JUDITH HUGO is the co-convenor of the Friends of Australian Rock Art, which is lobbying for the Burrup Peninsula and its millennia-old rock art to be World Heritage listed. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED she looks at the industrial-scale skullduggery that has prevented this from happening.
THE Burrup Peninsula, part of the Dampier Archipelago in north west WA, contains more than a million rock engravings dating from 45,000 to 60,000 years ago.
The Aboriginal people of Murujuga produced the oldest known images of the human face, as well as extinct megafauna, the thylacine, intricate geometric patterns and much more.
This art production ceased after the 1868 Flying Foam massacre when white settlers wiped them out. The land was unoccupied for decades, so the WA government removed its Native Title.
Since the 1960s, successive WA governments have encouraged massive industrial development on the Burrup.
This now includes the Rio Tinto-managed iron ore and solar salt operations; the North West Shelf Joint Ventures and Woodside Energy natural gas plants; and the recent fertiliser and ammonium nitrate plants of Norwegian company Yara Pilbara. Many thousands of the engravings were destroyed or moved along the way.
In 2003 some non-industrial land was granted back to Aboriginal groups under the Burrup and Maitland Industrial Estates Agreement. It is managed by the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and the WA government. The Maitland Estate, south of the area containing petroglyphs, was to be developed for future industry.
In 2007 much of the non-industrial land of the archipelago was placed on Australia’s National Heritage List, under which Woodside and Rio Tinto agreed to fund study, education, management and preservation of the rock art.
The fragile patina on the rock into which the petroglyphs are carved is a living organism that grows in a neutral pH environment. However, industrial activities on the Burrup produce tonnes of sulphur dioxide and other organic compounds that are deposited as acid.
Scientific tests in 2017 showed an alarming one thousandfold increase in acidity, particularly on rocks downwind of Woodside’s outdated plant, yet Woodside has no intention of replacing it until its contract expires in a few years.
Without urgent emission controls, the fragile patina and therefore the actual rock carvings of Murujuga could be destroyed within a generation.
Macquarie energy analysts estimated that emission reduction technology would only cost the LNG industry 2 per cent of profits.
Woodside recently donated $4m to a Living Knowledge Centre in the new Murujuga National Park, but this was already part of its 2007 NHL agreement.
It also announced it would move its power plant to reduce emissions, but this will have minimal effect on the Burrup.
To bring offshore gas from the Browse and Scarborough Basins, Woodside proposes a pipeline between Pluto and the old plant. In documentation to the Environmental Protection Authority it stated traditional custodians had signed off on any potential impact. Truth be told, the custodians were made to sign away their right to dispute industrial development in the 2003 BMEIA agreement (Section 4.8).
On July 3, 2019 Woodside, probably in response to public submissions, declared that further LNG developments on the ‘Burrup Hub’ were estimated to bring an average of 4000 jobs over 40 years.
There was no mention of the rock art or plans to reduce emissions. Surely Woodside shareholders would like to see their company show social responsibility in this heritage area.
The WA government is now encouraging more development: Petrochemical company Perdaman is proposing a urea plant with 30,000 tonnes of nitrogen compound emissions; Coogee Chemicals, in partnership with Wesfarmers and Mitsubishi are also looking to the Burrup.
Regional development minister Alannah MacTiernan, believes by moving a few power plants and limiting ships’ emissions “we can still have industry and this magnificent rock art co-existing”.
Ironically, the WA government has committed to nominating the Burrup for World Heritage listing knowing this cannot be considered until 2022, and by then it will probably be deemed by UNESCO too compromised for listing.
Will the WA government be held accountable for allowing this to happen? When will industrial duplicity and government complicity end?