Key Points:

Historians say a plan to build a desalination plant close to where Captain Cook first landed in Botany Bay is an act of cultural vandalism.

Campaigners say the plan is the latest in a long line of ventures with which New South Wales has "wiped its bum" on the historic location - Australia's birthplace - where the Union flag was first hoisted in Australia.

Cook and his men waded ashore in April 1770 on Botany Bay's Kurnell Peninsula, 15km south of what is now central Sydney.

Eighteen years later the First Fleet of British convicts sailed into Botany Bay, but soon abandoned the site and sailed north to Port Jackson to establish Australia's first penal settlement.

Historians say the peninsula should be cherished as the crucible of European settlement as well as a reminder of the resistance put up by Aboriginal tribes to their eventual dispossession.

But over the years the peninsula has been blighted by sand mining, an oil refinery, a sewage outfall, brick factories and rubbish dumps. It sits beneath the main flight path to Sydney international airport.

Now comes the latest indignity - the construction of a controversial A$1.9 billion ($2.2 billion) desalination plant, starting in July.

The plant, a response to the country's drought and Sydney's growing water shortage, will suck in sea water, strip it of salt and spit out highly salinated brine.

"In other countries, this place would be regarded as a national shrine," says Daphne Salt, a local historian and author. "Instead it's just been used and abused. It's been ignored and mistreated ever since the start of the white settlement of Australia." And campaigner Nick Boes says: "To be blunt, New South Wales has wiped its bum on Kurnell for a century. It's not just the present Government - it's successive administrations."

Their concerns echo the sentiments of an earlier era, when a government minister, Sir Joseph Carruthers, declared in 1899: "What Plymouth Rock is to America, so should this memorable but little reverenced spot be to all Australians."

But as early as the 1840s the peninsula was designated as a rubbish dump and that attitude has continued.

Its sand dunes were once so extensive that they were used to make the 1941 film Forty Thousand Horsemen, about the Australian Light Horse Regiment in the Middle East during World War I, and more recently Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

But the dunes have been extensively mined for building materials and there are now fears that the extraction of another four million cubic metres of sand, if approved by the state government, could turn the peninsula into an island.

Cook's landing site is marked by a modest stone obelisk in the shadow of the oil refinery.

"It's a terribly important site for Aborigines too, because this is where they first encountered white people and indicated that they were not welcome," says Jenny Gormley, an environmentalist who is related to Cook. "It should be seen as a place of reconciliation but it continues to be abused. It's as if the Government doesn't take Cook seriously."

Australians have mixed feelings about Cook. Some see him as a doughty pioneer of colonisation, others as an invader whose "discovery" brought disaster to Aborigines.

A few years ago there was controversy when the council proposed ditching the explorer as its municipal symbol and replacing him with a leaping dolphin.

Sutherland Shire Council said that having Cook's face on everything from stationary to street signs was outdated and offensive to Aborigines. The suggestion, which prompted many complaints, was eventually dropped.

Regardless of how his legacy is assessed, the place where he first stepped on to Australian soil should be accorded more recognition and respect, Gormley says. "We'd like to see greater regard given to the site, not to celebrate the 'invasion' but to acknowledge that this is a very special site for European Australians as well as Aborigines."