Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s recent proposal to ban the disposal of capital dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park could change the face of future coal port development in Queensland.

Minister Hunt’s announcement coincided with the release of the Government’s State Party Report on the Great Barrier Reef to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, part of the Government’s response to UNESCO’s consideration of whether to include the Great Barrier Reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The ban will implement a commitment made by the Environment Minister to the Committee in November 2014.

The ban applies only to capital dredging (i.e. creation of new or substantially enlarged shipping channels), and will not restrict maintenance of existing dredged areas to facilitate day-to-day port operations. It will be imposed via amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 1983 (Cth).

The Government expects the amendments to come into force before the end of this financial year, following public consultation on the proposal and a final approval by Minister Hunt. It will operate via the removal of the ability for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to grant permission for the disposal of capital dredge spoil in the Marine Park.

Onshore or shoreline disposal of spoil, rather than offshore disposal, may involve greater costs for major port development, and may result in delays (particularly if a suitable onshore site is difficult to locate) in obtaining final approvals and proceeding to works stage.

While the ban will affect all port-related development near to the Great Barrier Reef, observers have particularly been focused on the ongoing proposal to expand coal terminal facilities at the Port of Abbot Point, following a raft of NGO-led legal challenges against the approvals obtained by the port authority to authorise dredging and disposal of dredge spoil. The original approvals contemplated dumping of spoil in the Marine Park, although alternative dump sites offshore and then onshore (at the nearby Caley Valley wetlands) are being considered.

Queensland’s major northern ports are carved out of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area, but capital dredging works at those ports often involves the disposal of dredged material further out to sea, within the Marine Park. This activity, along with pest proliferation and run-off from mainland agricultural activities, have been blamed for a deterioration in the Reef’s health since its original inclusion on the World Heritage List in 1981. The ports are, however, still within the boundaries of the World Heritage Area, which is the target of UNESCO’s interest.

As the ban relates to spoil disposal in the Marine Park, it will not affect ports further south, such as the Port of Brisbane.

Minister’s Hunt’s media release states that the ban is being introduced with the agreement of the Queensland Government. We note that then-Queensland Opposition Leader Annastacia Palaszczuk’s position on this issue pre-State election was to support extending the ban to the entire Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (i.e. not just the Marine Park). The ban now proposed by the Federal Government will ban disposal only within the Marine Park itself.