Continuing and even accelerated expansion of mining and mineral resource development in Queensland, Australia, demands significant new transport capacity, not least because the greatest proportion is for export.

Some 11 possible schemes for new or expanded ports could go ahead in the coming period. These are not without significant controversy, particularly from the environmental impact they could have, most of all within the area of the Great Barrier Reef, a world heritage protected area.

One of the biggest schemes currently in progress is a major expansion of the Gladstone harbour, sited at the mid-point of the Queensland coast, about 520km north of Brisbane. "This is a natural deep water harbour that has been under development since the 1960s," says the former chief executive of Gladstone Ports Corporation Leo Zussino, who has overseen the port developments for some 20 years. He was recently replaced in the role by Craig Brody.

In past decades the tiny, 3,000 population harbour has grown into an 63,000 population industrial port, with aluminium smelting facilities, serviced by a major coal _ red power station, and coal handling for export of the coking coal produced in Queensland’s Bowen. But it is now jumping to a new level. Major development has been underway since 2010 with the expansion of an area north of the main town, predominantly offshore on the large Curtis Island. Here three LNG projects are under construction by Britain’s BG Group, and two Australian firms, Santos and Origin Energy.

Each scheme costs in the region of AUD 18bn (USD 17bn) and comprises liquefaction processing, and massive storage facilities at the harbour as well as the networks of pipelines and extraction wells to underground coal seam gas extraction in Queensland’s interior more than 400km away. They are due to come on stream between 2014 and 2016.

A fourth scheme is now under construction, and may be joined by a fifth under consideration. Even without the final scheme the facilities will put Gladstone alongside Qatar as the world’s natural natural gas exporter, says Zussino. The Curtis Island development is part of a 28,000ha (280Mm2) state industrial development zone, which also includes Wiggins Island where existing coal handling terminals are being expanded. A new terminal at Golding Point will double capacity there, and another expansion is doubling the capacity of the port’s RG Tanna terminal. Coal arrives by rail.

"We have an additional 60Mt of coal export at the beginning with capacity to reach 150Mt," says Zussino.

To service the larger ships that will carry these bulk energy exports the port embarked on a huge dredging programme in May 2011 to deepen existing ship channels and create new ones, as well as ‘swing basins’ for ship turning. The project removes some 26Mm3 of material to allow for 13m draft ships to the LNG terminals. For the coal terminals another 20Mm3 could also be dredged.

Disposal of the material has mainly been at a coastal site being used for a 274ha reclamation north of a point known as Fisherman’s Landing where 17Mm3 has been deposited within a retention bund, and the remainder will be placed as the project reaches completion this year. Another 4Mm3 has been dumped at a designated disposal site offshore.

Both the port expansion and the dredging work have been controversial because of the proximity of the Great Barrier Reef, a highly sensitive marine environment and a UNESCO world heritage area. Environmental objectors say that turbidity and heavy metal suspensions have damaged wildlife and are concerned about the large number of ship movements that must pass through a channel in the reef in order to access the harbour.

Gladstone Port and the Queensland government counter that the project has been carefully monitored. They point to heavy flooding two years ago and the substantial runoff it caused as being responsible for some observed damage and diseases in fish populations.

One final issue for the port, says Zussino, is that it does not oversell its capacity. Ship movements have to be carefully planned especially as it expands, to prevent clashes.

"We spent three years with consultant Maunsell developing a very sophisticated channel model to assess the impact of any new industrial development and the effect on current wharfage" he says. "It is the best AUD 10M [USD 9.5M] we have spent."

The model will help long term planning, Zussino says, which will see the harbour reach a possible 300Mt annual capacity eventually