Company exploits loophole to dump sludge on Great Barrier Reef

A loophole in legislation means one million of tonnes of sludge will be allowed to be dumped on the Great Barrier Reef over the next 10 years. This is an unbelievably big step backwards in efforts to protect the reef. But why is this happening? Who is involved? And how damaging will it be?

A shipping lane cuts through the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a world heritage site and an icon of both Australia and the natural world. But unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be enough to protect it from an unnecessary and damaging decision to put it in jeopardy. Last week the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved the dumping of one million tonnes of sludge in the park’s water because of a loophole in legislation. The announcement comes weeks after mass floods in Queensland led to a plume of sediment being washed over a large portion of the reef. The GBR has already lost up to 30% of its corals to bleaching and smothering from sediments will only make the problem worse. Politicians are now desperately trying to overturn the decision before dumping begins in March.

The loophole

Most people reading this will be shocked and angry to find out something like this has been approved by an agency tasked with the protection of the GBR. Unfortunately it is a completely legal loophole in legislation designed to protect the area which has been exploited by a single shipping company. The North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, who run the Hay Point shipping area in Queensland, are the company involved. They want to dredge the sediment that has accumulated in their shipping lanes for ‘maintenance’ and dump the waste into the waters of the marine park. Under laws put in place in 2015 it is illegal to dump capital dredge spoils in the GBR. This means virgin materials that have been removed from the seafloor to create new shipping lanes or from mining.

Hay point
Hay Point shipping area owned by North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation

But bizarrely maintenance dredging is still allowed despite being as equally damaging to the environment as capital dredging. Therefore the GBRMPA had little choice but to approve the dumping of sludge within its protected area. There is also no limit to the scale of the operation and therefore the company will dump over one million tonnes of waste sludge over the next decade. What is even worse about this is that the company are only dumping offshore because it is cheaper and more convenient for them. The waste materials can be processed on land or dumped further offshore which would protect the reef but at the expense of the company’s profits. Therefore they are actively and unnecessarily deciding to risk the health of the GBR and all the species that call it home.

Why sludge is so damaging?

What makes dumping sludge so damaging is the increase in sediment in the water which settles on top of the corals. The algal symbionts (zooxanthellae) that produce the energy needed to keep corals alive require direct access to sunlight for photosynthesis. When sediments settle on corals they block this sunlight and the mutual relationship between corals and zooxanthellae break down. This causes the symbionts to be expelled from the corals in what is known as coral bleaching. Corals are the building blocks of reefs and when they bleach the whole ecosystem collapses. Bleaching also occurs with rising ocean temperatures and acidification which has already caused a large proportion of the corals on the GBR to bleach. The sediment from dumping will only make the problems worse and it harder for corals to recover, which they are already unlikely to do.

Flood waters
Sediment filled flood waters spilling onto the Great Barrier Reef earlier this month

In this particular case there is another big problem caused by the type of sludge that will be dumped. The shipping area at Hay Point which is being dredged has been a big port for the shipping of coal and other mining products for decades. Therefore the sludge is likely to contain a multitude of heavy metals and other toxic substances that have accumulated there. If these settle on the reef it is likely to cause severe problems. Crustaceans and small fish are likely to be worst effected, but this will also mean the toxic chemicals can make their way into the food web which will cause widespread issues. It is also feared that dumping in hot summer conditions could trigger algal blooms which are also extremely damaging to coral reefs.

‘Another nail in the coffin’

This news is just the latest in a long line of human caused issues that are impacting the GBR. It is already under a huge amount of pressure from a changing ocean and there are now fears it will never recover. Rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification have already contributed to the bleaching of around 30% of the corals there. It is a number that will only get bigger in the future as bleaching events become more frequent and widespread. On top of that the reef faces other major ecological problems such as the population explosion of crown-of-thorns starfish that feed on corals, overfishing of predatory fish and high levels of eco-tourism.  Sludge dumping just increases the pressure on an already stressed ecosystem.

Bleached Reef
Sights like this are becoming far too common on the Great Barrier Reef

What is perhaps most ironic about the situation is that it comes less than a year after the government pledged to spend $500 million on protecting the GBR. In its report it highlighted sediment from dredging and run-off to be one of the main contributing factors in the reefs deterioration. The announcement also comes weeks after mass floods in Queensland caused a large plume of sediment and agricultural pesticides to be washed onto the reef sparking fear for its health. Speaking to the BBC Dr Simon Boxall from the National Oceanography Centre Southampton described what’s happening as “another nail in the coffin” for the GBR.

Short sighted

In defence of their actions the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation (NQBPC) released a statement which described the risk to marine habitats as “predominantly low” with “some temporary, short-term impacts possible”. Not only is this misleading but it also highlights the incredible short sightedness of the industry. It is true that the effects of a single dump would be ‘temporary’ and easy to recover from but there is nothing ‘short-term’ about dumping one million tonnes over a 10 year period. Although the direct effects of sediment may be ‘predominantly low’ bleaching events are already becoming more frequent and damaging and adding another problem into the mix could be catastrophic. For a company like NQBPC the next decade will likely include increased profits and growth. But for the GBR the next decade could determine whether or not it survives into the future.

Taking responsibility

Although this decision is a crushing blow for conservationists there is still time to overturn the decision. One of the biggest opponents to the decision is senator Larissa Waters from the Greens who when talking to the Guardian described the decision as “the last thing the reef needs” and saying NQBPC are treating the reef “like a rubbish tip”. She also went on to say that “Government policy needs to change to ban all offshore dumping” and that she hopes to overturn the decision before the dumping begins. She is not alone and a large proportion of the public agree that the dumping of sludge on the reef should not be allowed.

In the 21st century with what we now know about the importance of healthy ecosystems to our own lives and the damage we are causing to the natural world decisions like this should really no longer be happening. Until big corporations, like the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, start putting the planet in front of profits massive ecological catastrophes like the collapse of the Great Barrier Reef are far too likely in the near future. It is time for everyone to take responsibility for their actions and their consequences not continue to make the same old mistakes.

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