Federal government accused of ‘railroading’ traditional custodians over Burrup peninsula rock art site

by Royce Kurmelovs
Custodians fighting to stop construction of a WA fertiliser plant say environment department gave just three days to respond to a 180-page document

Traditional custodians behind a push to halt construction of a fertiliser plant on the Burrup peninsula that would require the removal of Indigenous rock art say they have been given just three days to respond to a 180-page document.

Construction work on the $4.5bn urea plant planned by multinational company Perdaman has been paused for 30 days while the federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, considers a request to intervene to protect ancient petroglyphs.

At least three sites of significance would need to be relocated as part of construction of the plant at the heavy industry hub on Western Australia’s north-west coast.

The environment minister said she was “carefully considering” the request under section 9 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.

However in a statement released on on Sunday, Raelene Cooper, a Mardudhunera woman and former chair of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, and Josie Alec, a Kuruma Mardudhunera woman from the group Save our Songlines, said the Department of Environment was “railroading” traditional custodians.

They said they were provided with documents by the federal department of environment late on Saturday night as part of the review process and asked to respond by 5pm on Tuesday.

“We received an email from the department on a Saturday night without any prior notice demanding we respond to hundreds of pages of submissions within 72 hours across the weekend,” they said.

“We are traditional custodians, not a big industry multinational with a team of corporate lawyers.

“This feels like just more railroading of traditional custodians without proper consultation or free, prior and informed consent.”

The current WA heritage laws offer limited rights of appeal to traditional owners, and the officially recognised custodians of the site, the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, have consented to the development. New laws, passed last year, have yet to come into operation.

The issue is complicated by the history of the Burrup peninsula, which fell under the custodianship of the Ngarluma people after the majority of the Yaburara people were massacred in the late 1860s.

Heavy industry developers have been shifting sacred rocks around the peninsula for 40 years: in the 1980s, Woodside dumped 1,800 petroglyphs into a compound to make way for the construction of the Karratha gas plant. They were not placed back on the hills for 32 years.

The area is currently under consideration for world heritage listing.

The federal environment department was contacted for comment.

The women also reiterated their invitation for Plibersek and the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, to visit the Burrup peninsula during the review process.

An invitation had originally been made on 2 June 2022 but the group reissued their invitation on Friday.

Burney told the ABC on Thursday the invitation should “obviously” be accepted.

Plibersek confirmed her office had received an application under heritage protections and was undertaking a review, but said she would not be commenting further owing to the risk it may create a “perception of bias”.

“I can confirm that I have not reached agreement with either the proponent, those making an application for a section 9 declaration, or any other interested party to the application to pause construction,” Plibersek said.

“As the decision-maker on the application, I am unable to make further public comment about the matter.”

The WA government supported Perdaman’s plan for a urea plant near the gas plant, with officials last week granting final works approval.

Perdaman said the plant will create up to 2,000 jobs and produce fertiliser for the agricultural industry.