including a requirement that the Australian Government conduct a comprehensive strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef.
A draft strategic assessment has been subsequently carried out by both the Australian and Queensland governments. Public consultation closed on 31 January 2014.
Also on 31 January, the Australian Government submitted its 2014 State Party Report, a progress update outlining substantial progress in implementing the World Heritage Committee’s decisions.
The World Heritage Committee at its 38th session in June 2014 will examine this report on the state of conservation of the property, including whether recommended actions have been implemented. It has said that it will consider, in the absence of substantial progress, placing the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger.