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Buried in Black Dust

Coal vs. the Great Barrier Reef

by THOMAS C. MOUNTAIN

Every year 1,000,000 tons of coal dust blows or washes onto Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This has gone on for the past decade and is set to almost quadruple in the coming years as Australia accelerates its great coal rip off.

Australia’s coal industry admits that it loads 50 million tons of coal every year onto its trains at the mine faces and unloads 49 million tons onto the coal ships at its main port in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef.

The wind and rains take the million tons of coal dust lost in transit out into the waters of the worlds largest surviving coral reef complex, a World Heritage Site, already under threat from rapidly warming ocean waters.

Of course you wouldn’t know this if you watch CNN’s environmental series featuring  Phillipe Cousteau. No, he blamed the typhoons hitting the Great Barrier Reef and failed to mention how in a few years its expected to see up to 5 million tons a year of coal dust polluting the great reef.

Coal dust is particularly toxic to living things containing nasty elements like mercury, lead, cadmium and chromium just to name a few deadly agents and the residents and fishermen living around Australia’s main coal export port can no longer eat their local sea life, at least not if they care about their health.

As the coal dust continues to blow offshore or be washed into the currents flowing along the great reef we should expect to see ever greater environmental devastation. Every new typhoon stirs up the coal dust on the bottom and this poisoning will just keep on keeping on destroying the great reefs complex ecosystem for centuries to come.

I grew up seeing the coral reefs in my home in Hawaii being destroyed in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s and cut my activist teeth in resisting these crimes. In 1971 I can remember helping put on the Coral Reefs in Crisis Conference in Honolulu as a member of the seminal environmental organization Save Our Surf.

Today I spend much of my time working on how to not just use but to PROTECT one of the last coral reef complex in the world NOT under threat, the Dahlak Archipelago, some 200+ uninhabited islands here in the Red Sea.

The one big difference between the government of Australia and where I have lived these past 7 years here in Eritrea is that our government isn’t about to allow the mining industry to destroy our lands and livelihoods. And the same can be said about the notoriously destructive fishing industry with its trawlers and their nets dragging the ocean bottoms leaving little alive in their wakes. Our reefs are still pristine and full of fish. Groupers, snappers, grunts, parrot fish, bream, mullet, milk fish, tangs, angel fish, gobbies and dottybacks, you name it we seem to have them, lots and lots of them, by the millions in our more than 1,000 kilometers of coastline and over 350 uninhabited islands.

The question is how will these remaining treasures be protected? With the support of the country’s leadership and a lot of hard work by some very committed activists the future here looks pretty good. I am only sorry to say I can’t say the same for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and its losing fight against the great coal rip off.

Thomas C. Mountain is a life long activist, educator and cultural historian who has been living and reporting from Eritrea since 2006. He can be reached at thomascmountain_at_yahoo_dot_com