Unlike many other environmental concerns, threats to the Great Barrier Reef are widely acknowledged beyond the scientific community. The average person may not be able to articulate exactly why the reef is at risk, but he has an idea that survival of the colorful, otherworldly seascape he remembers from so many documentaries is far from assured. In blog post this January, Justin wrote about the Australian Environmental Minister’s approval of the expansion of Abbot Point, a coal port owned by the Indian company Adani Enterprises. The port is located in Queensland, near the Great Barrier Reef, and the expansion is promised to provide over AU$28 billion in revenue for Australia. For a refresher on the issue, check out Justin’s informative post here.
Environmentalists have been objecting to the port expansion since the news broke, but there have been some notable recent developments. The Great Barrier Reef is considered a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site, indicating that it represents “cultural and natural heritage … considered to be of outstanding value to humanity” (http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/). There are currently 981 World Heritage Sites, and designation often confers the important benefits of increased tourism and attention. The World Heritage program can also serve as a policing mechanism of sorts, as UNESCO can label a World Heritage Site as being “In Danger” if its survival appears questionable.
In early May, after making ominous statements about adding the Great Barrier Reef to the list of 44 World Heritage Sites In Danger, UNESCO announced that it would delay a final decision until its June 2015 meeting. There was some surprise at this reprieve, as UNESCO had publicly condemned the fact that at least 3 million cubic meters of sludge were to be dredged for the port’s expansion and subsequently deposited in the Great Barrier Reef. Australian officials note that the sludge would be dumped in a deep channel that would limit distribution, but environmentalists question whether currents could transport the sediment to the reef. As stated in a report, UNESCO finds the sludge removal plan “of particular concern given evidence suggesting that inshore reefs in the southern two-thirds of the property are not recovering from disturbances over the past few decades”. In other words, the Great Barrier Reef is already compromised from unresolved threats, which the sludge will only exacerbate. UNESCO isn’t the only entity expressing concerns: Deutsche Bank announced last week that it will not be funding Adani Enterprises for the expansion.
The science of the coal port expansion has also been explored in the literature. In the May 2014 volume of Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, Dr. Kathryn A. Burns (James Cook University in Queensland) published an article entitled “PAHs in the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon reach potentially toxic levels from coal port activities”. Burns had co-authored a 2011 paper concluding that coal dust from the plant had introduced polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to the outer reefs (see Burns & Brinkman reference below). To address what she called an “absence of adequate published risk assessment”, Burns reanalyzed the PAH data included in her previous paper according to US EPA protocol. She compared the results to guidelines set forth by two government bodies (ANZECC and ARMCANZ) to investigate whether sediment PAH concentrations could be toxic to marine life.
The US EPA calculations are based on a value known as the Equilibrium Partitioning Sediment Benchmark Toxicity Unit (ESBTU), which relates an adjusted concentration of the PAH to its final chronic toxic value. ESBTUs are calculated for each of the 16 PAHs that can be analyzed by Australian labs, and summed to determine whether the total PAH concentration is potentially toxic. If the sum exceeds 1, the PAH concentrations represent toxic levels. Burns found that inshore surface sediments were just below the ESBTU cutoff, and that deeper and offshore sediments were lower but still detectable. When the data were compared to ANZECC/ARMCANZ regulations, the inshore sediments exceeded toxicity guidelines. Remember that these data reflect conditions in 2011, meaning that expansion of the coal plant would likely increase PAH concentrations. Burns suggested that coal dust was introduced to the reefs primarily via wind transport and stormwater leachate. Since these are indirect sources of pollution, it is worrisome to consider the impact of sludge dumping on the reef’s biota.
The Abbot Point port expansion has received substantial media attention, and I will be curious to see whether Burns’ study is picked up by the press. It is of course important to express general concerns about an irreplaceable ecosystem, but studies like Burns’ quantify the issue, making it more difficult to ignore impacts and stumping politicians who would call scientists hysterical. Hopefully our next post about Abbot Point will relay some positive news.
For more information, check out:
Burns KA. 2014. PAHs in the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon reach potentially toxic levels from coal port activities. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 144:39-45.
Burns KA & Brinkman DL. 2011. Organic biomarkers to describe the major carbon inputs and cycling of organic matter in the central Great Barrier Reef region. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 93(2): 132-141.
The Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303948104579534980890100654