CANBERRA, Australia—The government is set to reverse a decision to allow dumping of dredged mud and rock into protected ocean surrounding the Great Barrier Reef, as developers of a big coal port produce an alternative plan amid an outcry from environmentalists.
"We have encouraged and invited [an alternative proposal] and we'll see if they put it in, and then we'll assess it on its merits," Environment Minister Greg Hunt told Australian radio on Tuesday.
The conservative government seven months ago approved dumping of up to 3 million cubic meters of so-called dredge spoils—roughly equivalent to the amount of stone in the Great Pyramid at Giza—to allow expansion of the Abbot Point coal port in Queensland state, adjacent to the reef.
But after Unesco warned in June that it could place the reef on a list of threatened heritage sites, the developers—India's Adani Group, 512599.BY +0.65% Indian-Australian joint venture GVK Hancock and Australia's North Queensland Bulk Ports—came up with a new plan to dump the material on land.
"We are committed to ensuring the best options are in place to ensure this project is achieved, together with the best possible environmental outcomes," an Adani spokesman said.
The spokesman rejected any link between the rethink and environmental activism over the previous plan.
Though the government initially approved dumping dredge spoils offshore, Mr. Hunt said Tuesday that he had set a policy principle that would see "the first priority for all dredging proposals being onshore disposal." That would likely add to the cost of the project but safeguard the reef from problems including silt carried by currents from the initial dredge dumping area.
Mr. Hunt would have to agree to any changes covering the expanded Abbot Point project, which will create one of the world's largest coal-loading facilities.
Supporters of the original plan say it will unlock up to 28 billion Australian dollars (US$26 billion) in coal-development projects, helping to provide much-needed jobs as a China-led mining-investment boom in Australia cools.
Environmental campaigners, however, had criticized the government's decision, saying the dumping of sludge to allow more ships to access the port threatened coral and fish around the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest living organism.
Successive reports from scientific groups such as the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Australian Institute of Marine Science have warned of mounting damage to the network of about 3,000 reefs and 900 coral islands, which has lost half of its coral cover in the past 30 years
The United Nations is deciding whether to add the barrier reef to its list of endangered global sites. A committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, meeting in Qatar in June, said it regretted the government's decision to allow the dumping.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society said there was a long way to go before the Reef is protected from port expansions, with the final dumping site for dredge spoil still unknown.
"The plan to build the world's largest coal port just 50 km from the Whitsunday Islands was always a foolish idea, destined to generate huge concern from the community, tourism operators, scientists and the World Heritage Committee," said the conservation society's spokesman and Barrier Reef campaign director, Felicity Wishart.