By Bronwen Beechey
MELBOURNE — Environment groups, local councils and residents have reacted angrily to a February 3 "options paper" by the Coode Island Review Panel nominating six possible sites for relocation of the hazardous chemicals storage plant. Set up after last August's explosions and fire at Coode Island, the panel is due to make its final recommendations to parliament by March 31. The options paper is to be followed by public meetings in Geelong, Melbourne and Werribee.
The alternative sites nominated by the review are all on the western shore of Port Phillip Bay. One proposal is for construction of an artificial island two or three kilometres off Altona, or south of Point Cook. Other sites are Point Cook RAAF base (no longer required by the RAAF), Campbell's Cove, Kirk Point, Point Wilson and Point Lillias near Avalon airport. The report also raises the possibility of continued use of Coode Island with higher safety standards and possibly a smaller range of chemicals.
The report recommends that any hazardous chemical storage facility be surrounded by a no-development exclusion zone of 100 metres, a one-kilometre buffer zone in which there would be some industry but no housing or offices, and a 1400-metre "consultation zone" from which schools, hospitals, shopping centres and high rise offices would be excluded. Existing Coode Island facilities are within 550 metres of housing.
The shires of Werribee and Corio immediately reacted to the report with statements that they would oppose any attempt to site a chemical storage facility in their areas. Environment groups in the Geelong area have pointed out that at least three of the sites are in or close to wetland areas internationally recognised as important for migratory wading birds.
The artificial island plan is "totally inappropriate", says Shirley Winton of the Altona Environment Action Group. "The proposed site is only two or three kilometres from a popular beach and fishing spot", she told Green Left Weekly. "There is a real danger of seepage from the island into the bay."
The report attempts to shift responsibility for the chemical industry's problems onto the general community, Winton said. "Pressure is being put on environment and community groups to come up with a solution, and this is creating divisiveness. It's not up to us in Altona to comment on the suitability of the other sites when we don't live in those areas and aren't familiar with all the issues. The chemical industry and the government created this mess, so they should take responsibility, in consultation with the community, to clean it up."
Colleen Hartland, of the Hazardous Materials Action Group, is also critical of the report: "It would be difficult for a member of the public to make an informed decision on any proposed site from the information in the report". The chemical industry appears to have no strategy to clean up production, she added. "Certainly, clean production is a long-term goal, but planning for it needs to begin now, not in five or 10 years when the situation is even worse. Governments have to take on the chemical industry, because the industry won't do it unless they're forced to."
The trade union movement is treating the report as an information paper, says Victorian Trades Hall Council environment officer Elena Galtos. She adds there are health and safety problems with the proposal to allow industrial development in the proposed buffer zone.
The unions, represented on the review panel by Brian Boyd, have formed the opinion that the chemical industry is reluctant to provide information, particularly on expected future demand its products. The Trades Hall wants chemical facilities moved from Coode Island.
Elena Galtos says the unions should press for reduced use of chemicals, but should also be alert to attempts to use cleaner production as a pretext to shed jobs.
She thinks environmental and community groups must be pragmatic about Coode Island. "In the short term a hard decision will need to be made. If it's just closed down and nothing put in its place, the chemicals will end up being stored at workplaces, which is obviously unacceptable."
Galtos says immediate action is needed to correct poor management practices and safety standards at Coode. A decision to relocate would probably take at least a year to achieve. Some activists say the chemical companies' preferred option is to continue using Coode with improved safety standards and removal of the most hazardous substances to another site.
"Unions and community groups will need to keep working together around this issue. The battle won't stop with Coode Island", says Elena Galtos.