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Investigating the toxic health impacts of industry in the Pilbara region of Western Australia

Introduction by Croakey: The co-benefits of climate action for health were highlighted at the recent COP27 meeting in Egypt, and the case was also made in a recent submission by leading health organisations – including the World Health Organization and the Climate and Health Alliance.

“Health is therefore both a prerequisite for and a critical indicator of climate action,” said the submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The opposite can also be true: the operations of fossil fuels industries have wide-ranging health impacts beyond climate change.

A case study of how the power of industry and climate inaction undermine the health of communities and Country comes from the north of Western Australia, reports journalist Jade Bradford, in a special investigation published as part of the #HealthyCOP27 series.


Jade Bradford writes:

In the north-west Pilbara region of WA, roughly 20 minutes’ drive from the mining town of Karratha is Murujuga, also known as the Burrup Peninsula. Here you will find Murujuga National Park, which is the starting place of the Murujuga Songlines, with one of the largest collections of petroglyphs (rock art) in the world.

The area is also where the world’s largest oil and gas project, Woodside’s North West Shelf Joint Venture (Burrup Hub), operates. And it is also where Yara Pilbara Nitrates Pty Ltd (YPN) operates one of the world’s largest ammonia production sites: Yara Pilbara Fertilisers.

A number of expansions are underway at the Burrup Hub, including Woodside’s Scarborough to Pluto project. The project involves installing a floating production unit 375 kilometres from the Western Australian coast. Then eight oil wells will be drilled into the seabed, with the possibility of more drilling in the future. The project also includes building 610 kilometres of pipeline to join the site to the Pluto LNG facility and the WA coast.

Scarborough to Pluto project

A recent Climate Analytics report estimated the Scarborough to Pluto project would produce 1.37 billion tonnes of emissions by 2055. Annual emissions from the project are tipped to be 2.8 times the annual emissions of Australia’s largest coal fired power plant.

Climate Analytics Senior Climate and Energy Policy Analyst Anna Chapman said the Scarborough to Pluto project is a bet against the world implementing the Paris Agreement because it will increase domestic and global emissions.

“By the late 2020’s Woodside’s Pluto expansion project, its linked domestic gas supply and co-related H2 Perth project will be emitting the equivalent of around 12 percent of WA’s 2005 emissions,” she said.

“It will also add more than 20 percent to Western Australia’s projected gas supply over the next decade.”

University of Western Australia (UWA) scientist Dr John Black has also spoken out against the Scarborough to Pluto project. Black has made multiple appeals to stop the project, stating: “For the sake of humankind, this project should not be approved.”

Black said that he was left astonished at the ‘spin’ put on Woodside’s proposal documentation.

In one appeal to the WA Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), Black wrote:

I am reminded of the tactics used by the tobacco industry in its campaign to downplay the impact of tobacco smoke on public health. The document casts doubt on current scientific evidence, presents erroneous conclusions about Woodside’s own data and continually seeks more research to further delay action.”

Yara Pilbara Nitrates

In 2018, Black submitted a review of the nearby YPN plants and found air pollution levels that were up to 23 times higher than the Australian health standard guidelines.

His 2017 review of the Yara Pilbara Nitrates Pty Ltd Commissioning Report shared photographic evidence taken by the ABC in 2017 of a yellow cloud of nitrogen dioxide coming from the company’s ammonium site.

Research conducted by the University of Adelaide estimated the yellow cloud would have a minimum nitrogen dioxide level of 0.99 mg/m3. At the time, Australian health standards for nitrogen dioxide were set at 0.24 mg/m3 for short term exposure and 0.06 mg/m3 for long term exposure.

Image from 2017 report

When questioned, YPN told the ABC that the emissions posed no health risk. These denials were repeated again by YPN this year when the ABC reported several incidents of ground water contamination from plant. Surface water containing ammonium and nitrate had washed from the plant into nearby King Bay on several occasions.

“What’s important is that through all of our assessments, we have found that there is no risk to people or the flora and fauna of the surrounding environment,” a company representative told the ABC.

Karratha respiratory syndrome

Traditional Owners, health researchers, doctors and concerned community members have called for real-time ambient air quality monitoring to be undertaken and for data to be made publicly available.

