Protection of Aboriginal rock art of the Burrup Peninsula
Friends of Australian Rock Art response to the Senate Inquiry (FARA response to Senate Inquiry report-PDF version)
A split decision along party lines from the Senate inquiry into ‘Protection of Aboriginal rock art of the Burrup Peninsula’ is devastating for Australia’s, world significant, cultural heritage.
All members of the Senate Committee agreed that the rock engravings or petroglyphs on Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula) near Karratha in Western Australia “are of immense cultural and spiritual significance to Aboriginal people, and of equally immense national and international archaeological and heritage value… and should be protected and conserved for current and future generations”.
Labor and the Greens recommend substantial reductions in industrial emissions are needed to preserve the petroglyphs, while the Coalition makes no recommendations and dismisses all credible evidence on potential harm to the petroglyphs leaving industrial emissions to continue unabated.
The split decision on actions needed to preserve the petroglyphs makes the necessary legislation restricting emissions from industry more difficult to achieve and provides excuses for industry and shipping to continue their huge acid emissions into the atmosphere.
The petroglyphs on Murujuga capture more than 50,000 years of human culture, activity and spiritual beliefs through ever changing environments from first settlement of Aboriginal people in Australia, through the last Ice Age, until the decimation of the Yaburara group in the ‘Flying Foam’ massacre of 1868.
The petroglyphs include some of the oldest known representations of the human face in the world. There are images of extinct mammals including megafauna, a fat-tailed kangaroo and the Thylacine. There are elaborate geometric designs that could have been used for navigation or an early form of mathematics. There are many depictions of hunting and cultural ceremonies as well as detailed contemporary land animals, birds and sea creatures. These images are part of the ‘song lines’ and Aboriginal lore that guided their way of life.
The petroglyphs on Murujuga are an irreplaceable cultural and archaeological treasure of the world. Principles of chemistry suggest they are now being destroyed.
Successive Western Australian and Federal Governments have sanctioned the construction of the largest petrochemical complex in the southern hemisphere in the midst of the petroglyphs. It is estimated around 30,000 images have been destroyed to make way for industries. Remaining images are now under serious threat by acid emissions from the industrial plants and shipping.
Measurements by Dr Ian MacLeod former director of the Maritime Museum in Perth show up to a 1000-fold increase in acidity of the Murujuga rock surfaces since before industrialisation of the area. Acid dissolves the outer dark-coloured rock patina or desert varnish, which is only formed under neutral-alkaline conditions at an incredibly slow rate of 1 to 10 microns in 1000 years. The average human hair is 100 microns in diameter.
Chemical principles show that acid dissolves the iron and manganese compounds of the patina, making it thinner and allowing it to flake and destroy the petroglyphs.
Continuing development of industry and permitted levels of emissions on Murujuga,
particularly the establishment of an ammonium nitrate plant for explosives, were based on
now discredited CSIRO reports that were not published in peer reviewed scientific journals.
The authors of these same reports, in their most recent report now show that there is a
significant change to the colour of rocks over thirteen years.
The Coalition senators ignored the basic chemical principles prescribing that acidity of the
rock surfaces is dissolving the patina and destroying the rock art. Instead, they quoted the
earlier CSIRO reports which have been shown in Senate Inquiry submissions to be
inadequate in design, methodology, analysis and/or interpretation, and now stated as
superseded by CSIRO.
The Coalition emphasise the statement in the latest CSIRO report that there was no
statistically significant difference in colour change at the two northern sites (named control)
and the five southern sites closer to industry. CSIRO know and have been told that nine
northern and nine southern sites would be needed to show a 15% difference in colour change
over the 14 years of measurement to be significant with the high variation in individual
measurements due to the uneven rock surfaces. The true interpretation of the lack of a
significant difference between the northern and southern sites is that there were insufficient
replicate sites to make any statistically relevant conclusion about the rates of colour change at
sites more distant or closer to industry.
The Coalition wrongly claimed there is “no credible evidence of adverse impact of emissions
on rock art”.
This claim by the Coalition senators has now compromised the actions needed to save the
petroglyphs for future generations.
Air pollution from existing industry, including shipping, is so high that the Bureau of
Meteorology, Dampier radar images every day of the year when rainfall is less than 250
mm/year and rain occurs on average less than 20 days each year.
There is a suggestion this pollution is already damaging the environment. Possible corrosive
effects of the atmospheric pollution can be seen on the concrete paving stones at the
Woodside Visitors Centre from a photo taken in July 2017.
