In 2003, Woodside Petroleum produced $7.4 billion of oil and gas through the North West Shelf Venture. About 44% of the year’s total Australian production of hydrocarbons came from Dampier. By Australian standards, this is a large contribution to the economy, even though globally Woodside is a minor player.

But Woodside is also the nation’s largest single-location polluter: it emits at least 12,000 tonnes of nitric oxides and 15 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, among many other pollutants. Its Dampier terminal is an accident waiting to happen. The plant and its contents have the equivalent explosive force of 1,500,000 tonnes of TNT, or 100 Hiroshima atomic bombs (or almost 16 SLBM Trident D-5 ballistic missiles).

This powder keg would flatten Dampier and Karratha if it exploded, yet the Woodside plant lacks effective protection from lightning, terrorist attack, helicopter crash, sabotage, earthquake, cyclon, tsunami, bushfire, human error or simply the act of a deranged worker. There are vast stores of volatile and toxic chemicals on site, held in huge tanks. Among them are thousands of tonnes of ammonia, ammonium nitrate (from which explosives and rocket fuels are made), hydrogen, liquid propane, butane and light oil.

Bushfires and cyclones are common occurrences at Dampier, and an earthquake of 1.8 on the Richter Scale occurred in 2004. There is no realistic emergency plan for the event of a massive disaster, and the crews for such an eventuality are inadequate. In late 2004, there were just four professional fire fighters at the Woodside terminal.

Liquid natural gas plants are prone to explosions. The practice of concentrating huge explosive potential in one small area is demonstrably foolish. Yet in 2002, the state government of Western Australia decided to establish as many petrochemical plants as possible in the central part of the Burrup Peninsula, an area of just a few square kilometres. This extremely high concentration of fertiliser and explosives factories, the largest in the world, would create a literal powder keg of immense size. In its explosive power it will exceed that of any nuclear device ever built, the largest being the Russian ICBMs SS-18 Satan, SS-19 Stiletto and RS-12M Topol, which range in size from 500–750 kilotonnes.

One of the principal components of this enormous explosive arsenal being created at Dampier is ammonium nitrate, of which 92 million tonnes is stored in the Dampier Port alone (Roy Gillespie, the safety and security manager of the Port of Dampier, quoted in The West Australian, Wednesday, 18 August 2004, page 42). This is a substance that has, on many occasions, exploded spontaneously. For instance, on 21 September 2001, a small quantity of ammonium nitrate stored at an explosives factory near Toulouse, France, exploded without apparent reason. It killed 30 workers, injured more than 4900 people, and caused damage totalling 2.3 billion euros. The already immense Dampier stockpiles of this and other volatile substances will grow significantly if the government has its way, involving the global explosives giant Dyno Nobel in the Dampier industrial complex.

The Dampier tsunami
This man-made catastrophe will occur if and when the combined petrochemical and explosives industries at Dampier explode in a single cataclysmic event. As the explosive energy of 1500 kilotonnes of TNT is released in a chain reaction, the effects would devastate the region and kill over 10,000 people immediately, through asphyxiation, fire and explosion. A leading tsunami expert has estimated that the tsunami wave caused by this, the greatest explosion in history, could be about 52 m high 50 km from the centre of the explosion. At a distance of 500 km, it would be about 5 m high, and 2000 km from Dampier it would be 1.4 m high, on the open ocean. For comparison, the Aceh tsunami of Christmas 2004 was about 50 cm high on the open ocean. The Dampier tsunami will therefore exceed the devastation of the Aceh disaster.

Particularly affected would be the southern coasts of the Indonesian Archipelago. At Port Hedland, the wave would be about 30 m high, and would wipe that town off the map. Even in relatively sheltered and distant Perth, there would be extensive destruction. The loss of human life, however, would be greater in southern Asia than in Australia.

The alternatives
The greatest advantage of Western Australia is its one million square miles of largely uninhabited land. The planned petrochemical industries can be established anywhere a gas pipeline can be taken to. Already there is a 1700-km-long pipeline along much of the coast of the state. The most sensible solution is to establish several separate industrial estates along it, safely away from urban areas, but close enough to them to provide employment opportunities at Onslow, Carnarvon and Geraldton.

This has numerous benefits: it would limit local pollution levels significantly, it would protect the Dampier rock art, and sites of better access and construction conditions could be chosen. Sites that are subject to tsunamis or surge tides could be avoided, and in case of industrial accident the spatial separation would limit the consequences profoundly. This was proposed to the former Premier, Dr Geoff Gallop, in July 2002, but rejected.

Similarly, Dr Gallop has rejected the use of the Maitland Heavy Industrial Estate, because it was an initiative of the previous government. The Astron Report, comparing the Dampier and Maitland options, has found that Maitland would cost about $106 million to develop, less than half the development costs at Dampier. The Astron Report also found that much of the flat land of the Dampier Estate is subject to occasional inundation by surge tides, whereas Maitland is of higher elevation, entirely flat and is better protected against tsunamis or surge tides.

The Maitland alternative is preferred by the Aboriginal traditional custodians, by most local residents, by all political parties except the one in power, by some of the companies themselves, and by all conservationists. It is also far cheaper for the state. The reason for the state government’s resistance to the move to Maitland is that it had committed over $185 million to Dampier infrastructure, a costly mistake it could not defend politically.

Therefore the government’s refusal to locate the new development away from Dampier is not based on economy. Its insistence on enlarging the already unprecedented powder keg at Dampier is based purely on its inability of admitting its planning blunder. To preserve itself it is prepared to sacrifice the local communities and the well-being of the whole state.

The government also argued that if it were to cancel its Dampier plans it “would be finished as a provider of secure investment opportunities, and this would ruin our sovereign integrity irreparably”. The government acquired its sovereignty over the Dampier Archipelago by genocide in 1868, and its frequent reference to sovereign integrity is absurd. Until it has compensated the victims it has no legal right to “sovereignty”.

The most desirable solution is to establish a chain of smaller industrial nodes along the coast, at carefully selected sites. Yet in October 2004, when BHP Billiton announced plans to establish an LNG plant at Onslow (220 km SW of Dampier), the government responded immediately by refusing to meet any services infrastructure costs for the project. Its argument, that it would not receive royalties from the project, applies equally at Dampier. Therefore this blatant and scandalous discrimination between two companies underscores the state government’s determination to force the petrochemical industries into one location, at Dampier, by penalising companies prepared to go elsewhere. As a result of the government’s incompetence, nearly all proponent companies have now left Dampier, including the large international players Methanex, Syntroleum and DME Japan.

The state government has created the powder keg at Dampier, which may one day result in the greatest peacetime man-made disaster in human history. One can understand why a previous government sought to exterminate the local Aborigines, after all, they may have voiced land claims one day and their human status was only established in the 1960s. But, Mr Carpenter, how do you account for the Armageddon you seem so determined to create for the present population?
Last updated June 2006

Facts about LNG plants provides information about recent explosions at liquified gas plants.

Dampier carcinogens informs the public about the immense air pollution emissions of the Woodside plant at Dampier, and the health risks they pose.