Reef dredging may breach World Heritage obligations

APPROVALS of dredging at Abbot Point and a fourth LNG export plant at Gladstone's Curtis Island may breach Australia's World Heritage obligations to protect the Great Barrier Reef, an international law expert has found.

Legal advice commissioned by environmental group Australians for Animals has signalled the approvals, made by Environment Minister Greg Hunt last year, may contravene Australia's environmental obligations.

The advice, from Dr Christopher Ward, the president of the Australian branch of the International Law Association, argues the approvals are "likely inconsistent" with the World Heritage Convention.

While Dr Ward would not comment on his advice given to AFA, the advice said it was arguable the two approvals inside the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area were inconsistent with Australia's agreement to ensure it "does all it can" to protect the reef.

"It is entirely possible that the development on Curtis Island of LNG processing plants would be inconsistent with Australia's obligations under Article Four of the World Heritage Convention," the advice reads.

The latest revelations come as the Abbott Government moves to prevent legal challenges to both decisions on the grounds that official conservation advice may not have been taken into account before the approvals.

A government-dominated Senate committee last week approved the bill to make such changes, despite concerns raised by both the Law Council of Australia and the parliament's Scrutiny of Bills Committee.

AFA spokeswoman Sue Arnold said the group had sent Dr Ward's advice to the World Heritage Secretariat and to other international lawyers.

"The Abbott Government is allowing the destruction of a World Heritage site that belongs to all humanity, not just Australia or the mining industry," she said.

"We will now lobby European countries to see if any nation is willing to take Australia to the International Court of Justice over the destruction of the reef."

The World Heritage Committee, which originally raised concern with LNG approvals on Curtis Island in 2011, will meet in June to decide whether or not to put the reef on a list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

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