The Fight for the Reef

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The expansion of coal ports pose a threat to marine life in the Great Barrier Reef. NASA

A few weeks ago, I was browsing one of those mildly entertaining image-sharing websites – the kind you click on at 3 a.m. when school has turned your brain into pudding and your thoughts into caveman grunts.  You know the kind.

There is no hope of intellectual edification, only the slow chewing of Internet cud as you click through a gallery of Jennifer Lawrence quotes and grumpy cats, and wait for sleep to come.

But on this particular day, a socially conscious citizen had posted a series of pictures – first of the Great Barrier Reef, then Australia's new PM, Tony Abbot, environment minister Greg Hunt, and then a massive coal refinery spreading its sludgy tentacles into the water.

The message was clear. Australia's government had approved the expansion of coal in the vicinity of the Great Barrier Reef, threatening the health of the world's largest living structure and potentially destroying its coral and diverse marine life.

Not quite ready to accept this, I did a bit of research and found that…

Yes, it's true.

There's a lot of misinformation floating around, but here's what news outlets seem to agree on:

Last December, Australian environment minister Greg Hunt signed off on four different proposals in Queensland, all involving the expansion of existing coal ports. (Here's a map.)

The most hotly contested development is at Abbot Point, where $6.2 billion will be poured into the creation of four new coal terminals, making Abbot one of the largest coal ports in the world.

Constructing Abbot Point will require the dredging up of 3 million cubic meters of seabed. Currently, the government is trying to get a permit to dump the "dredged material" into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef park itself. The disposal site remains the last kink in Hunt's plan and will be decided by the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority on January 31.

The next looming deadline is February of 2014, when the UN World Heritage committee UNESCO decides whether to add the GBR to its "list of shame," World Heritage in Danger. The loss in prestige could cause a slump in the annual $6 billion tourism industry (Queensland's life-blood, employing over 10 percent of people in the state).

In the meantime, science and industry remain at loggerheads about the environmental impacts of coastal development, dredging and coastal shipping.

Jon Brodie, a researcher and prominent policy advisor on issues of GBR water quality, spearheaded the scientific community into releasing a consensus statement in 2013.

The consensus of 50 policy experts and scientists, in a sentence:

"Declining marine water quality, influenced by terrestrial runoff, is recognized as one of the most significant threats to the long-term health of the Great Barrier Reef."

Brodie estimates a potential 14 million tons of sediment pollution a year from dredging. Cloudy, polluted waters will block sunlight necessary for the photosynthesis of coral and seagrass, which in turn nourish fish, turtles and other marine life.

To offset this, Hunt says he has imposed "some of the strictest conditions in Australian history" on the developments, including a requirement for 150 percent net gain in water quality.

But according to Brodie, the conditions for the current proposals don't match standards set 20 years ago, when assessments of environmental impact were done by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Instead, today's monitoring programs are designed by consultants for the port developers, with little independence or transparency.

If this is true – if the very "consultants" the Australian government has appointed to protect the reef from exploitation are on coal's paycheck – then accountability must fall on the shoulders of the citizens, Australian and otherwise.

What happens off the coast of Queensland matters. The Great Barrier Reef may be one of the most visible and imminent casualties in the war between economy and ecology, but it is a war being fought in every corner of the world.

Join the international community and sign the World Wildlife Fund's petition to "Fight for the Reef."

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