For years, high-tech industrial facilities and rock art dating back tens of thousands of years have coexisted on Dampier’s Burrup Peninsula, a sharp contrast between the modern and ancient spread across one vast landscape.
But a Federal Senate committee inquiry has called into question the effects current levels of industry may be having on the area’s rich rock art, which has for decades been the subject of a campaign for World Heritage listing.
The inquiry of the Environment and Communications References Committee, called by Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, is investigating a claim the science used to support the CSIRO’s current acid deposition limit of 200 milliequivalents per square metre a year was flawed.
Speaking at the inquiry two weeks ago, Stockholm Environment Institute scientist Dr Johan Carl Ivar Kuylenstierna, whose research was used as the basis for that finding, said his work had looked at the sensitivity of ecosystems including marine environments and soil to acidic deposits and applying it to rocks was “an inappropriate use of our science”.
CSIRO research group leader Dr Melita Keyood said it had been the best information available to them at the time.
Ms Siewert said the revelation meant the CSIRO had no guide as to whether current industry was safe or not for the rock art.
“The bottom line is that we actually don’t know what’s best — the limits were set on a flawed interpretation of a report, and there’s not been the adequate proper research done on what the emissions should be and what the rocks could tolerate,” she said.
Current industry on the Burrup includes the Yara Pilbara Fertilisers’ ammonia plant, the Woodside-operated North West Shelf Project oil and gas facility and iron ore shipping through the Dampier port.
Ms Siewert said if the inquiry was successful, then industry would likely be required to reduce emissions but if it was not, the consequences for the rock art could be dire.
“I’m very concerned about the future of the petroglyphs, which are way up there,” she said.
“Everyone says it is needs World Heritage listing, they are the best in the world, the first representation of a human face — I could carry on for hours about that value of the Burrup.”
In his evidence given to the inquiry, former CSIRO assistant chief John Black said he was concerned industry emissions would crack and discolour the rock art and stimulate fungal growth, destroying the rock art “within a relatively short period of time”.
Yara Pilbara general manager Chris Rijksen also gave evidence, in which he said the company had followed its industrial regulations on the Burrup.
“Contrary to what has been suggested, Yara has met its obligations in respect of heritage monitoring, and the total cumulative emissions was modelled and taken into account in the works approval process,” he said.
“In terms of rock art, Yara has been a willing participant in the longstanding program to monitor potential impacts of industrial emissions.”
Mr Rijksen also said the company had great respect for the region’s traditional owners and its rock art, and supported both World Heritage listing of the Burrup and the establishment of a Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation Living Knowledge Centre.
Industrial entities Orica, Woodside, Rio Tinto Iron Ore and the Chamber of Minerals and Energy also made submissions to the inquiry.
Rio Tinto heritage and agreements manager Gavin Martin said the company did not believe their emissions were damaging the area’s rock art.
“Outside our original development footprints, Rio Tinto business functions do not present additional threat to the rock art nor National Heritage values,” he said.
“In regard to the Senate terms of reference, Rio Tinto do not believe that our commercial activities are a major contributor to the total industrial pollution load.”
Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation represents the five traditional owner groups of the Burrup but were not informed of or consulted for the inquiry.
Chief executive Craig Bonney said the hearing raised the issue that the Burrup, which he believed was “the most culturally significant place in Australia”, may not be adequately protected from environmental damage.
“We don’t know the truth either way, and we are concerned if any damage is occurring,” he said. “We have to trust the governments, both State and Commonwealth, to do the right thing by our country, to ensure that they have a regime in place which protects our environment.
“That’s the promise they made to us and that’s the promise they need to hold.”
Yaburara and Coastal Mardhudunera Aboriginal Corporation heritage officer Audrey Cosmos said she had no doubt current levels of industry were destructive for the ancient rock carvings as a matter of common sense.
“It definitely is hurting the rock art.
“You just look around here and how much development’s going on,” she said.
“Over time it will destroy them because you’ve got the rain, you’ve got the heat . . . their substance that’s being dispersed out into the environment is definitely not going to be healthy for our rock art. “It’s just common sense.” She said it was important to preserve the rock art to safeguard the rich cultural history and natural beauty of the area.
“Not only for the traditional owners but also it’s for everyone — this beauty’s for everyone to enjoy,” she said.
“There is no native title of the Burrup. It truly is for the public.”
Ms Siewert said the inquiry also tied into the long-running debate over World Heritage listing for the Burrup on the matter of strong environmental protection.
“Just because it’s not World Heritage listed yet doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the values,” she said.
“World Heritage listing, it requires then better management and to ensure that those values are protected.”
Ken Mulvaney with rock art found on the Burrup Peninsula.
Engraved turtles in Murujuga National Park.
The Yara fertiliser and Technical Ammonia Nitrate plants on the Burrup Peninsula.