On 24 January 2015, the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment, the Hon. Greg Hunt MP, announced that orders had been issued for the creation of regulations to put “an end to the dumping of capital dredge material in the Marine Park once and for all”. This announcement has followed years of scrutiny from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and concerns surrounding the decision of the 38th session of the World Heritage Committee (Committee) to defer, for 12 months, a decision on whether to inscribe Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (Reef) on the List of World Heritage in Danger (Endangered list). The deferral last year meant that the Committee is due to make a decision on the Reef’s fate in June 2015.

On 16 March 2015, a Draft Regulation Impact Statement (Impact Statement) on banning the disposal of capital dredge spoil material in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Marine Park) has been released for public comment. This Impact Statement, as well as the history behind its creation, is discussed below.

UNESCO’s monitoring of the Reef’s state of conservation

Since 2011 the Committee has considered the state of conservation of the Reef and required a yearly report from the Australian Government. In 2012, the Committee announced that the Reef did not currently meet the requirements for inclusion on the Endangered list. However, the Committee also stated that this was a possibility in the future unless there was evidence of substantial progress on the Reef’s state of conservation. A monitoring mission was conducted in 2012. Subsequently, the Committee requested the Australian Government address recommendations made, which included that:

  • the State party should apply a highly precautionary approach to consenting to new coastal and port development that might affect the property;
  • it is essential that no port, coastal or other development that could affect the outstanding universal value of the  property should be approved if it would pre-empt a positive outcome of the strategic assessment and the resulting plan for the sustainable development of the Reef; and
  • the management arrangements of the facilities in Gladstone Harbour and on Curtis Island should undergo independent review.

The Committee’s announcement made in 2012, requiring an updated report, has been repeated annually after each Committee session upon the deferment of the decision on whether to inscribe the Reef as in danger.

Australia’s response to UNESCO’s reports

After the 2012 Committee session, where the conservation status of the Reef came under heavy scrutiny, the Queensland Government began developing a strategy to protect the Reef whilst ensuring the economic development of the State. This was initiated through the Great Barrier Reef Ports Strategy, built upon by the draft Queensland Ports Strategy, culminating in the Queensland Ports Strategy (QPS). However, the Ports Bill 2014 (Qld) that was introduced to implement the QPS lapsed when the recent State election was called. The new Queensland Government is yet to clearly state its position on the QPS. Despite the lapse of this Bill, the Australian and Queensland governments have been responding to the Committee’s concerns through other means.

Australia has submitted an annual report upon the request of the Committee for the past four years. The most recent report, released on 2 February 2015, highlights the significant programs of investment and action the Government is currently implementing in order to satisfy the Committee’s most recent requests. Click here to view the report. The report also discusses the Government’s drafting of the new Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Plan), for which consultation closed on 27 October 2014. Click here to view the Plan released for comment. This Plan is one of the fundamental instruments the Australian and Queensland governments have developed to prevent the Great Barrier Reef from being listed as in danger by the Committee.

Consequences of being listed as “in Danger”

The Committee may at any time, in case of urgent need, make a new entry on the Endangered list and publicise such entry immediately. If the Reef loses the characteristics that determined its inscription in 1981, which could eventuate from inscription on the Endangered list, the Committee can remove the property from the World Heritage List. The repercussions of the Reef being removed from the World Heritage List would be significant given the $6 billion tourism industry and 60,000 jobs it supports.

The current Commonwealth position on dredge spoil sea disposal

On 24 January 2015, the Minister formally issued orders to give statutory force to the proposed ban on capital dredge spoil disposal in the Marine Park. After the Minister’s announcement of the ban on dredge spoil disposal he travelled to Europe to consult with the Committee on the new Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan and the 2015 State Party Report. The proposed ban is predicted to come into force before the end of the financial year, prior to or during the World Heritage Committees 39th session, and will be implemented by amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 1983.

The Impact Statement states that the regulation should provide that:

  • there shall be no further disposal of capital dredge material in the Marine Park from the date the regulation comes into effect;
  • the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (Authority) must not grant a permission for conduct that includes dumping of all and any capital dredge spoil material in the Marine Park;
  • the ban should apply to existing permissions for conduct that includes uncontained disposal of capital dredge spoil material in the Marine Park where they have not yet expired;
  • the definition of capital dredge spoil material should not include amounts from very small scale dredging programs (less than 15,000 cubic metres), for example, those associated with an approach to a small boat ramp, reuse of sand for beach nourishment; and
  • the definition of dumping should not include the burying of a cable, pipeline or tunnel for the purposes of critical infrastructure for islands, for example, those for water, telecommunications or electricity.

The proposed ban will not extend to areas of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (World Heritage Area), as these areas are within the control of the Queensland Government. The Queensland Labor Party pledged pre-election that they would ban the sea dumping of capital dredge spoil within the World Heritage Area. However, no further policy has been released in this regard.

What do you do?

Be aware of the effect new regulations would cause if implemented and their possible impact on future activities in or surrounding the Reef. Continue to monitor the Queensland Government’s actions in relation to dredge spoil disposal in the World Heritage Area and its position on future port planning.

If you would like to make a submission on the Impact Statement you will have until 27 March 2015 to do so. The Impact Statement is available on the Authority’s website. Click here to visit the website.