'Death By a Thousand Cuts': Coal Boom Could Destroy Great Barrier Reef

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Russell Reichelt, 59, is paid to ensure that everything remains as it is. Head of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, he has been tasked with investigating the impact of the natural resource boom. Reichelt is sitting in his office, with a view of the marina in Townsville, 300 kilometers south of Cairns. He looks at a map of the coast and says: "There's that old saying: death by a thousand cuts." He is referring to the deleterious effects of construction and pollution on the reef.

What Australia needs, says Reichelt, is a consensus that there is a breaking point for the reef that cannot be exceeded. "In my view, UNESCO's interest is welcome," says the reef administrator, "especially in this time of growing pressure."

For the time being, his staff is focused on fighting the invasion of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish. The animals hide during the day, and at night they extrude their stomachs over the corals and digest them. To kill the starfish, divers inject multiple doses of sodium bisulfate into the middle of their bodies. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of the coral-eaters populate the reef, making the divers' work a Sisyphean task. But at least it represents something the conservationists can do to protect the reefs.

Drinking Binges and Brawls

The heart of the coal industry can be found between Townsville and Brisbane. The town of Gladstone consists of a port stretching for 30 kilometers along the coast, surrounded by power plants, coalfields, scrap heaps and flat-roofed buildings. The air is filled with the roar of machinery. Workers fly in and out of Gladstone, where the local paper reports on nightly drinking binges and brawls.

Jan Arens, 56, also works for the coal industry, as an engineer for a company that produces wastewater treatment chemicals. He can't stop thinking about the activities he has witnessed in his job. He claims that the industry dumps toxic substances into the ocean and ignores regulations. "We have laws to protect the environment, but we bend and break them wherever we can," says Arens, a big-boned man with the coarse hands of laborer. "I'm not against the industry, but I am against such dishonesty."

Two years ago, Arens founded the city's only environmental protection organization, the Gladstone Conservation Council. The group has about 50 members, he says. They distribute flyers and take out ads in the paper. But the response has been modest. "I want my children to be able to say one day that at least their old man tried to do something," says Arens.

Energy companies are currently investing $33 billion in new coal and gas projects around the port of Gladstone alone. The projects are scheduled for completion in 2015, which will coincide with the Australian's government's completion of its plan to save the reef.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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