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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently stirred debate with a proposal to tighten national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for fine particulate matter. While the current standard for PM2.5 is set at 12 µg/m3, it has been suggested that this could be revised to around 8 µg/m3. The Fertilizer Institute, among many other heavy industry groups, has been quick to urge that existing standards are maintained, stating that the fertilizer industry is doing all it can to mitigate PM2.5 emissions, and an impressive decline of over 40% of these emissions has already been seen over the past 20 years.1 The company expressed that the new ruling would have an alarming economic impact, and that whilst the industry is working consistently to evolve with technology and innovation, repercussions of lowered air quality thresholds would be felt, and domestic fertilizer production could be severely reduced. The industry now waits with bated breath to see whether the pending proposal will be withdrawn.

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Across the globe, similar concerns over industry emissions have been expressed within the context of Perdaman’s divisive AUS$4.5 billion urea fertilizer plant on the Burrup Peninsula near Karratha, West Australia, which broke ground in May this year. While the area has been dubbed ‘the engine room of Australia’s economy’ due to its high levels of industrialisation, featuring gas operations owned by Woodside, the Burrup Peninsula also contains a wealth of heritage and culture, as home to the largest and oldest collection of rock carvings in the world.

Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, faced backlash after deciding not to block the construction of the urea plant, with rock art scientists warning that the carvings in the Burrup Peninsula could be destroyed within a century by pollution from the surrounding industrial area, and acidic industrial emissions.2 Comprehensive studies are therefore ongoing to ensure the protection of the famous petroglyphs, and any signs of accelerated change will be closely observed. Despite concerns, Plibersek has claimed that the project has been backed by many traditional owners in the area, and Perdaman’s Chairman, Vikas Rambal, has also outlined a number of its undeniable advantages. One major benefit is a huge boost to Australian food security; the plant is estimated to produce 2.3 million tpy of urea, reducing the country’s reliance on imports (previously 2.4 million tpy), and feeding approximately 90 million people.3 This is no small feat after local fertilizer supply dwindled during the height of the pandemic. Moreover, the project is set to create 2500 jobs, many of which will be offered to local people.

Additionally, Perdaman has cooperated with the local Aboriginal corporation to reduce the impacted rock art sites from 30 to only three, and it has been agreed that the urea facility will be the last of its kind built on the peninsula. West Australian Premier, Mark McGowan, believes a good ‘balance’ has been struck between industry success and the protection of significant artworks.4 Whilst there is no definitive answer on whether industrial pollution will affect the historic petroglyphs, what is conclusive is that balance and compromise will be crucial in navigating the future of the Burrup Peninsula, in which the past must be respected and preserved, while ensuring the country’s food security.

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