Proposed Burrup projects a heritage threat to rock art

Alicia PereraPilbara News
Rock art on the Burrup Peninsula.
Camera IconRock art on the Burrup Peninsula. Credit: WA News, Nic Ellis

Leading Australian heritage figures have warned there is a “critical” risk of damage to the Burrup Peninsula’s internationally significant Aboriginal rock art and its prospects for World Heritage listing if two new major industrial projects proposed for the area, details of which were revealed last week, go ahead.

The Pilbara News understands the State Government is considering proposals to establish on the Burrup a $4.3 billion urea project from Perdaman Chemicals and Fertilisers and a $1.3 billion methanol and monoethylene petrochemical plant from a consortium including Coogee Chemicals, Wesfarmers and Mitsubishi Corporation.

Both projects would be big job creators for the region, with the urea plant estimated to create 2000 jobs during construction and 200 once in operation, while the petrochemical facility could offer 700 construction and about 80 operational roles.

However, heritage specialists have criticised the projects’ planned location on the Burrup — protections for which were recently the subject of a Senate inquiry, and which is in the midst of a push for World Heritage listing — instead of an alternative area such as the Maitland Strategic Industrial Estate, about 20km away and removed from any rock art.

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International Federation of Rock Art Organisations chief executive and Australian Rock Art Research Association founder Robert Bednarik, who has done extensive research on the Burrup, said the peninsula had already been damaged by industrial construction and emissions and the proposed developments could be “safely expected to hasten the demise of the rock art”.

“I have written several successful submissions for World Heritage listing for other countries,” he said.

“I would no longer consider Murujuga as a World Heritage candidate; it is massively compromised (and) partially destroyed.”

Former Australian Heritage Council chairwoman Carmen Lawrence oversaw an emergency assessment of the universal values of the Burrup and any threats to it during her five-year term and said the study had found industrial development posed a “high” risk to the universal values standard required for World Heritage listing and “further industry would render it critical”.

“The existing facilities have already had an impact on the site and have had a measurable effect, and the proposed plants would at least double the impacts,” she said.

“I think it would place World Heritage listing in jeopardy and my judgment would be ... that it would not reach the thresholds, because they look at the whole suite of things including whether a site can be properly protected.”

She urged the State Government to locate any new projects proposed for the Burrup in Maitland instead.

Last month a State Government spokesman said they were considering some “very early stage proposals” for new projects on the Burrup but no formal applications had yet been made.

The Government spokesman said industrial development and the heritage recognition could “co-exist”.

Regional Development Minster Alannah MacTiernan last Thursday also issued a statement congratulating Perdaman and Woodside on signing an MOU for gas supply to the proposed urea plant and saying the Government had worked with both parties to support the agreement.

A Friends of Australian Rock Art spokesman said the group was extremely concerned about the planned projects increasing emissions on the Burrup and accelerating the rate of damage to rock art, especially as emissions from the types of industry being proposed could be particularly corrosive.

“The proposed industries will accelerate the destruction of the rock art (and) threaten the long-term value of tourism in exchange for a very short-term use of the natural gas which has a finite supply,” he said.

The Burrup is the subject of renewed environmental interest after a recent Senate committee inquiry into the effects of industrial emissions on its rock art, in which both Greens and Labor senators recommended there should not be more industrial development on the peninsula.

It is also in the midst of a renewed push for World Heritage listing as both the State Government and Opposition have committed to the process and Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation has begun internal consultations towards reaching a position.

Perdaman has spoken to The West Australian about its planned project, but Coogee, Wesfarmers and Mitsubishi declined to comment when contacted by the Pilbara News.

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