Nitrogen dioxide emissions from the Yara Pilbara Nitrates ammonium nitrate production
facility could be a danger to human health.
A picture taken by a local Karratha resident, while driving past the plant on the way to the
popular beach site of Hearson’s Cove, shows a yellow cloud of nitrogen dioxide emanating
from the ammonium nitrate plant at the far left of the road.
Nitrogen dioxide is a toxic gas with an Australian health guidance standard of 0.24 mg/m3 for
short term exposure and 0.06 mg/m3 for long-term average annual exposure. Nitrogen
dioxide is heavier than air and concentrates at the level of people on the ground.
Nitrogen dioxide becomes visible as a yellow coloured gas cloud once the concentration
reaches 0.99 mg/m3. This means that the concentration of nitrogen dioxide released from the
Yara plant was at least 4-times greater that the Australian health standard.
Professor Dino Pisaniello and Dr Len Turczynowicz from the Adelaide University, Exposure
Science and Health Centre stated in a recent report, that the emission of nitrogen dioxide at
concentrations emanating from the Yara plant would result in severe health outcomes for
people exposed to the emissions for times as short as ten minutes. The effects would be
dramatically greater for children and for people with asthmatic or other respiratory
Danger to public health from the ammonium nitrate plant has been acknowledged for some
time by the Western Australian Government. In a document submitted to the Senate Inquiry,
the former Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, wrote:
“The rationale for wishing to see the MLKC (Murujuga Living Knowledge Centre) moved
away from Hearson Cove is primarily one of public health and safety, rather than because of
the visual effect of the Yarra Technical Ammonia Plant. …. Preliminary discussions with
relevant State agencies have indicated that the development of the MLKC at Hearson Cove
could present an unacceptable risk to public health and safety.”
The Coalition parties need to reconsider their rejection of emissions control from industry
and shipping on Murujuga for preservation of the irreplaceable petroglyphs and for the safety
of people in the area.
The Coalition senators wrote in the report about a ‘… small minority who wish to stop the
development of the TANPF (Technical Ammonium Nitrate Production Facility)’.
Friends of Australian Rock Art and other people whose concern has been with saving the
petroglyphs for future generations have always supported the development of industry. They
argued strenuously to the Western Australian and Federal Governments and to the companies
involved with development of the TANPF (the Norwegian company Yara International and
the Australian company Orica) that the plant provided an excellent use of a waste product,
ammonia, from the Liquefied Natural Gas process and employment for the area, but the
facility should be placed on the Maitland Industrial Estate approximately 20 kilometres from
Burrup Peninsula. Maitland Estate would be suitable for the ammonium nitrate plant because
all product is transported by road.
The Maitland Industrial Estate was established specifically for industrial development in the
Karratha region. Placement of the plant on the Maitland Industrial Estate would have
avoided the large acid load from nitrogen dioxide and ammonium nitrate particles damaging
the rock art. This appeal was rejected by all parties, with excuses such as ammonia cannot be
piped that distance. Ammonia is pumped thousands of miles in USA.
FARA wrote to Yara International, whose major shareholder is the Norwegian Government,
during the period prior to construction of the plant and asked whether they would establish an
ammonium nitrate plant in the midst of the rock art in Norway. Their response was simply
‘….we are doing what your Governments have allowed’ and refused to consider the ethical
position relating to their destruction of a world significant archaeological and cultural
treasure in another country.
Part of Murujuga was placed on the National Heritage List in 2007. There were
recommendations in the senate report from Labor and The Greens that Murujuga be placed
on the Tentative List for World Heritage Listing, provided this was agreed by the Murujuga
FARA had met with previous MAC representatives around 2012 to discuss the advantages
and disadvantages of World Heritage Listing.
FARA also sought at that time a legal opinion from Emeritus Professor Ben Boer from the
University of Sydney Law School on differences in protection for the rock art under National
Heritage or World Heritage Listing. Professor Boer confirmed that there is no legal
difference in terms of the level of protection and that, in both cases, responsibility for
protection belongs to the Federal Government. However, World Heritage Listing is through
UNESCO and can provide a far greater oversight that the listed area is being protected than
with National Heritage Listing, particularly where a Federal Government does not enforce the
FARA supports World Heritage Listing for Murujuga as a means of greater protection for the
petroglyphs and wishes to continue to work with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.
FARA is a volunteer, not for profit organisation, with the sole aim of preserving the
irreplaceable petroglyphs on Murujuga for future generations of people of the world.