Townsville’s $232 Million Port Expansion Begins, Dive Operator Concerns Dredging Effects

Commerce, defense and tourism opportunities will no longer bypass Townsville, according to proponents of the next phase of the city’s long-awaited upgrade to the city’s harbor canal.

The $232 million project to widen Townsville’s fairway to allow ships up to 300 meters in length to access northern Queensland has political support from two sides.

Australia’s largest backhoe loader, the Woomera, soon to start work on the project, was welcomed by traditional owners with a smoking ceremony on Wednesday.

The machine will excavate 30 pools of ocean sediment from the existing shipping port to more than double its width, according to Hall Contracting, which won the tender for the project.

A traditional smoking ceremony was held to welcome the Woomera. (ABC North Queensland: Jade Toomey)

Bringing bigger ships

The project will be the largest in the port’s 158-year history and comes as North Queensland’s economy recovers from the effects of the pandemic.

Scott Stewart, Queensland’s resource minister and Townsville member, said the upgrade, when complete, would attract large ships that normally dock in Brisbane.

“They then unload their containers to be sent this way (north) and that doesn’t make sense,” he said.

“It allows us to load ships from the Northwest Minerals Province here to get our product offshore and into international markets…which will be part of our economic recovery after COVID-19.”

Four men and a woman stand at a dock in the harbor in Townsville
Labor and Liberal politicians in Northern Queensland have pledged funding for the project.(ABC North Queensland: Jade Toomey)

The project will be funded with $105 million from the state government, $75 million from the Commonwealth and $52 million from the Port of Townsville.

Federal member Herbert Phillip Thompson said the port had created 1,400 jobs for northern Queensland.

“This will create 70 additional full-time jobs and 90 percent will be local … 93 percent will be from Queensland,” he said.

Hall Contracting will use the Woomera to widen the canal from 92 meters to 180 meters on the harbor side.

Dredging stunts diving visibility

Underwater tourism groups on nearby Magnetic Island fear the dredging will cause serious visibility problems on key areas of the Great Barrier Reef.

Diving company co-owner Tom Glenning said dredging had caused significant problems in the past.

“When the dredging is going on, there’s almost nothing to see underwater…and it puts off a lot of people who come up once a year and when the dredging is on, they don’t come back,” he said. Mr Glenning.

“They can word it however they want, but if you pick up soft sediment from the bottom… [of the ocean] there will be an escape, even a small amount will affect the water quality.

A photo of murky water and a diver and some coral in the foreground.
Divers fear the project will affect visibility at popular dive sites off Magnetic Island. (Supplied: Pleasure Divers)

“If customers can’t go diving and don’t want to dive because the water quality is pretty bad, it’s really hard for us.”

Ranee Crosby, CEO of Port of Townsville, said dredged material would be stored onshore for use in a 62-acre reclamation area, rather than being dumped at sea.

“It’s best practice to dredge, so using a backhoe head instead of a cutter suction dredger means we reduce the risk of sediment plumes by 90 percent compared to the standard method,” she said.

“It makes it longer, but it’s the best way to protect the environment.

“This project went through a seven-year rigorous environmental impact process before being signed by state and federal regulators in 2017 and 2018,” she said.

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