Plibersek halts fertiliser plan for Indigenous cultural site after outcry

·Environment Editor
·3-min read

Fertiliser multinational Perdaman has agreed to suspend planned works on a $4.5 billion project at an Indigenous cultural site, government sources indicate.

The 60-day pause follows intervention from Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, after Murujuga traditional custodians submitted a Section 9 emergency cultural heritage application to review the project.

Western Australia’s government approved Perdaman’s urea plant last Friday, green-lighting the removal of cultural items to make way for construction on the remote Burrup Peninsula.

Tanya Plibersek is considering whether to stop the construction of a fertiliser plant on an Indigenous cultural site. Source: AAP
Tanya Plibersek is considering whether to stop the construction of a fertiliser plant on an Indigenous cultural site. Source: AAP

“I can confirm that I have received a request for a Section 9 declaration under the Act which I am carefully considering,” Minister Plibersek said in a statement.

“I can’t say anything further. This is a legal process. As such it’s important that I consider the application without bias and without making public comment.”

The project would create an estimated 2000 jobs and annually manufacture two million tonnes of urea – an agricultural fertiliser.

Perdaman did not immediately respond to a request by Yahoo News Australia for comment.

On Friday, Minister Plibersek added, "Under the ATSIHP Act, I may make a section 9 declaration if I am satisfied that the area is a significant Aboriginal area and that it is under serious and immediate threat of injury or desecration".

Minister urged to ‘push button’ and ‘stop’ fertiliser plan

Traditional custodian Josie Alec, who submitted the section 9 application, cautiously welcomed Minister Plibersek’s intervention.

“I think for me, it's a good thing she has halted it, but it’s not the best thing,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“As the minister, she needs to now push the button on stop. It is her job.”

The Burrup Peninsula is home to thousands of pieces of culturally significant rock art. Source: Getty
The Burrup Peninsula is home to thousands of pieces of culturally significant rock art. Source: Getty

Ms Alec said rocks on the site are part of an Australia-wide network of songlines, and contain the ancestral lineage of the Murujuga people.

“Energetic life force for sustainability of Mother Earth comes from the rocks and the rock art, and the stories that they carry,” she said.

On Tuesday, traditional custodian Raelene Cooper, another signatory to the section 9, described Perdaman's proposal to remove the items as 'genocide' against her culture.

Indigenous custodian to appeal Woodside gas plan decision

Ms Alec and Ms Cooper have recently returned from a trip to speak before the United Nations in Geneva about general displacement of Aboriginal culture by industry.

The Burrup Peninsula is home to a number of separate projects including Woodside Energy’s gas hub and Yara Fertilisers’ Pilbara ammonia plant.

Western Australian authorities have given the energy giant permission to extend the life of the gas hub for another 50 years, despite concern from environmentalists and traditional custodians.

On Thursday, Ms Alec confirmed she will appeal to the state Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to review this decision.

Concern about ongoing damage to Indigenous site

While historically industrial development has caused damage or displacement to at least 1000 cultural items, Woodside says its approach has “matured” during 40 years of operations there.

The company now works with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation on cultural matters at the site.

“Woodside also supports the Murujuga Rock Art Strategy which has developed a world-best-practice program to monitor and protect the rock art and has undertaken archaeological and ethnographic surveys and assessments, which have not identified any impacts to sites including rock art,” a spokesperson said earlier this month.

The company also supports a government UNESCO World Heritage listing for the site, which contains the world’s largest and oldest collection of Indigenous rock art.

Scientists suspect emissions from industry across the site is dissolving the rock art, which could be up to 70,000 years old, however there have been no peer-reviewed studies proving this.

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