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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Law May Allow Oil Dumping on Reef

SYDNEY, Australia -- A proposed new law would allow U.S. and Australian warships to dump waste oil and bilge in the Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage site that is Australia's environmental crown jewel.

The 2,000-kilometer Great Barrier Reef is the largest complex of coral reefs and islands in the world, comprising more than 2,600 individual reefs and some 300 islands off Queensland.

Environment Minister Robert Hill said Friday that the Senate will take up amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act next week that will exempt military vessels from the 1995 law's anti-pollution regulations.

The move comes just weeks before some 20,000 Australian and U.S. military personnel will carry out joint maneuvers in Operation Tandem Thrust at Shoalwater Bay, in Queensland.

It also comes just two months after a highly publicized snorkeling trip to the reef by U.S. President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, which boosted Australia's clean-and-green image worldwide.

Clinton's visit in November was intended to lend support to the International Coral Reef Initiative, founded in 1994 by Australia, the United States and six other governments to protect reefs worldwide from overfishing, pollution and sedimentation.

Hill insisted the reef will not be threatened by the amendment.

"Defense force standards in relation to the discharge of waste exceed the standard that would be required by the legislation and the standard expected of commercial shipping," he said.

The opposition Labor Party and the Australian Democrats, a smaller party in parliament, pledged to fight the amendment.

"Will the waste of 20,000 military personnel, hundreds of armed forces vessels and aircraft and a nuclear submarine, all part of Operation Tandem Thrust, be protected by the legislation?" Australian Democrats Senator Meg Lees said.

"And what about future exercises, with ballast water, refuelling of vessels and countless ships? Will the forces have the right to turn a World Heritage area into a sewer?"

Hill said the amendment was simply correcting an oversight in the 1995 legislation, which he said intended to exempt defense force vessels and aircraft.

Dumping waste onto the reef is illegal for commercial or recreational fishing and shipping organizations and tourism operators.