At long last, there is some movement in the push to have non-sniffable Opal fuel distributed more widely through Central Australia.

Tuesday’s joint press release from the offices of Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough and Health Minister Tony Abbott announced an expansion in the geographic area in which communities and roadhouses could apply for a federal government subsidy to sell Opal.

The fuel will now be made available to the north of Alice Springs above Ti Tree, and to Indigenous communities in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia.

But the announcement, like its unfortunate title “Petrol sniffing campaign expanded”, leaves much to be desired. There is no new money here, just further information about how already-committed funds are to be spent.

For some years now, the sad practice of children and young adults inhaling petrol fumes has devastated some remote Indigenous communities, and cost the nation millions of dollars in health care provision.

Then BP, in an inspired flash of transnational altruism, came up with Opal. This fuel contains only 20% of the aromatics found in standard unleaded petrol and consequently does not produce a sniffer’s high. Many users are opportunistic and simply cease the practice when sniffable petrol cannot be obtained.

Opal is currently available in a number of communities and roadhouses, mostly dotted around Alice Springs, and results are encouraging. The product is not a “magic bullet” – but it significantly reduces the incidence of sniffing.

Experts from the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS) have suggested that the area bounded by Coober Pedy, Mt Isa, Tennant Creek and Laverton contains the largest cluster of petrol sniffers in the country. Many communities in this area will still be unable to access Opal even under the expanded scheme.

An Access Economics report of February 2006 investigated the economic viability of Opal fuel. The researchers were, of course, unable to place a value on the human heartache and grief experienced by families of the victims. (Yes Virginia, Aboriginal people have feelings too.)

But the document proved beyond doubt that an extensive Opal rollout made perfect economic sense. Yet the government has been slow to respond.

Great harm has been done by the unchecked growth of rumours suggesting that Opal could damage car engines – despite clear scientific evidence to the contrary. Only now is the federal government embarking on a desperately needed publicity campaign to counter these negative perceptions.

Happily, it seems that from early March, all unleaded petrol purchased in Alice Springs will be non-sniffable.

Better late than never.

Peter Fray

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