Queensland government breaks Reef promise

During the 2015 Queensland election campaign, the then-Labor opposition promised to prohibit trans-shipping operations within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, as part of its commitment to protect the Reef.

Labor’s 2015 “Saving the Great Barrier Reef” plan stated: “A Labor government will also prohibit trans-shipping operations within the Great Barrier Reef marine park.” It made the promise after the United Nations’ peak scientific body UNESCO raised concerns about a proposal by the former LNP government to allow Queensland operator Mitchell Ports to trans-ship off Hay Point near Mackay in 2014.

But on September 22, the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection released a consultation paper, Proposed regulation of trans-shipping activities in Queensland waters and the Great Barrier Reef, which backs away from that promise. Instead, it proposes to set up an assessment framework that would allow trans-shipping to extend from four “priority ports” — Townsville, Adani’s Abbot Point, Hay Point and Gladstone — out to the Marine Park.

Trans-shipping is the transfer of bulk materials, including bulk liquids, coal, sugar or petroleum products, from one vessel to another, while at sea. It does not include refuelling activities; packaged materials; fishing vessels or marine emergency response vessels.

While the environmental risks of trans-shipping apply to all marine environments, they present a particular risk to the Great Barrier Reef’s ecosystems, which are already under pressure from climate change, catchment water quality and existing port and shipping activities.

Trans-shipping increases the risk of a major accident, such as a coal or oil spill, and chronic contamination from, for example, coal dust and small coal spills.

Environment and reef minister Steven Miles said requiring trans-shipping operations for the first time to be licensed as an “environmentally relevant activity” (ERA) meant stricter rules for “protecting the Great Barrier Reef”.

“Treating the trans-shipment of bulk materials as an ERA means stricter conditions for shipping companies and greater enforcement options for the Environment Department if the reef is harmed by these activities,” he said.

However, the consultation paper reveals that trans-shipping would be allowed in the Great Barrier Reef marine park when it is “in association with a declared port”. Existing operators would have a year to apply for a licence, and could not load ships in reef waters unless “the activity cannot be accommodated within existing port limits”.

Environmental officials would also approve only locations where dust or air emissions “will not settle on a sensitive marine community”, where operators avoid environmentally harmful discharges to waters or noise, have contingency plans for “unplanned” contamination and operate as close as possible to the coast.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society has called on the Queensland government to fully implement its election commitment. AMCS campaign director Imogen Zethoven said: Labor made a clear commitment to ban trans-shipping in the Marine Park. Now they are retreating from that promise.

“It will increase ship movements, meaning there will be more noise, more light, more likelihood of ship strikes of marine animals. It increases the risk of damage to seagrass meadows, home to turtles and dugongs, and corals — through dredging and anchoring to establish the trans-shipping site.

“The Queensland Government’s Reef 2050 Plan includes the following target: Shipping within our Reef is safe, risks are minimised, and incidents are reduced to as close to zero as possible. Only a ban on trans-shipping in the Marine Park will ensure that target is met.”

[Public comment can be submitted until October 20 here.]

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