Proposed polluting precinct set for Top End sparks concern for environment and health

factory silos

Lily Pratt, PHAA Policy Officer, and Environment Centre NT

Last week’s announcement that the Minister for the Environment and Water, Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, had formally rejected a proposed Central Queensland Coal Project due to environment-related concerns has drawn attention to other alarming projects on the horizon.

During question time in the Australian Parliament on Thursday 9 February, Independent Member for Kooyong Dr Monique Ryan MP highlighted a proposed precinct in the Top End. Significant human and environmental health concerns have already been raised about this precinct, which the federal government is helping fund.

The Issue

The Northern Territory and Federal governments are aligned in ensuring that 1,500ha of land on Darwin Harbour’s Middle Arm is used to expand the fossil fuel industry and manufacture petrochemicals. They are also united in avoiding accountability of the health and environmental implications of such facilities.

Image 1.0. This map is zoomed to the proposed location of the Middle Arm project. Zoom out to see just how close it would be to the metropolitan areas of Darwin and Palmerston, home to tens of thousands of people.


Located within close proximity to the communities of Palmerston and Darwin (Image 1.0) the $1.5 billion project, ironically named the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct is proposed to host a variety of gas-based industries, such as hydrogen processing, liquified natural gas, and petrochemical production (Table 1.0). These gas-based industries aim to be fed by fracked gas in the Beetaloo Sub-Basin. If Beetaloo opens, it could increase Australian emissions by up to 22%.


Table 1.0

Proposed Manufacturing Examples of Outputs Health and Environment Risks
Petrochemicals Ethane, Methanol, Urea, Ammonia
Hydrogen Blue Hydrogen
  • Reliant on fracked gas – bad for climate and highly pollutant
  • Risk of spills and leaks – decreases air and water quality
  • Risk of respiratory illnesses
Energy Liquified Natural Gas
Carbon Capture and Storage Yet to yield viable results



Our Concerns

The Environment Centre NT (ECNT) strongly opposes these industries’ establishment in Middle Arm.  A report by Dr Michael Petroni on behalf of ECNT, identified the potential for alarming health, environmental, and economic effects.

Potential health harms

  • 513% increase in regional air pollution, with associated health costs equivalent to an additional 15 premature deaths per year.
  • Four-fold increase in risk of certain cancers.
  • Waste product leaks into waterways.

The threat of a major accident cannot be forgotten either, with local fire and rescue services already identifying their limited capacity to respond to an incident at the precinct.

Potential environmental effects

  • Soil degradation by toxic chemical contamination
  • Mangrove ecosystem destruction, resulting in removal of the storm surge buffer
  • 75% increase in the Territory’s emissions
  • Fossil fuel industry promotion and expansion

Potential economic damage

  • Poorer health outcomes may cost an additional $75 million in hospitalisation expenses
  • With expected rising sea levels, Middle Arm is predicted to be regularly inundated with flooding by 2030.
  • More public money sunk into protecting an industry contributing to climate change

Negligible Consultation with Aboriginal Communities

Two years into the project’s timeline, concerns have been raised by Larrakia Elders regarding the lack of consultation about the project. Tibby Quall, a proud Traditional Owner and Dangalaba man, said that “we want to stop this development from happening in Darwin, and the Larrakia people don’t want it”. A lack of consultation with Larrakia people regarding the industrialisation of Darwin Harbour has characterised NT Government plans for the area.

Concerns around Assessment Process

The site itself is currently undergoing a strategic assessment by method of an environmental impact statement with the Northern Territory government as the proponent. A blanket approval could then be given for specific industries that have already been outlined in a draft program, with individual proponents (i.e. specific companies) only needing 60 days to obtain licenses to operate.

This kind of strategic assessment has not been conducted in the Northern Territory before and circumvents regulatory frameworks that are designed to ensure environmental and health standards are met. Sixty-day licenses do not leave enough time for genuine community input into decisions around the kinds of proponents – potentially, for example, a large plastics factory—that will be given license to operate on their doorstep.

A health impact assessment for the precinct has not been required by the NTEPA, and to date, it is uncertain whether analyses of cost benefit, climate risk, or climate impacts have been undertaken by either government.

Fracking Concerns

The gas-based industries planned for the facility would be supplied by fracked gas from the Beetaloo Basin. Part of the raison d’etre for the facility is to underwrite demand for this fracked gas.

Fracking and gas processing facilities are well known to have a plethora of environmental, social and health concerns. A small example of concerns include:

  • Gas developments produce a substantial amount of methane emissions.
  • Fracking uses toxic chemicals during extraction, which were recently shown to have leaked into local drinking water systems in Southern Queensland.
  • The Canadian Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found that an increased exposure to physical and sexual abuse towards First Nations women and children was experienced in areas around remote FIFO facilities such as gas and oil developments.

Our Aims

PHAA is partnering with the ECNT to raise the alarm for the public, other health and environment interest groups, academics, and decision makers.

ECNT holds that funding should be withdrawn for the precinct and redirected towards a positive, alternative vision for the Northern Territory. Public funds should not be spent on fossil fuel projects.

A full health impact assessment needs to be conducted throughout the environmental assessment process for the overall precinct, and for specific industries and proponents. We know from similar precincts around the world, that petrochemical production in such close proximity to residential areas carries inherent risks that cannot be mitigated through regulation. Similarly, gas industry expansion and the associated emissions, regardless of the checks and balances, threatens the very liveability of the NT due to climate change.

We demand accountability from the government over the project and what industries are involved. Thus far, the opposite of accountability has been demonstrated — the NT government removed references to petrochemicals from their website after a campaign run by ECNT, however reference to petrochemicals remains throughout all other official plans.

PHAA will be conducting a literature review into the health consequences of living near petrochemical plants, which will inform and guide our ongoing advocacy efforts. We will keep PHAA members informed on the Middle Arm precinct, and encourage those interested to join us in broadcasting this issue and advocating for the above goals.

What can you do

Contact the policy team directly at if you have expertise that you can bring to this project. You can also contact ECNT to learn how you can assist them at

You can also send letters to the relevant ministers below:


Northern Territory

Further reading

Read the full Petroni Report and the ECNT Submission.


Image: Jim Witkowski/Unsplash

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