Altona: special rules for the powerful

Wednesday, September 11, 1991

By Kate Tregarthen and David Mizon

By Kate Tregarthen
and David Mizon

MELBOURNE — Residents are angry and frustrated over the Kirner government's legislation on rezoning of land around the Altona petrochemical complex — especially in the wake of the Coode Island fire.

"There is one tank out there that could kill 2000 people", Gavin Giles, a local resident, told Green Left Weekly. The vocal and organised residents believe that the legislation was designed to disenfranchise them.

"This is the area in Melbourne most affected by industry, and they're wiping us", said Giles.

"They have never tried to do this anywhere else in Australia", said another local resident.

For months, the government kept details of the legislation secret, redrafting them over and over again. "They changed the amendments not to suit the residents but to try to get the amendments past us", said Vicky Knight, a member of the Altona Meadows Action Group.

Faced with the growing anger of residents, the Ministry of Planning and Housing agreed to a meeting on May 10. It was attended by more than 100 residents. Even though the officials tried to stifle debate, a picture of what the legislation means for residents Altona emerged at the end of three hours.

  • Any alteration or erection of facilities in the complex would only have to be notified to the council, the Department of Labour and the Environment Protection Authority (EPA). Previously public notification, display of changes and a call on interested parties to make submissions were required.

  • Residents can no longer make direct submissions. They can only approach the local council, and the council may pursue this submission. But Altona council representatives at the meeting said that, on legal advice they had received, council can address only landscaping, lighting and other matters relating to the visual impact of alterations!

Many residents are convinced that the state government supports the plans for expanding the complex and, because it doesn't want residents to object, is taking that right away.

The rezoning proposals will also:

  • enable the petrochemical companies to intensify and expand their operations;

  • halt future housing developments and roll back residential areas to create a buffer zone;

  • legitimise the current complex zoning of special/hazardous industries. Resident action groups have questioned the validity of the current zoning.

Special rights

Residents say the legislation will give the seven chemical companies in the zone special rights. No other land-holder in Australia is permitted to build without regard to the surrounding environment, social amenity and impact on neighbours. No other land-holder is permitted to build without full consultation with council. No other land-holder is permitted to build or alter a building significantly without advising their intentions to neighbours and the local community.

The draft legislation makes it easier for Hoechst to build a new plant in its existing site than it is for a resident to build a bungalow in his/her backyard. It is a case, residents say, of one law for the powerful and another for the powerless.

A series of panel hearings into the rezoning proposals, currently in progress, have left residents far from happy.

"The preliminary hearings were held in the city during the week, and people have to work or have difficulties getting there. A few of us got together and wrote out an objection. We asked for the hearings to be held in Altona, but they won't.

"They are not telling residents when and where hearings are being held. I think they are trying to hide something. There's information they don't want us to have."

Solicitors acting for the Altona Industrial Group (representing non-petrochemical companies in the district), wrote to the minister for planning and environment, Tom Roper, requesting that new people be appointed to the panel. The letter stated: "we believe that it is reasonable ... to form the view that, rather than the panel members being appointed for their independence, they have been appointed for the very opposite reasons ..."

Altona council is also unhappy. Its main concern, say residents, was that industry could build without a council permit. In the special industrial zone, the council doesn't have to be approached unless a works approval is needed by the EPA and it advertises for submissions.

Even then, say residents, the EPA takes up only actual instances of pollution. If it is a matter of a potentially dangerous storage vessel, you can't object and the EPA isn't interested.

'Acceptable risk'

Residents are critical of the EPA's response to pollution from the complex. "We've had a bad time here over 11 years — smells, noise, black smoke. It completely destroyed some of our days here, you couldn't have a barbecue, you couldn't have a party", said Giles.

"There have been some improvements over the last few years, but can you imagine being at work all day, and then you pull up in your driveway, get out of the car and it stinks. It doesn't just stink one night in a month, it stinks for a whole week. Altona Petrochemical Company [APC] was the worst offender here. It is very hard to get the EPA to come out, because the wind might have changed.

"The [EPA] people who come are okay. The problem is the legality of it. The clauses covering emissions say if there are life-threatening occurrences, the companies are allowed to emit into the atmosphere."

Knight reported, "When we've had emissions down our way and we've contacted the EPA, we've had degrees of non-interest, going from poor interest to pathetic interest".

According to the EPA, there have been 14 serious incidents in recent years, including one that resulted in a death. Between January 1977 and October 1982, for instance, BF Goodrich released vinyl chloride monomer — a cancer-causing agent — into the atmosphere.

A 1988 study by the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria found that Altona had one of the highest rates of lung, stomach, bladder and pancreas cancers in Victoria.

When Dow Chemical, one of the companies in the complex, announced plans to build an acrylo-nitrile plant (acrylo-nitrile was one of the toxic chemicals that burnt in the Coode incident), residents found that they could not object to it. The council did object, but then dropped its objections.

Residents have an objection going to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal over plans by Hoechst to build a soap-making plant. "We are objecting through the EPA, which is the only avenue left. You can only object on the grounds of pollution, not on the grounds of danger. The government has set a level of 'acceptable risk', which is not acceptable to residents, but we've

really got no say."

The "acceptable risk" in that technical report was 2000 deaths.

Unions

Links were built between unionists in the complex and residents' groups during the long dispute over safety at the Hoechst plant last year.

"In the past they've had problems with safety. They've had to go on strike, and they say it should be fixed up at the planning stage", said Giles. "It is their lives too: they are there all the time. They aren't told all the dangers, as we saw at Hoechst, and the companies have shown little concern for the welfare of the workers. It makes you wonder what they care about residents.

"A union member said to me that there is support for our groups, but they're very keen to watch the direction we are taking", said Knight.

"They believe that because of the amount of people's jobs that could be at risk if the companies were closed down, a lot of union people could be very wary. But he said most of the workers don't want to see the companies expand either."

Residents also want to stop expansion and make the companies more accountable. "They could improve safety out there dramatically. It costs money and they don't want to spend the money", said Giles.

Consultative committee

"I've spoken to local [Labor] member Ken Coghill", said Knight, "and he acknowledged that it was a mistake that the complex was located so close to residents. I said that surely to expand a mistake like that would be to compound it. After that, he didn't have very much to say to me."

A consultative committee was set up by Coghill, the company and council. Gavin Giles is one of 11 local residents on it. "I got on it because I'd had enough of the pollution from APC. At least now they are finding out what the community's concerns are.

"The company is publishing a newsletter, called the Chronicle, and at least residents are finding out what is going on."

Another resident was less enthusiastic. "In the first Chronicle they said that there were only two complaints for the month of December. I know there were nearly 100 in one day in

December, and they didn't publish them. They just picked the one odour and said that complaints on this one are reducing."

Knight says: "The first Chronicle made me very sceptical. I thought they were picking out things that were positive to tell people rather than stating a lot of the problems".

Some residents believe that the complex's management set up the committee to divert community opposition."There was a guy over here from Mobil in America to find out why APC were being held up, and when he found out it was residents, he couldn't believe it. That is why I think Tom Roper got Coghill to start the group", said one resident.

"Coghill told me it was set up to address the concerns of the residents and to get dialogue going", said Knight. "But personally I think it was a PR exercise to try find out what the residents feel so they can placate them so that they can go on and expand."

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