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Indigenous Elders demand urgent protection for Aboriginal site amidst sand mine controversy

Joseph Guenzler -

Dharwal Elder, Aunty Sharralyn Robinson, says she is feeling pressured by the federal government to modify her cultural heritage protection application.

Aunty Sharralyn told the ABC she made the applications under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act (ATSIHP Act) in September 2021, urging a cessation of operations at Boral's Dunmore site near a historical massacre site in New South Wales.

On October 1, 1818, white settlers shot six Aboriginal people at the site in question, camped by the Minnamurra River, with no repercussions for the killings.

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

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

Despite concerns raised by Elders and community groups about potential impacts on the massacre site and the broader landscape, Boral asserted there was no evidence supporting these 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.

Boral voluntarily paused work at site 5B in November 2023 due to raised concerns, according to the department. (Image: ABC/Friends of Minnamurra River)

They requested her to modify her request, allowing Boral to "commence financially important works in less archaeologically valuable areas".

According to the ABC, the letter states: "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. 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?"

Aunty Sharralyn said she 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 told the ABC.

"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?"

The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water, declined to comment on "correspondence with an individual applicant".

It added that under section 10 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection (ATSIHP) Act four applications were under consideration, and stated that it was "not appropriate to comment further" on the matter.

Aunty Sharralyn, whose application remains pending, said she was "appalled" at the absence of a resolution.

She urged Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to intervene "and salvage what is left."

Additionally, the department acknowledged receiving a new emergency protection application under section 9 of the ATSIHP Act, stating it could take one to two months to process, though the identity of the applicant has not been disclosed.

Uncle Peter Button, Aunty Sharralyn and Adell Hyslop Uncle Peter Button, Aunty Sharralyn, and Adell Hyslop are urging an immediate declaration to protect Aboriginal sites in the mine area.(Image: ABC Illawarra/Sarah Moss)

The Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council (ILALC) has reiterated its plea for operations at the site to come to a halt.

Chief Executive Adell Hyslop criticised the government, stating that its failure to address the issue represents 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 told the ABC.

Ms Hyslop emphasised that the "high density of artifacts" discovered in test excavations provides additional backing to the evidence presented by traditional owners and knowledge holders, reinforcing the history of extensive use and occupation of the area.

She added that the ILALC is gearing up to submit another section 9 emergency protection application, following the rejection of their initial request by former Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

In a statement, a Boral spokesperson asserted the company has obtained all required approvals.

Boral cited the development of a heritage management plan in collaboration with Heritage NSW and the Registered Aboriginal Parties.

The company further said that salvaged Aboriginal objects are currently held in storage.

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