Saturday, 6 August 2011

Broome fears future as the next Dubai

The Curran family
Broome residents Kandy and John Curran, with daughter Claudia, are concerned about a proposed gas hub north of the town. Picture: Vanessa Hunter Source: The Australian

AN environmental standoff reminiscent of Tasmania's Franklin dam blockade is brewing in northern Australia.

A pending federal government decision to potentially declare west Kimberley Australia's biggest National Heritage area is fuelling an escalating dispute over Woodside Petroleum's $35 billion James Price Point gas hub project.

The project is strongly supported by the West Australian government, but it has split the Broome community, individual families -- black and white -- and spawned a wave of emotionally charged protests.

The Wilderness Society has pledged a national campaign to bolster local community opposition and target potential financiers of the gas hub plan that WA Premier Colin Barnett has said he hopes will transform Broome into the next Dubai.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke visited Broome this week and confirmed he would meet an August 31 deadline to make a decision on heritage listing for the west Kimberley.

But he is expected to stop short of environmentalists' demands he lock up the west Kimberley as a wilderness zone. 

Wilderness Society national campaign director Lyndon Schneiders said James Price Point was the largest single industrial development project in Australian history, with profound social effects on Broome and the local community. "Even more disturbing will be the precedent set for further industrialisation of the Kimberley if this project proceeds," Mr Schneiders said.

Broome resident Kandy Curran said community consultation had been inadequate. "I don't think people really understand the scale of what is proposed," she said. "Mr Barnett has made it clear he wants Broome to be this great big city in northern Australia and he wants the Kimberley to be the next Pilbara."

Kimberley Land Council chairman Wayne Bergman has controversially signed off on a development agreement with Woodside. But Mr Bergman said he was disappointed Woodside and the state government had not properly consulted the broader Broome community.

Through the agreement, traditional owners have prevented further LNG development on the Kimberley coastline and have reserved all rights to oppose the development on environmental grounds.

Mr Bergman said he was at odds with The Wilderness Society's view that a heritage listing for the west Kimberley should put a halt to further resource development.

"There has to be a triple bottom line approach -- cultural, environmental and economic," Mr Bergman said.

Mr Burke has said a heritage listing would not put an end to mining in the west Kimberley."I don't want it to become the next Pilbara," he said. "But where you have traditional owners who love the country and want to develop it, it puts a different complexion on it," he said.

Nonetheless, one project at risk by a heritage listing is the proposed development of Pluton Resources' $5.6 billion Ervine Island iron ore mine in the Buccaneer Archipelago, north of Broome.

Pluton has negotiated a ground-breaking native title agreement with the Mayala people, who will emerge as the company's largest single shareholder if the project proceeds.

The company has pioneered an internationally recognised low-impact, helicopter-assisted drilling technique and set a target of 30 per cent indigenous employment, which it hopes to beat.

Mr Burke has assured Pluto that, if done properly, the mine could still proceed in a heritage-listed area. But Pluton director Russell Williams said a heritage listing would make financing the project difficult.

Mayala elder Aubery Tiagan said the mine was a good opportunity to allow local people to remain on the land. Mr Tiagan said Pluton had struck a good native title agreement. "The company asks us and we tell them what to do," Mr Tiagan said. "We have an investment. We started this journey together."

But Mr Tiagan said he was not worried about the money.

"My country comes first."

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