SYDNEY - One of the world's biggest coal ports will be built in Australia's north-east, but the project has outraged environmentalists who say it will have a devastating impact on the Great Barrier Reef.
The controversial port expansion at Abbot Point in north Queensland will involve digging up the seabed, with three million cubic litres of the dredged waste to be dumped offshore.
It will allow the port to become a hub for exporting coal and coal seam gas from the inland Galilee Basin, which is believed to contain more than 14 billion tonnes of coal.
The decision to expand the port had been deferred repeatedly by both the ruling coalition and the former Labor government until Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave the go-ahead and it was announced earlier this month.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt insisted that the new development would have to follow strict conditions and would not damage the reef's water quality.
The dredged waste would be dumped on the shoreline or near to shore, or used to reclaim land, he said.
"Basically, you're taking sand and mud from where they would actually be dredging and then moving it a little bit of distance to sand and mud in exactly the same proportion," he told Queensland radio station 4BC last week.
"So in other words, seabed is simply being moved to like seabed."
But the project comes amid concerns about the future of the Great Barrier Reef, which spans more than 2,000km on the Queensland coast.
One of Australia's best-known tourist sites, it draws about two million visitors a year and brings in about A$6 billion (S$6.8 billion) annually from tourism.
Environmentalists say the project, coupled with other approved ports being built along the coast, involves the largest-scale industrial development ever to hit the reef - and at a time when it is in its poorest health.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society said the port, which will allow hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal to be shipped a year, could be "the death knell" for the reef.
It said the dumped material will damage coral and cover seagrass, which provides food for marine life such as dugongs and turtles.
"The reef is already in serious strife," campaign director Felicity Wishart told The Straits Times.