• The ancient Aboriginal rock art at the Burrup Peninsula is the world's largest and oldest. (APP)Source: APP
CSIRO has made a series of errors in its preservation of ancient Aboriginal rock art at the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia, a Senate inquiry has heard.
17 Feb 2017 - 6:00 PM  UPDATED 20 Feb 2017 - 11:44 AM

The Burrup Peninsula, on the mid-west coast of Western Australia, is home to the world's oldest and largest rock art sites - containing more than one million Aboriginal rock art engravings, dating back as far as 30,000 years.   

Known as 'Murujuga' to the local Ngarluma-Yindjibarndi, the Yaburara-Mardudhunera and the Woon-goo-tt-oo peoples, the sites hold one of the most important collections of petroglyphs and rock art. To say that this landscape is of great cultural significance to the traditional owners is an understatement. 

The Burrup Peninsula is also home to some of the biggest sites for mining and industrial development, including natural gas and ammonia fertiliser production.     

Some fear missions from these activities could potentially have devastating effects on the rock art.

Professor John Black, a former CSIRO divisional chief, told an Senate inquiry on Friday that the corrosive emissions from the nearby petrochemical and fertiliser factories will have damaging impacts on the art, which includes the world's oldest depiction of the human face.

"I honestly believe that the level of acidity that is now proposed and probably already occurring on Burrup Peninsula will destroy the rock art," Professor Black said. 

The inquiry is hearing from a number of witnesses about the impact of industrial pollution on the rock art, and the state and federal regulations covering the Peninsula.

The CSIRO has been monitoring the site for more than a decade to ensure its preservation.

But Professor John Black says the CSIRO's reporting is flawed and that "government and industry continue to use these reports to justify establishment of the ammonium nitrate production facility on the Peninsula and its limits to its emissions."

In his submission to the inquiry, he says, "these three reports are flawed in terms of scientific methods, analyses and/or interpretations" and "there are serious concerns about the appropriateness of instruments, methods used to measure colour and mineralogy changes at Burrup rock art sites."

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, who sits on the Environment and Communications References Committee, initiated the inquiry. 

Ms Siewert told NITV News: "They [CSIRO] relied on a report to justify the limits that were set (200 milliequivalents per square metre). What has come to light is that the report that they based their recommendations on ... was in fact not supposed to be used, or shouldn't have been used for the purposes that it was."

"What was explained to us by the professor [John Black] that wrote that report is that it looked at the impact of acid rain on aquatic environments and vegetation, and it was not intended to be used for rocks.

"What we were told today was that it was an inappropriate use to use it for that. So that report that forms the foundation for the emissions that had been set was, certainly from the way I interpret the evidence, flawed,"  she adds.

Dr Helen Cleugh, Director of the Climate Science Centre at the CSIRO, told the inquiry the agency fulfilled all of its requirements for the WA Government.  

"The latest report is being prepared and will incorporate the past two years of monitoring of colour change and mineral spectroscopy," she says. 

Dr Cleugh said the CSIRO stands by its researchers. 

"We are here today to stand by our researchers and the science that they produce and provide more detail on these projects to help the committee on its inquiry."

However, Johan Kuylenstierna from the Stockholm Environment Institute told the inquiry that the part of his research used by the CSIRO to set the acid levels at 200 milliequivalents per square metre per year "should be withdrawn." 

CSIRO Research Group Leader, Dr Melita Keywood, said Mr Kuylenstierna's research was "the best they had at the time." 

But Ms Siewert says this means the CSIRO should have gone back and looked at the whole process again. 

"If the best available information was in fact inappropriate use of that information, they had nothing ... to base their report on."  

The committee also heard from witnesses including former Greens leader Christine Milne representing the Bob Brown Foundation, Friends of the Australia Rock Art, Orica, Yara Pilbara Fertilisers, Hon Robin Chapple MLC, the Department of Environment and Energy and the Law Council of Australia. 

The inquiry will also look into a decade-long campaign to have the site listed on the World Heritage Register.

A Senate committee report will be submitted on 21 March 2017. 

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The Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara region of Western Australia could be preserved if an archaeological site is established there.
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