Australian authorities have approved a controversial plan to dump dredged sediment in the Great Barrier Reef marine park, potentially upsetting one of the world's most fragile ecosystems.
The massive dredging operation would make way for deep-draft ships to enter the Abbot Point coal port in northern Queensland. About 106 million cubic feet of dredged mud will be dumped within the marine park under the plan, according to The Associated Press.
As NPR's Richard Harris notes, "the marine park isn't purely pristine — there are already areas designated for dumping dredge spoils, and there is industrial activity within the park boundaries."
Environmentalists have warned that dumping sediment could kill off delicate corals in the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches for nearly 1,700 miles along Australia's east coast.
A statement by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said the decision had been reached after "rigorous assessment" and that the dredging would be "subject to strict environmental conditions."
The expansion of Abbot Point is necessary because the port "is better placed than other ports along the Great Barrier Reef coastline to undertake expansion as the capital and maintenance dredging required will be significantly less than what would be required in other areas," the statement said.
"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," it said.
However, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reports that earlier this month, 233 scientists signed a letter to the marine park authority urging it to reject the plan.
"The best available science makes it very clear that expansion of the port at Abbot Point will have detrimental effects on the Great Barrier Reef," the letter said. "Sediment from dredging can smother corals and seagrasses and expose them to poisons and elevated nutrients."