Helen Davidson, 05 January 2016

Federal Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion announces ban on sale of leaded fuel in NT’s Barkly district, praising low-aromatic fuel as ‘silver bullet’

The sale of leaded fuel will be banned in Tennant Creek, the federal Indigenous affairs minister has said.

On Tuesday, Nigel Scullion announced he would soon sign a prohibition order banning the sale of any leaded fuel in the Barkly district of the Northern Territory, in a bid to fight petrol sniffing.

Low-aromatic fuel (LAF) was introduced in Alice Springs 10 years ago and has greatly curtailed the problem there.

“We must protect our most vulnerable, this is a very pernicious [addiction] that is very damaging, and I’m so pleased that I no longer have to go to Indigenous communities … seeing very, very young Aboriginal people in just the worst possible circumstances, that often people just don’t recover from,” he said.

LAF is expensive but is being subsidised by the government because it is “fantastic”, Scullion said: “I’ve never seen a silver bullet like LAF that has been able to fix the nature of a particular substance abuse.”

Petrol sniffing had not been a significant problem in Tennant Creek, but it did flare up occasionally, Barkly shire council acting chief executive Peter Holt said, in supporting the ban.

When he worked in the central Australian community of Yuendumu there were regular sniffers aged “well under 10”.

“We had people who had absolutely devastating burns to their body because of people smoking around people who were sniffing,” he said.

He said the costs to the health system of treating people affected by sniffing were enormous.

“Once people have a significant brain injury from petrol sniffing, it’s irreparable,” Holt said.

Blair McFarland, co-manager of operations at the Central Australia Youth Link-Up Service (Caylus), welcomed the decision.

Caylus, which began as a petrol sniffing prevention project under former prime minister John Howard, now works across the central Australian region to reduce the impact of petrol sniffing.

“We think it’s great that’s going to happen. Tennant Creek is right on the edge of the Caylus region and most of the sniffing in our region comes in from outside,” he told Guardian Australia.

“It’s an ongoing problem on the edge of our region. It’s the same on Lake Nash. There’s reasonably constant low level sniffing going on in that region, because every second car has sniffable petrol in it.”

McFarland anticipated petrol sniffing in the Tennant Creek region would drop to “almost zero” once the ban was in place.

“The kids won’t follow [sniffable petrol],” he said. “99% of sniffing is opportunism. [Most] people just don’t move on to another substance, because there is no substance as cheap as petrol.”

However, Kylie Smith, manager of the United Tennant Creek service station, said she was unhappy about the ban, and said the community was being punished due to the actions of a small minority.

“I think it’s totally wrong, we’re supposed to be a free country, we should be allowed to sell what we want to sell,” she said.

LAF was the same price as unleaded fuel in Tennant Creek, she said, with one of the town’s four service stations selling it.

But she said United would not do so until the government paid as promised for upgrades to their bowsers, which would be damaged by the drier LAF.

Scullion said allegations that LAF damaged motors and engines were “complete rubbish”.

“This is a time-proven product that has never hurt a car” and should be available Australia-wide, he said.

The legislative tool which allows the minister to make the sale of leaded petrol illegal was first used on Palm Island in December.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert who brought the private members bill forward in 2013, welcomed the Tennant Creek decision but said it was “distressing that the situation had come to this”.

“This Act is about helping communities affected by petrol sniffing by complementing the existing strategies and programs,” said Siewert.

“Consultation and flexibility are at the heart of these measures and were a very big part of the legislation’s development, I look forward to seeing further progress in addressing petrol sniffing in 2016.”

Extracted in full from The Guardian.