An Australian government authority approved on Friday the dumping of three-million cubic metres of dredging spoil within the Great Barrier Reef marine park off Queensland's coast.
In so doing, it cleared the final hurdle for the planned expansion of a major coal port at Abbot Point south of Townsville and could unlock up to $28 billion in coal projects in Queensland state.
Mining companies cheered the decision. But greens say the approval will lead to a surge in shipping traffic through to reef and a surge in coal exports to Asia that will further stoke climate change.
Scientists say climate change has already badly damaged the reef through warmer ocean temperatures, acidification and more intense storms.
Digging out more coal from vast reserves in Queensland and burning it in power stations and steel mills in Asia will only cook the reef even more, environmentalists such as Greenpeace say.
"The Great Barrier Reef will have another 3-million cubic metres of mud sludge dumped on it because it's cheaper for the big miners. Insanity," Tweeted Greens Senator for Queensland state, Larissa Waters, after Friday's decision by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the port expansion December last year, setting nearly 100 environmental conditions but the final decision on whether to approve the dumping of the dredging material remained with the reef Authority.
Abbot Point operator North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation had applied to the Authority for approval to dispose of dredge spoil at a deepwater location further offshore, subject to strict environmental conditions including long-term water quality monitoring.
"This approval is in line with the agency's view that port development along the Great Barrier Reef coastline should be limited to existing ports," Authority Chairman Russell Reichelt said in a statement.
"It's important to note the seafloor of the approved disposal area consists of sand, silt and clay and does not contain coral reefs or seagrass beds," he said.
The authority said the approved disposal site was about 25 kilometres (15 miles) east-north-east of the port, while the investigation zone being assessed for alternative locations was 20 to 30 kilometres from the area being dredged.
Abbot Point has been operating since 1984 and has an annual capacity of 50-million tonnes per year via its single terminal. The expansion plan approved by Hunt is to add three more terminals which, if fully developed, could increase Abbot Point's capacity to more than 200-million tonnes per year (Mtpa).
Indian power giant Adani plans to develop terminal 0 at Abbot Point as part of its drive to develop a 60 million Mtpa thermal coal mine in the north Galilee Basin in central Queensland. The A$10 billion ($8.8 billion) mine, rail and port project would be among the largest investments of its type globally.
GVK-Hancock, a joint venture between India's GVK conglomerate and mining billionaire Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting, is developing terminal 3, which will have an annual handling capacity of 60 Mtpa to export coal from several large coal mines in the Galilee Basin. These include the 32 Mtpa Alpha Coal Project , a large open-cut coal mine, which was granted state and federal approval last year.
Under the permit approved for North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, no more than 1.3-million cubic metres of dredge spoil can be dumped per year and only between March and June during the dry season.
Greenpeace said these conditions were a chance to stall the project.
"Conditions on the approval mean dredging is unlikely to start until 2015, giving us time to pressure the true villains behind the dredging plans - like multinational coal company Adani Mining," the group said in a statement.
Senator Waters said the Greens party would move new laws in the federal Parliament to ban offshore dumping in the Great Barrier Reef.
"The old parties need to stop letting the big mining companies treat this World Heritage Area as a rubbish tip and should support Greens' legislation to ban offshore dumping in the Reef."