Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

Australia coal port expansion will not get environmental impact study

Project would involve dumping acidic soil onto wetlands that filter water for the Great Barrier Reef

Australia appears set to fast-track approval of a coal port expansion project that would dump millions of tons of dredged material onto wetlands near the Great Barrier Reef, government documents show.

Earlier this year the government had approved a plan to expand the Abbot Point coal port that involved dumping acidic soil dredged from the seabed near the reef — but an outcry from conservationists caused the government to backtrack. In September, the Queensland state government had asked federal officials to accelerate approval of a new plan that would instead see the dredged soil discarded in wetlands near the reef.

Environmentalists are outraged at the government's plans to start dredging at Abbot Point in the northeastern state of Queensland under environmental guidance based on an assessment of preliminary documents — instead of carrying out a full environmental impact report, which is standard practice for a project of this size. The Abbot Point dredging is taking place in areas that the documents say are home to threatened species as well as National and World Heritage sites.

The government “realized that the community was not going to let them dump dredge spoil into the Great Barrier Reef, so now they’ve moved on to the second-dirtiest option and are closing their eyes to its environmental impacts,” Sen. Larissa Waters, the Green Party’s environment spokeswoman, told The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday.

“The stunning, internationally significant Caley Valley wetlands are habitat to threatened shorebird species, a fish breeding ground and an important filter for water running into the Great Barrier Reef,” she said.

But Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said there would be a “very rigorous process” for assessing the impact of the project, because Australia has “some of the most stringent environmental protection laws in the world.”

Earlier this month Prime Minister Tony Abbott, speaking at the opening of a new coal mine, declared that coal is “good for humanity.”

Many activists and environmentalists in the region disagreed. Two weeks ago in eastern Australia, hundreds of protesters and environmental activists from a dozen South Pacific countries attempted to halt shipping from the world’s largest coal export terminal to China and India.

The protesters, including some from the flood- and drought-battered Marshall Islands, said the burning of coal mined in Australia was causing sea levels to climb, threatening their very existence. Sea levels are expected to rise up to seven feet by the end of the century, based on a series of scientific reports released this year.

Australia relies on coal-fired power stations for much of its electricity, and has the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world, according to Reuters news agency. An expanded coal shipping port at Abbot Point would be used by mega-mines in the area, which environmentalists have criticized as a massive new source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The approval of the plans to dump dredged soil onto wetlands comes just a month after world leaders met at the United Nations headquarters in New York City to lock in countries’ pledges to reduce those emissions in time for a global climate treaty meeting in Paris in 2015.

Many scientists have said the global average temperature increase must be kept under 2 degrees Celsius in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change — including rising sea levels, extreme weather and droughts.

Australia’s Prime Minister Abbott has argued that “the climate change argument is absolute crap,” and since taking power in September 2013 he has eliminated three conservation agencies meant to protect the environment.

During his campaign he promised to get rid of Australia’s carbon tax, and in July the Senate voted to repeal the levy on big polluters. Abbott has also attempted to remove the World Heritage designation on Tasmanian forests to allow logging.

With wire services

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