The incoming federal environment minister has been urged to block the construction of a fertiliser plant on a world heritage-nominated site in Western Australia, and to act swiftly to stop the multinational company behind the plans from removing Indigenous rock art.
Perdaman is planning a $4.5bn plant on the Burrup Peninsula, in the Pilbara region. The plant, which is strongly supported by the state government and was backed by the former federal government, will require the removal of Aboriginal art produced over a period starting about 50,000 years ago.
In March, then-environment minister Sussan Ley ordered Perdaman to stop work at the site while she considered an application made by two traditional owners, Raelene Cooper and Josie Alec, for emergency protection of the rock art.
But less than three weeks later, only days away from the beginning of the government’s caretaker period, Ley advised Cooper and Alec that she would not grant the emergency protection application, as Perdaman had advised her they would not be in a position to remove the art for another two months.
Cooper, a Mardudhunera woman and member of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, and Alec, a Kuruma/Marthudhunera woman who is also a Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation member, sent a fresh application for emergency protection on Monday to incoming environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, and Indigenous affairs minister, Linda Burney.
Cooper and Alec have called for Plibersek to urgently protect four petroglyphs that Perdaman plans to move, noting that the two-month timeframe the company provided to Ley had passed.
The pair also said the plant should not be built on Murujuga country, as it poses a serious risk of desecrating their land. If it was to be built, it should be moved from Burrup Peninsula, as acidic emissions from the plant would damage petroglyphs in the area even after they’re moved.
Perdaman was contacted for comment.
The plant was expected to produce two million tonnes of fertiliser grade urea annually, and plans to use gas from Woodside’s nearby Scarborough project. That project may also threaten petroglyphs, traditional owners fear.
Woodside disputes suggestions its expansion on the Burrup poses a risk to the petroglyphs. A spokesperson said research had not demonstrated that its operations had any impact, and it was supporting a “world-best-practice programme to monitor and protect the rock art” that was co-managed by the local Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and government officials.
“It is Woodside’s view that traditional custodians must be central to the management of their heritage,” the spokesperson said, adding the company had consulted with them and responded to requests for environmental monitoring, archaeological and ethnographic surveys and access to independent expert advice.
A spokesperson for Plibersek confirmed she had received the application under section nine of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act for the preservation and protection of Murujuga cultural heritage.
“The minister’s office received the application today and it is now with the department for advice.”
Perdaman have received $255m in state and federal government funding to build water and marine infrastructure near the site, and claims to have received approval from traditional owners for its plans.
But Cooper had previously told Guardian Australia that members of the community had been misinformed about Perdaman’s plans.
“The elders never approved this,” Cooper said in March. “They had no understanding of it. No one had ever explained to them what was really going on.
“I mentioned that they were going to start removing the rock art and said they don’t want that. They said so repeatedly.”