All the coal ports are in the process of major expansion for increased coal and/or coal seam gas exports. Expansion involves huge dredging operations and dumping of the dredge spoil at sea. In Gladstone, where expansion began in 2010, dredging is taking place in sediments that are known to be contaminated with heavy metals, Tributyltin anti-foulant residues and petroleum hydrocarbons (from long periods as a port and major industrial centre). In some areas the sediments overlie acid sulphate soils.
The environmental management regime for this development is deficient in both planning and execution and it is claimed (see below) that serious environmental impacts are now occurring. However the monitoring programs in place are so poorly designed and weak in execution it is difficult to draw conclusions as to what exactly is causing the observed effects, including fish disease. Major expansions planned for the other ports are unlikely to be managed any better, given the deficiencies in both the Australian and Queensland environmental assessment and protection system for large projects.
In response to the port expansion process and the fish disease episodes in Gladstone, UNESCO sent a team to examine the state of the GBR World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) in March 2012. They suggested the GBR may be placed on the “World Heritage in Danger” list.