Nitrogen dioxide is the main toxic gas emitted from the Yara plant and Burrup Hub that presents as a health risk to people within the area of Murujuga, Karratha and Dampier. It can damage a person’s respiratory tract and increase the likelihood of developing respiratory infections and asthma.

In WA, the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) is responsible for the enforcement of air quality monitoring. But despite the ongoing expansions at the Burrup Hub, DWER does not have any ambient air quality monitors installed in the surrounding area. To date only a handful of ambient air quality studies have been undertaken.

Both Yara and Woodside currently fund their own air monitoring programs and report the data back to DWER. This information is not made available to the public.

Dr Sajni Gudka, director of a consultancy, the Urban Impact Project, and Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, has prepared a report, ‘Living with Uncertainty: every breath you take in the Burrup Peninsula’ (2020), which raised concerns about the public having no access to real-time ambient air quality data.

Gudka conducted a review of pollutants present at Murujuga, including sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3), and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and made several recommendations, including that no new polluting licenses be issued in the Burrup Peninsula until there is:

  • An Environmental Protection Policy for the Burrup Peninsula
  • A comprehensive Health Impact Assessment of all the Air NEPMS and Air-Toxins NEMPS in the Burrup air-shed
  • Open source access to all the Woodside and BAAMP datasets (past, present and future)
  • An effective and responsive public health management plan for the Burrup Peninsula.

In 2020, a systematic review raised similar concerns, showing a strong association between short-term exposure to these pollutants and mortality. As the tweet below illustrates, World Health Organization experts state that one of the health gains that can come from climate action is reducing air pollution and associated harms.

Tweet by Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, Head of WHO Climate Change Unit, speaking at HEAL 2022 conference in Australia

University of Adelaide Exposure Science and Health Centre Professor Dino Pisaniello analysed the YPN Commissioning Report data. He concluded that the intensity of the pollutants contained within the YPN emissions data would result in severe health outcomes.

“…the consequences of such high-level exposure are severe and should not be underestimated by industry or government,” Pisaniello said.

Short-term and long-term exposure to these pollutants were found to be strongly related to medical admissions for respiratory illnesses, including respiratory infections and asthma. There were also links to cardiovascular illnesses, including arrhythmias, ischemic heart failure and high blood pressure.

A 2018 Pilbara health report showed children in the area were hospitalised for asthma and bronchiectasis 1.7 to 11 times more often than children living in other parts of WA. Black said the high rates of hospitalisations due to respiratory illness was referred to by locals as ‘Karratha respiratory syndrome’.

Image: Pilbara Health Profile 2018.

Rights at risk

In response to questions put to him by Croakey, Doctors for the Environment Australia member Dr Richard Yin said projects like Woodside’s Scarborough to Pluto and Clive Palmer’s Galilee coalmine infringe on the right to life, the rights of First Nations people and the rights of children.

Yin, who has previously called for health and medical organisations to stop taking funding from fossil fuels companies, said “it makes a mockery of their (Woodside’s) ongoing sponsorship of the Surf Lifesaving’s Nippers programme.”

In 2016, the WA Premier at the time, Colin Barnett, wrote a letter to former Greens Member Robin Chapple, in which he explains why the decision was made to move the proposed Murujuga Living Knowledge Centre (MLKC) site from Hearson Cove to Conzinc Bay.

“The rationale for wishing to see the MLKC 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,” Barnett wrote.

The MLKC is planned so the area can be opened up to tourists and showcase the Murujuga rock carvings, which are roughly 50,000 years old and include what is believed to be the oldest representation of the human face.

Hearson’s Cove is around three kilometres from the YPN plant, making the site, in Barnett’s words, an “unacceptable risk to public health and safety”.

The WA Government has since pledged $1.33 million towards the development of the MLKC, while Woodside has put $4 million on the table.

The centre is now set to be constructed at Conzinc Bay, which is around 10 kilometres from the plant. Once the MLKC is established, visitors will need to travel past the industrialised area to access the site, where they will remain in close proximity to the industrial activity.

Need for public air quality monitors

According to Gudka, the absence of overarching responsibility between DWER, the WA Department of Health and polluting industries showed a significant omission of government responsibility.

Black agreed with the recommendations in Gudka’s report, saying reporting of ambient air quality in real time was needed, as required from similar project sites around WA.

