When one thinks of a pristine ocean habitat, like a thriving ecosystem that has gone mainly unmarred by the creeping fingers of humans, one usually also thinks: “Hey I could really make some money here.”

At least a certain kind of one thinks this—and it’s that kind of one who recently proposed a plan to dredge enormous chunks of sea floor bordering the Great Barrier Reef in pursuit of coal reserves. That plan, to the great chagrin of environmentalists, was formally approved by Australia’s federal government on Monday, according to The New York Times.

The undertaking involves expanding the Abbot Point coal port in northern Queensland, pulling up 39 million cubic feet of sand and whatever lives on top of it, and depositing that mess onto land. The project would allow freighters to transport deposits from the coal-rich Galilee Basin, opening up those mines for exploitation. The plan still needs final approval from the Queensland government—though the federal government’s green light is telling.

Called “catastrophic” by conservationists, the dredging would put the area at risk for oil spills (like the 2010 spill that left a 2-mile slick across the reef, pictured above) and smother the delicate corals that support the reef.

Conservation groups have been fighting the project, and others like it in close proximity to the reef, for years. In 2012, environmental activists with Greenpeace painted a warning on the side of a coal ship docked in the area.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, greater in size than the United Kingdom, Holland and Switzerland combined, and is home to endangered sea turtles, dugongs and over 30 species of whales and dolphins. Soon enough, a battalion of supertankers hauling coal may be among the reef’s inhabitants, too.

[Images via Getty]

Contact the author at melissa.cronin@gawker.com.