Acid test for ancient art

JOHN BLACK is one of Australia’s foremost scientists, notching up an AM along the way. Although he’s considered somewhat legendary in pork circles, in recent years he’s turned some of his focus to the Aboriginal rock art on the Burrup Peninsula. He says the science shows proposed industrial expansion on the peninsula will irrevocably harm the internationally important site.

ROCK art engravings on Burrup Peninsula, known as Murujuga by the local indigenous people, are unique in the world.

Burrup Peninsula, near Dampier and Karratha, is the only place on earth where the history of people living in a changing environment has been continuously recorded for over 40,000 years. It is one of the most significant archaeological sites of the world.

The oldest pictures of the human face, dating back more than 30,000 years, are there on the Burrup. There are over one million engravings recording, through time, human activities, spiritual beliefs, geometric forms possibly representing mathematical configurations or navigational aids, extinct mega fauna, the Tasmanian tiger, fat-tailed kangaroo, birds and marine species.

The art is extraordinary in its diversity. It is a priceless, irreplaceable and wonderful heritage icon for Australia and the world.

The Yaburara, who inhabited Murujuga and engraved the motifs, were systematically exterminated in a series of massacres, known as the ‘Flying Foam Massacre’, in 1868.

Their extermination broke continuous occupation of the land, making it easy for successive WA governments to sanction and encourage development of a huge industrial complex in the midst of the outstanding rock art gallery.

An iron ore export terminal was established at the Port of Dampier in 1963 and a salt production and export facility in 1968. These were followed in the mid-80s with natural gas processing facilities and two liquefied natural gas plants from 1995. An ammonium fertiliser plant opened in 2006 and an ammonium nitrate, explosives facility was completed earlier is being commissioned.

In 2002, the then state government, after being pressured by archaeologists and other people concerned about the impact of industrial emissions on the rock art, established the Burrup Rock Art Monitoring Management Committee to advise on scientific research and determine whether emissions could have long-term effects on the rock art.  Several research projects were administered by government, but predominantly funded by industries on Burrup Peninsula.

Reports from these studies were used by industry and government to support establishment of the ammonium nitrate production facility on Burrup Peninsula by claiming ‘… it is unlikely the relative small amounts of NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) and NH3 (ammonia) that would be emitted ….. would have a significant impact on rock art in the surrounding area’.  Reports on fumigation studies using anticipated industrial emission concentrations, and the annual measurement of colour and mineral changes of background rock and engravings were used primarily to justify establishment of the explosives plant on the Burrup, rather than on Maitland Industrial Estate located about 20 kilometres from rock art. These reports concluded there was no consistent change in colour of background rock or engravings over time.  However, the reports contained no statistical analyses of data to support the claims.

Various groups, particularly Friends of Australian Rock Art, argued strongly to many levels of the Western Australian and Federal governments that the science used to justify establishment of the explosives plant was flawed.

Yara Pilbara Fertilisers Pty Ltd, a Norwegian company, is operating the fertiliser plant and commissioning the ammonium nitrate plant. The company recently sought a licence to operate the ammonium nitrate production facility. Each year this plant is to release into the atmosphere 135 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide, 164 tonnes of nitrous oxide, 41 tonnes of carbon monoxide, 18 tonnes of methane, 20 tonnes of ammonia, 25.2 tonnes of dust-sized ammonium nitrate particles and 84,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas equivalents. These emissions are equivalent to a one-tonne car travelling annually about 100 million kilometres.

The emissions will produce acid rain sufficient to degrade rock surfaces and impact on human health. The impacts for rock art are cumulative and will increase with each year of emissions.

The WA government has called for submissions from the public to comment on the Yara proposal. The explosives plant has been constructed and will stay. However, this is an opportunity for the government to restrict emissions to near zero from this plant and other industry on Burrup Peninsula using modern gas and particle scrubbing technologies.

Lifespan of the gas-related industries on the peninsula is only 25 years. Surely the short-term gain from royalties is completely out-weighed by long-term preservation of this unique, magnificent Western Australian icon, and the national and international tourism it would bring the state well into the future.


Leave a Reply