Yin also agreed, saying that “there should be real time air quality monitoring that the public can be assured that there is no health risk.”

Listen to First Nations voices

In addition to the human health risks resulting from the emissions, Black has compiled strong evidence to suggest that emissions within the area are causing damage to the unique Murujuga rock carvings.

Woodside has so far failed to listen to the concerns expressed by Traditional Owners and community relating to Murujuga rock art, sacred sites, Songlines and the health and wellbeing of local people.

However, Kuruma Marthedunera Traditional Owner Josie Alec said the fight to stop the Scarborough to Pluto expansion is not over yet and that the community was holding a united front.

“[It’s] giving community a voice and giving the old people a voice as well. We all know it’s because we want to be able to secure our future generations’ health and wellbeing,” she said.

Alec questioned the amount of government funding Woodside was receiving towards the expansion, which will be one of Australia’s most polluting projects.

“What about the welfare of our people…and that’s people everywhere. Mining companies are receiving the rewards of everything that government has to give them and they’re not actually looking out for people,” she said.

In response to questions from Croakey, Greens Senator Dorinda Cox said by email that she was extremely heartbroken and disappointed when the Scarborough to Pluto project was approved.

“Australia’s lack of climate action is unacceptable. We are constantly failing to listen to the science and our future generations will pay the ultimate price,” she said.

“The fact that the approval has gone ahead against the wishes of Traditional Owners only exacerbates this. The lack of respect is inexcusable. The [Federal] Government must strengthen the laws to prioritise First Nations people over profits.

“It was striking to be in Egypt for COP27 and see the stark difference between the way the pyramids and other heritage sites are protected and revered versus back home.”

Cox said she would like to instead see investment in First Nations communities and businesses. She also called for investment in clean, green energy infrastructure in areas like the Pilbara that protect cultural heritage and provide positive impacts.

Regulatory changes

Amid growing global concern about the health risks associated with air pollution, the Federal Government introduced new air quality standards last year.

A spokesperson from DWER said work was currently underway to implement changes stemming from the recent amendments. This would include establishing a long term, coordinated ambient air quality monitoring network.

They said the program would take into consideration the existing and future emissions at Murujuga and neighbouring population centres.

“DWER will develop regulations for environmental monitoring programmes to address cumulative air emissions for Murujuga, and to recover the costs of this monitoring,” they said.

“Reports and data from the Murujuga Rock Art Monitoring Program (MRAMP) will be made publicly available following peer review, with the first reports due in mid-2023. DWER is further investigating opportunities to make data available in real time.”

A Woodside spokesperson said the company supported the new regulations and pointed out that Woodside had been undertaking air monitoring at Murujuga for decades. They said Woodside remained committed to funding the MRAMP ,which included air quality monitoring.

The company spokesperson said the public should not be concerned about impacts to their health and wellbeing.

“Ambient air monitoring data to date confirms that industrial emissions on the Burrup are well below Australian standard levels set to protect human health and well-being,” the spokesperson said.

When asked about the risk associated with emissions damaging the Murujuga rock art, the spokesperson referred to research conducted by the MRAMP committee back in 2009.

The research found “no scientific evidence to indicate that there is any measurable impact of emissions on the rate of deterioration of the Aboriginal rock art in the Burrup”.

They added: “Woodside anticipates that the necessary certainty required to definitively address these concerns will be provided by the MRAMP. In the meantime, Woodside is applying a precautionary approach to appropriately manage its emissions.”

Others, however, are concerned that the future of this world-renowned cultural site is at risk.

As climate inaction threatens the future of people and planet, Woodside is causing delays. The company’s continued requests for more research into the impacts of emissions stops the action needed to protect the Murujuga rock art.

Cultural heritage of Murujuga photographed in 2015 by Mitchell Ward

• Jade Bradford is a proud descendent of the Ballardong Noongar people in Western Australia. She is a casual freelancer and a research fellow of the First Nations Messaging and Narrative Shifting Project. The research from the fellowship was used to inform the Passing the Message Stick online resource.


Bookmark this link to follow the #HealthyCOP27 series.
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We acknowledge and thank the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation for funding the #HealthyCOP27 series, and Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed and the Lowitja Institute for partnering with Croakey Health Media on the project.

 

 

 

 

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