Middle Arm project to realise NT's dreams, says chief

The Northern Territory Chief Minister says a controversial mining and manufacturing project presents an economic opportunity for the Top End as environmental groups say the governments ability to regulate the project is "laughable".

Chief Minister Eva Lawler would not rule out the possibility petrochemical processing would be a part of the Middle Arm development near Darwin at a Senate inquiry into the project on Thursday.

During a testy hearing in the Top End, ACT Senator David Pocock pressed Ms Lawler on inconsistencies in her government's position on the contentious proposal, which also includes gas processing, green hydrogen and carbon capture facilities.

"We've heard the former chief minister (Natasha Fyles), the prime minister (Anthony Albanese) say there'll be no petrochemicals processing on Middle Arm," Senator Pocock said. 

"Your department is taking that into account when it comes to the air quality envelope. So could there be petrochemical processes?"

"I won't rule it out," Ms Lawler finally said after prodding.

Senator David Pocock.
Senator David Pocock has slammed the inclusion of petrochemicals at Middle Arm near Darwin.

Senator Pocock has previously slammed the inclusion of petrochemicals at Middle Arm, saying it would turn Darwin into "Australia's very own Cancer Alley". 

Doctors against the proposal have cited international studies alleging petrochemical plants result in a 30 per cent increased risk of leukaemia, which predominantly affects children, for populations within 5km.

Environmental groups raised concerns about the ability of the NT government to regulate the project to prevent risks to the environment and health of residents in the Top End.

The NT's Environment Centre executive director Kirsty Howey told the inquiry she was skeptical that proposed pollution limits on the proposal could be complied with given the history of compliance on other projects. 

"We've heard a lot about this strategic environmental assessment and how its going to resolve all the problems and impose these magic pollution limits," she said.

"The notion that the Northern Territory government can produce such a level of regulation of such a complex industrial precinct as this ... is quite laughable given the direct experience of people here of regulation of major projects."

A fiery exchange between Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe and Ms Lawler drew multiple calls for order from committee chair Sarah Hanson-Young, after the NT chief minister filibustered her way past a question on whether her government had received free, prior and informed consent from traditional owners.

"There is no native title on that site and so that land is crown land or land that's owned by the Land Development Corporation in Northern Territory," Ms Lawler said. 

Larrakia Elder, Lorraine Williams raised concerns about the project and consultation processes with Traditional Owners.

Ms Williams, representing the Indigenous-owned organisation Uprising of the People, said the information presented to Traditional Owners is not always easy to understand.

"They stand up and they give a quick presentation that's got lots of words on it and hardly any photos," she said.

Traditional Owners also raised concerns about the project's potential impacts on their cultural heritage, sacred sites and way of life. 

Ms Lawler maintained the Middle Arm proposal was safe and its benefits outweighed risks.

The project would reap $200-$700 million in annual taxes for the Territory, as well as between $700 million and $2.4 billion for the federal government, according to modelling by consulting firm EY.

"A good government works to be able to stand on its own two feet and that is the dream of the Northern Territory, that one day we won't be reliant on constant federal funding," the chief minister said.

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