Reef's environmental safeguards dying from short staffing

THE passive approach to environmental regulation compliance in the federal Environment Department has sparked further concerns about the management of the Great Barrier Reef.

The Australian National Audit Office report found limited staffing and resources had led to a "passive approach" to monitoring major projects.

It also highlighted concerns that little had been done to ensure proponents of major developments were complying with federal environmental regulations, a key issue highlighted in a review of a failed bund wall constructed as part of a dredging project in Gladstone Harbour.

The report raised the ire of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, with reef campaign director Felicity Wishart saying it "calls into doubt" federal claims that conditions on port developments were enough to prevent damage.

She said Environment Minister Greg Hunt's guaranteed 150% improvement in water quality near Abbot Point as part of a 3 million cubic metre dredging project was "not worth the paper the conditions are written on".

"The audit found many cases where departmental staff had failed to even notice conditions had been breached on existing projects," she said.

"We already knew that there were only 10 Federal government environment staff monitoring more than 800 environmentally-sensitive projects around Australia when the Gladstone Harbour disaster occurred in 2011.

"In fact, the disappointing truth is that the department has not actively monitored project compliance for most environmental conditions."

While the department's response to the audit said it had significantly increased its proactive management over the past two years, the audit office reported there was no evidence of such improvements.