SYDNEY (AP) - Australia's federal government has formally approved a plan to dredge vast swathes of seabed sediment from an area near the Great Barrier Reef as part of a major coal port expansion.

SYDNEY (AP) Australia's federal government has formally approved a plan to dredge vast swathes of seabed sediment from an area near the Great Barrier Reef as part of a major coal port expansion.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt initially approved the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port in northern Queensland in 2013, but the process has been repeatedly delayed amid protests by conservation groups. They argue the expansion will hurt the reef's fragile ecosystem.

The expansion requires a massive dredging operation to make way for ships entering and exiting the port, which is located around 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the nearest coral reef. The original plan called for more than 3 million cubic meters (106 million cubic feet) of dredged seabed mud to be dumped on the reef.