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[SYDNEY] Australia on Tuesday approved a controversial port expansion to support mining projects and the dredging of 1.1 million cubic metres (2.4 million cubic feet) of spoil despite conservationists' fears it threatens the Great Barrier Reef.
The decision, creating one of the world's biggest coal ports, comes two months after the government green-lighted an Indian-backed plan to build one of the world's biggest mines in the same area of Queensland state.
The A$16.5 billion (S$17 billion) Carmichael project by Adani Enterprises in the Galilee Basin has attracted fierce criticism, requiring coal to be shipped through the Abbot Point Coal Terminal.
Environmentalists have argued that any expansion at Abbot Point risked the World Heritage-listed reef's health and would destroy local habitats.
"The Queensland state Labor government's Abbot Point Growth Gateway project has been approved in accordance with national environment law subject to 30 strict conditions," a spokeswoman for Environment Minister Greg Hunt said, adding that further approvals were needed from the state government.
Initial plans were for three million cubic metres of material to be dredged and dumped it into waters around the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, but this was later abandoned after an outcry.
The approval now permits 1.1 million cubic metres to be dredged, allowing freighters to dock at Abbot Point, but spoil must be disposed of on land.
"All dredge material will be placed onshore on existing industrial land. No dredge material will be placed in the World Heritage Area or the Caley Valley Wetlands," said Hunt's spokeswoman.
"The port area is at least 20 kilometres from any coral reef and no coral reef will be impacted." Supporters have said the project would provide thousands of jobs and pump millions into the local economy.