Reef dumping permit followed shortly after letter from Hunt
ENVIRONMENT Minister Greg Hunt told the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to approve a controversial dredge spoil dumping proposal at Abbot Point just days before a permit was granted.
Documents released in answers to a Senate Estimates Question on Notice reveal Mr Hunt personally wrote to the authority just seven days before the authority approved the sea dumping permit.
Both Mr Hunt's previous approval and the authority's approval are already subject to court action, and both parties were remaining tight-lipped about the letter on Friday.
The North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation project would involve dredging three million cubic metres of sediment to expand the coal port, with the spoil created to be dumped in an existing dumping area in the marine park.
Earlier draft permit assessments have previously shown the authority was concerned about potentially wide-ranging impacts from the dumping proposal, including on coral near Holbourne Island and Nares Rock and the heritage-listed WWII Catalina wreck.
But the authority's final approval documents have revealed publicly for the first time that Mr Hunt's letter was one of only two key "grounds" relied on for approving the sea dumping permit.
While the letter itself was not released to the Senate, the documents show Mr Hunt wrote to the authority on January 23 this year, days before the permit was approved on January 31.
"I wish to advise you under section 163(1)(a) of the EPBC Act, that (the port) has addressed all of the requirements for the loading and disposal of sediments at sea and therefore recommend that a permit should be granted under section 19 of the Sea Dumping Act," the document reads.
It is unclear why the letter was sent, as the documents show authority staff were already aware of the looming deadline for a decision, reporting "considerable time constraints have been experience in providing a comprehensive sea dumping assessment".
The documents show the only other grounds to approve the permit were that alternatives, such as a different dump site or land reclamation, "could be seen to be disproportionate in costs".
It also reveals many and varied grounds on which the permit could be refused, but wasn't, including a "lack of adequate information to determine the likely effects of the proposed disposal option".
Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who asked the Question on Notice, said the documents showed that "that science was dictating a refusal, but it was approved after the Minister wrote the letter".
"My interpretation is that the Minister wrote what was an otherwise unnecessary letter - clearly this was a signal that the government expected the authority to approve it," she said.
"With the budget at that point in time hanging over everybody's head, and the Minster writing the letter, it is clear what the subtext was if it was not approved."
An authority spokeswoman said GBRMPA was unable to comment, due to existing court actions over the approval.
A port spokeswoman said it was "important to understand that dredging has not yet occurred" and there were a number of conditions to be met to "ensure that impacts are avoided and mitigated".
"Further, while modelling can provide guidance, it does not replace the knowledge and expertise of undertaking actual dredging campaigns," she said.
Questions put to Mr Hunt's office regarding the matter were unanswered at deadline on Friday.