A new coal port that will cement Newcastle's place as the largest coal exporter in the world is quietly being built up by several metres, apparently in preparation for the rising sea levels brought about by climate change.

The new coal loader is being constructed on a low-lying island on the Hunter River, fringed with tidal mangrove swamps, in an area vulnerable to higher seas, storm surges and coastal erosion.

A landmark aerial survey of Newcastle and Wyong, undertaken by the State Government and the CSIRO, found large tracts of land, including hundreds of houses, were at risk of inundation with seas expected to rise by up to 90 cm by the end of the century, prompting the Government to issue new planning guidelines to coastal councils earlier this year.

But the Newcastle Coal Infrastructure Group, the collection of six mining companies funding the $900 million new port, has refused to say whether rising sea levels figured in its plans. A spokesman for the group said parts of the site were 2-3 m above sea level and the area was being further buttressed by 3 million m³ of sediment dredged up from the south arm of the Hunter River.

A large lagoon in the middle of the site, which the Government's aerial survey showed was less than a metre above the waterline, has recently been filled in.

"This material has added 2-3 m in average height to the site, well above the areas of concern outlined in the [NSW Government] report," a spokesman, Chris Ford, said.

But the company remains coy about whether the site had been built up because of climate change concerns. It is a sensitive question because the coal exported from the port would make a measurable contribution to climate change.

It is set to handle up to 66 million tonnes of coal each year, which the NSW Department of Planning estimates would release 174 million tonnes of greenhouse gas when burnt in overseas power stations. This would raise the world's carbon dioxide emissions by 0.5%, the equivalent of boosting Australia's entire domestic carbon emissions by a third.

Climate change was the main focus of the bulk of 736 public submissions to an expert panel convened by the state Planning Department in 2006 to assess the port's environmental impact.

"When people were addressing the expert panel, a lot of them raised what we saw as the irony of a project that was making a contribution to climate change but was also in an area that we knew was very vulnerable to the effects of climate change," said Georgina Woods, a spokeswoman for the local environment group Rising Tide.

The Director-General's environmental assessment report noted some of these concerns, but concluded that they were not sufficient to stop construction going ahead. "A refusal of the subject application will not address or ameliorate global warming impacts, but will prevent the economic benefits of the project from being realised," the 2007 report concluded.

The aerial mapping study of the Hunter, Lake Macquarie and Central Coast regions suggests that the internationally significant wetlands around the port, which are home to migrating waterbirds, may be lost underwater. It also found that 1,660 homes and another 143 km² of residentially zoned land were less than 1 m above sea level in the Newcastle and Wyong areas.

Link to article: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/global-warming/coal-group-coy-about-port-exposure-to-rising-seas-20090614-c7g3.html