The federal government has asked a multinational fertiliser company to stop work on plans to remove Indigenous rock art from a world heritage-nominated area in the Burrup Peninsula after traditional owners raised concerns.
Perdaman is planning to build a $4.5bn fertiliser plant in Western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula. The company is already contracted to buy gas used to make the fertiliser from Woodside Energy’s Scarborough gas field.
The plant has been strongly supported by both the Western Australian and federal governments, with $255m given to the company to build water and marine infrastructure nearby.
Building the plant would, however, require the removal of rock art at three sites.
The company has been given approval by the Western Australian government to go ahead with the removal but it is understood it does not yet have the work approvals required to start.
The Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara – known as Murujuga to traditional custodians – is also an outdoor gallery home to over a million examples of Indigenous rock art produced over a period of 50,000 years.
The area was nominated for a world heritage listing in 2018. If successful, this would mean the area is protected in the same way as the pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge and the Taj Mahal.
While Perdaman has claimed to have the full support of the traditional owners to remove the art, this has been contested.
Raelene Cooper, a Mardudhunera woman and former board member of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, said elders and members of the community had been misinformed about the nature of work.
“The elders never approved this,” Cooper said. “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.”
Perdaman was contacted for comment.
Cooper and another custodian, Josie Alec, wrote to Australia’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, asking her to use emergency powers under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act to stop the rock art removal.
In response, the federal environment department asked Perdaman not to go ahead until a review can be carried out.
A spokesperson for Ley said the department would review the application to remove the art “as soon as possible”.
“At this time the scheduling of works remains a matter for the proponent who must meet all conditions including those relating to the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage,” the spokesperson said.
Cooper said the situation had a renewed urgency after the inquiry into the destruction of sacred sites at Juukan Gorge following international outcry.
“It’s quite concerning the government would support us in a way with world heritage nomination with all the rock and history, and then turn around, putting a $4.5bn plant in there and remove that history,” Cooper said. “I find it astonishing.”
As well as physical destruction of the rock art by removal, there are also concerns about the cumulative effect of air pollution from increasing industrial development in the area.
The University of Western Australia honorary research fellow John Black said air pollution from gas production and other industrial operations builds up on the rock face, where it makes the surface more acidic, causing the paint to break down.
“The main problem with urea is that it provides a nitrogen source for microbes and those microbes produce organic acids,” Black said.
“The thing about the Murujuga environment is that it was extraordinarily deficient in nitrogen. The only organisms that use to live [in] them were able to convert nitrogen from the air into biological form.
“Now what we’re doing is providing various forms of nitrogen as pollution.”