Port Hedland traditional owners accuse council, Water Corp of disturbing heritage site: ABC

ABC Pilbara /By Tom Robinson  14/6/2023

Robert Dann says a heritage site in Port Hedland has been disturbed without permission. Supplied: Kariyarra Aboriginal Corporation

Traditional owners in Port Hedland say they were not consulted before the local council carried out work which allegedly left ancient fossilised footprints “desecrated” and threatened rock engravings.

Key points:

  • An elder saw a large council lawn mower operating on Two Mile Ridge, home to multiple fossil footprints and rock engravings
  • Questions have also been raised about excavation works undertaken by the Water Corporation
  • The Town of Port Hedland is conducting an internal investigation

The Kariyarra Aboriginal Corporation (KAC) said the sites are part of the broader Two Mile Ridge heritage area, located near the centre of Port Hedland in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

Last week the group’s heritage monitors discovered work had been conducted on the site by the Town of Port Hedland and the Water Corporation, and are calling on authorities to ensure it never happens again.

Last year the council was fined almost $8,000 for illegally damaging a separate set of footprints at a nearby site at Pretty Pool.

Kariyarra Minjinburra elder Robert Dann said he saw a large council lawn mower operating on Two Mile Ridge last week, which he said caused damage to the rocks as well as “slashing” a preserved footprint.

He said the footprint was estimated to be at least 25,000 years old.

“I didn’t feel well at all,” he said.

“All this work has been done with this big slasher, chopping up the rocks and actually marking the ridge itself.”

Fossilized footprints in rock.

An example of the ancient footprints in Port Hedland, this one is undamaged. Supplied: Kariyarra Aboriginal Corporation

Mr Dann said the area was home to multiple footprints, as well as rock engravings, which were also threatened by the council’s alleged actions.

“This is pretty serious stuff. We don’t go and chop their artefacts or art galleries up, or push them down,” he said.

“We’ve got to try and preserve what we’ve got for the future and the generations to come.”

The Town of Port Hedland said it was conducting an internal investigation and cannot comment further.

“The town is also willing to cooperate with any external investigation,” a spokesperson said.

“Given this, it would be inappropriate to comment further until the outcome of any and all investigations is known.”

The Port Hedland allegations come amid growing industry and community concerns around the state government’s changes to the state’s Aboriginal Heritage laws, due to take effect next month.

The government has ruled out any delay to the changes, with consultation with impacted parties ongoing around the state.

Questions for Water Corp

KAC also raised concerns about excavation works undertaken on the site by the Water Corporation, which was replacing a section of the local water main.

KAC chief executive Nicholas Green said this work, as well as the council’s actions, went ahead without consultation or permission from traditional owners, which is required under Aboriginal heritage laws.

“If you’re going to go inside and do land use, or do any disturbance to the ground, come and have a look, come and talk to us,” he said.

“Our desire is obviously to work with … land users in the town to make sure that they follow a due process to ensure that Aboriginal heritage is acknowledged and protected.”

A stretch of dead grass between two roads lined with gum trees.

The Two Mile Ridge site takes up a large part of Port Hedland.

Water Corporation said it had complied with heritage laws, was confident the work undertaken by a contractor had not damaged any Aboriginal heritage, and would work with KAC on the matter.

It is understood KAC and the Water Corporation met to discuss the dispute early this week.

“We are taking the matter very seriously and will be working collaboratively with Kariyarra Aboriginal Corporation and the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage to further the investigations,” a Water Corporation spokesperson said.

Mr Dann said he wanted an apology for the damage and lack of consultation, as well as an opportunity to speak with the organisations to ensure heritage is protected in the future.

“They need to know the knowledge of the country. I’d like to see them say sorry and apologise,” he said.

“It would help to get in touch with some of the Kariyarra people, let them know there’s a bit of work going on so we can get someone out there to let them know if it’s okay.”

The state regulator, the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, said it had been notified of the incident.