Indigenous elder says government pressured her over opposition to Boral sand mine expansion: ABC

A middle-aged woman with long, dark hair, wearing a colourful top with Indigenous designs stands in a coastal area.

Dharawal elder Aunty Sharralyn Robinson has been waiting for more than two years to learn the fate of her land.

ABC Illawarra / By Kelly Fuller

Posted 6/12/2023

Key points:

  • Aunty Sharralyn Robinson says she was asked to alter her application opposing a sand mine expansion at Dunmore, NSW
  • She says she “absolutely” felt pressured and is furious that she is still waiting for a decision to be made two years later
  • The department responsible has declined to comment and Indigenous leaders are calling on Tanya Plibersek to intervene

There are fresh calls to cease work on a sand mine near the site of a historic massacre in New South Wales, with an Indigenous elder revealing feeling pressured by the federal government to amend her cultural heritage protection request.

Aunty Sharralyn Robinson made applications under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act (ATSIHP Act) to halt work on Boral’s Dunmore site in September 2021.

Two years later, she has chosen to share some of her correspondence and express her dismay that a decision has not been made.

On October 1, 1818 white settlers shot six Aboriginal people camped by Minnamurra River.

There were no repercussions for the killings.

Kiama Council acknowledged the massacre with a plaque near the river in 2018.

In December 2020, Boral Resources won approval from the state’s Independent Planning Commission to expand its Dunmore sand mine.

Elders and community groups raised concern that the expansion would impact the massacre site and the landscape more broadly, but Boral said there was no evidence to support those claims.

Eleven days after submitting her applications, Aunty Sharralyn received correspondence from the heritage branch of what was then the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment asking her to change her request to in order to allow Boral “to commence financially important works in less archaeologically valuable areas”.

“Boral has suspended its operations in stages 5A and 5B voluntarily since they learned of your applications, but we have no power to compel them to stand down while the minister considers your applications and they are keen to recommence as soon as possible,” the letter said.

“Would you please advise whether you would be willing to accept either proposal for a smaller revised specified area for the purpose of your applications?”

A reply was requested from Aunty Sharralyn “by lunchtime tomorrow”.

A dredge operating in a sand mine near a river.

The department said Boral voluntarily suspended work at site 5B – seen in here in November 2023 – after concerns were raised.

‘How dare they?’

Aunty Sharralyn said she “absolutely” felt pressured by the letter.

“When I identify a place of high significance, when we know it as a massacre site and when we acknowledge our people are buried there, I don’t want to dig them up to show you where they’re buried,” she said.

“It really distresses me to have to talk about this, but when I assert that, my words should be sufficient … our community’s words should be enough.

“Yet when they come back and say, ‘Well, Boral is suggesting a compromise where we excavate only a portion and exclude the rest’ — how dare they?

“More than 15,000 artefacts have been taken from country out there.

“What more evidence do you need to prove this is a site of significance?”

A spokesperson for the department – now the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water – said no comment would be made on “correspondence with an individual applicant”.

It also said four applications under section 10 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection (ATSIHP) Act were still being considered and that it was “not appropriate to comment further”.

The department’s website says section 10 applications can take six to nine months to process.

Aunty Sharralyn, whose application is still lodged, says she is “appalled” at the lack of a resolution and is urging Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to intervene “and salvage what is left”.

The department also confirmed it had received a fresh emergency protection application under section 9 of the ATSIHP Act, which it said could take one to two months to process.

The applicant’s identity has not been revealed.

A man and two woman, all middle-aged and Indigenous, stand with their arms around each other, looking solemn.

Uncle Peter Button, Aunty Sharralyn and Adell Hyslop are calling for an immediate declaration to protect Aboriginal sites in the mine area.

‘Gross failure’

Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council (ILALC) has renewed its call for work at the site to cease.

Chief executive Adell Hyslop said the government’s failure to address the matter was a “a gross failure” of its own legislation.

“We are demanding the government make this determination because we cannot continue to watch the activities that are proceeding at Boral’s site,” she said.

Ms Hyslop said the “high density of artefacts” found during test excavations further supported “the evidence of traditional owners and knowledge holders of the extensive use and occupation of the area”.

She said the ILALC was preparing to make another section 9 emergency protection application after its first request was rejected by former environment minister Susan Ley.

A Boral spokesperson said in a statement that all the necessary approvals had been received.

The company said a heritage management plan was prepared in consultation with Heritage NSW and the Registered Aboriginal Parties.

It said salvaged Aboriginal objects were being held in storage.

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