Offsetting the amount of sediment dumped on the Great Barrier Reef by the Abbot Point port expansion could cost up to half a billion dollars, a biological scientist has predicted, but the federal government cannot say if it has been budgeted for.
Selina Ward, a lecturer at The University of Queensland and former president and current councillor of the Australian Coral Reef Society, said offsetting the 3 million cubic metres (5 million tonnes) of dredged soil approved for the ports expansion, and dumping it near the reef will have negative environmental consequences.
In approving the Abbot Point project, Federal environment Minister Greg Hunt said the water quality of the reef will be improved overall, as North Queensland Bulk Ports, will be required to fund "onshore activities to reduce the amount of fine sediment entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon from catchment areas".
But his office could not say how much would be directed towards the work, or even if it had budgeted for, directing those inquiries to the project's proponents.
"Questions regarding budgeting for meeting the conditions of approval, including the water quality offset, should be directed to North Queensland Bulk Ports,” a spokesman for Mr Hunt said in a statement.
Dr Ward, who has studied the reef's marine environment for more than 20 years, said experience with the Reef Rescue program showed dealing with the spoil might not be as easy as Mr Hunt suggested.
"If we look at the total amount of sediment that has been reduced in the period of the Reef Rescue operation, which has been an enormous amount of work over two years and cost $40 million, that has resulted in reducing 360,000 tonnes," she said.
"So for Minister Hunt to say that he can reduce 3 million cubic metres, if it costs the same amount, that would be about $500 million.
"That really dwarfs the amount that has been achieved in Reef Rescue so far, so I think we have to look at these numbers that are given to us, fairly carefully."
While the Commonwealth has approved the port expansion, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is still considering whether the dredged material can be disposed of near the reef. That decision is due by January 31.
The mining industry and those who care for the reef have always had an uneasy relationship - it was a decision by the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government to allow mining on the reef in the early 1970s which kicked off the campaign which resulted in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park being created in 1975.
Six years later, the Barrier Reef was awarded World Heritage listing.
UNESCO is currently reviewing whether to declare the marine park as 'in danger' or not.
A spokesman for Mr Hunt's office said the conditions attached to the Bulk Ports expansion approval would mean a "long term net reduction of fine sediments entering the Great Barrier Reef from land based sources, well beyond the life of this project", which will be in addition to current water improvement programs, like Reef Rescue.
"North Queensland Bulk Ports is required to submit an offset plan for approval on how it will achieve that regulatory requirement," the spokesman said.
"That plan must also be provided to an independent technical advice panel for consideration prior to being submitted to the minister for approval.
"The members of the technical advisory panel must include at least two independent scientific experts with expertise in water quality and marine ecology, and an independent dredging technical advisor."
But Dr Ward said if the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority approved the application to dispose of the dredging spoil in waters near the outer reef, it could open a door which would not close until it was too late.
"I would be really disappointed if GBRMPA did approve this, because it is quite clear on their charter that their role is to protect the Great Barrier Reef from damage, and I think if they approve this, they are not doing that," she said.
"...The tourism industry is certainly fabulously managed on the Great Barrier Reef, but in my opinion, mining and port developments should not be taking place this close to the reef.
I can't imagine how we could do it. Look at some of the examples we have had, look at Gladstone, which has been an absolute disaster."
The government responded by saying the expansion proposal had gone through the public environmental assessment process, as required under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Dr Ward said the only way to truly assess the impact industrial projects could have on the reef was to have independent consultants conduct environmental impact statements.
"Unless we have consultants who are employed by the government, rather than the developer, paid by the government and their work peer-reviewed and immediately available to the public, I don't think we can approve the decision making process for these sorts of operations to go ahead," she said.
"Especially since both levels of government [state and federal] seem to be intent on reducing the amount of regulation, where most of the scientific community would argue it is not good enough as it is at the moment, to stop bad developments going ahead."