A UN team is in Australia this week investigating what damage the mining industry is causing to the Great Barrier Reef, which is located off the coast of Queensland, Australia's largest coal-producing state. Officials have been told the reef could face a tenfold increase in bulk ship traffic as coal and gas exports boom, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.
The delegation from UNESCO's World Heritage Committee and the International Union for Conservation of Nature follows ''extreme concern'' from the heritage committee last year over a proposed liquid natural gas plant near Gladstone, a small town near the Queensland coast. Or, as Greenpeace put it, "Approvals for new gas processing plants on Curtis Island off Gladstone in 2011 prompted a stinging rebuke from United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)."
Greenpeace and environmentalists are increasingly concerned that additional coal production, and the resulting spike in shipping traffic, could affect the World Heritage status of the Great Barrier Reef, an already-stressed but vital ecosystem.
In a submission to the delegation, the conservation union's Australian committee warned that the dramatic growth of the Queensland resources industry had accelerated the threat to the reef marine park.
A 2009 report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority found risks included agricultural pollution and escalating coastal development. The population on the reef coast is expected to increase by 40 per cent over the next 25 years.
The story explains that consequences of increased coal mining, gas extraction, port development and shipping cannot be fully predicted (there are reportedly 12 commercial ports in the area, seven of which have large development proposed or underway), but Richard Kenchington, a former head of the reef marine park authority, said:
''The full extent of these proposals and their implications are not yet clear, but publicly available information on proposals leads to projections of a tenfold or greater increase in bulk carrier traffic."
BBC quotes Greenpeace's senior climate and energy campaigner for the region, John Hepburn: "The Great Barrier Reef is in danger from the coal industry and the fossil fuel boom that is happening, but it is a reckless expansion that will have direct impacts both in terms of the dredging as well as the increased shipping, as well as the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef."
A Greenpeace report "estimates that coal ships departing from Gladstone will increase from 640 to 2,445 by the end of the decade, while from Hay Point, the number will reach 3,625 up from 892 in 2011. At Abbot Point, vessels will increase 21-fold, reaching a capacity of 4,079 per year by 2020, up from 190 in 2011."
All told, the report predicts coal ships passing through the reef would increase from 1722 last year to 10,150 (more than one per hour) by 2020. With that comes an increase in risk of collisions, groundings, introduction of invasive
marine pests, oil and/or chemical spills, waste disposal and anchor damage.