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Australia's Great Barrier Reef agency approved a plan to dump vast amounts of sediment on the reef as part of a major coal port expansion.
The federal government has approved the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port in northern Queensland, which requires a massive dredging operation to make way for ships entering and leaving the facility.
About 106 million cubic feet of dredged mud will be dumped in the marine park under the plan.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt claimed "some of the strictest conditions in Australian history" would be in place to protect the reef from harm, including water quality measures and safeguards for the reef's plants and animals.
But outraged conservationists say the fragile reef will be gravely threatened by dredging over a 455-acre area.
Environmentalists warned that the reef is already vulnerable, having lost huge amounts of coral in recent decades.
WWF reef campaign leader Richard Leck said: "We are devastated.
"I think any Australian or anyone around the world who cares about the future of the reef is also devastated by this decision.
"Exactly the wrong thing that you want to do when an ecosystem is suffering is to introduce another major threat to it - and that's what the marine park authority has allowed to happen today."
Apart from the risk that the sediment would smother coral and seagrass, the increased shipping traffic will boost the risk of accidents such as oil spills and collisions with delicate coral beds, the environment group argues.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority official Bruce Elliot claimed that strict conditions would be placed on the sediment disposal.
He said the decision to grant the application with "rigorous safeguards" would "ensure transparent and best practice environmental management of the project."
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said his government would protect the environment - but not at the expense of the economy.
"We are in the coal business," he said.
"If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat we all need to understand that."
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