Australian-based commercial explosive multinational Orica’s reassurance that “ammonium nitrate is chemically inactive and requires extreme negligence for it to explode” brings in mind the 1980's hit song, “Don’t worry be happy”.
Following the tragic ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut, Prime Minister Scott Morrison picked up from the same song sheet, assuring the public that “It could never happen in Australia”.
Similar assurances may have been made in Beirut. They would also have been made to the 172 people in Tianjin, China, who lost their lives after ammonium nitrate exploded in 2015, to the 15 people who died in similar circumstances in 2013 in West Texas in the United States and, in Toulouse France, to the 31 people who died in an explosion there in 2001.
In effect, Novocastrians are being told, “Kooragang Island — nothing to see here”.
Let’s take a closer look at Orica's Kooragang Island Plant.
Orica’s statement on the Beirut tragedy attributed the blast to industrial accidents in neighbouring facilities.
One of the closest neighbors to Orica's Kooragang plant is the massive storage facility for coal destined to be exported through the world’s biggest coal port.
Just across river, in Tighes Hill, is another massive coal loader.
In addition there are two 25 million-litre fuel tanks, with 2 kilometers of pipelines feeding into them.
Then, we have a variety of other industrial activities happening in an uncomfortable proximity to Orica.
In 2015, for example, a fire that broke out in a scrap metal yard threatened to spread to a ship building yard.
The same year two local companies were fined by the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) over the unsafe transport of dangerous goods on Kooragang Island.
In one incident, a truck with more than 5500 litres of flammable liquid, with inadequate signage and licensing, was illegally transiting the island.
Orica’s safety measures may not amount to much if its neighbours suffer misadventures.
Let’s also look at Orica's “rigorous approach to safety and risk management”.
The company racked up 131 pollution breaches over 2000–2011.
After hexavalent chromium spills in 2011, a Kooragang Island safety plan was eventually put in place in 2015. However, the review of that plan that was to take place after three years, wasn't a priority until August.
In 2014, Orica received a $750,000 fine for seven air and water pollution breaches, including a 2011 incident which involved a 16-hour delay in reporting to the EPA.
Following this the then New South Wales Coalition government waited 54 hours before the public was warned that carcinogenic chemicals were involved.
The argument that Australia has the proper laws relies on and assumes sufficient levels of government regulation.
The reality is that we live in an increasingly deregulated environment.
Facing a choice between profit and public safety, the strategy often deployed by businesses is to downplay the danger, externalise risk and avoid responsibility.
Orica claims to be a good corporate citizen, providing jobs and community facilities. But a good corporate citizen would immediately reduce its ammonium nitrate inventory, wind down its operations at Kooragang, retrain its workforce and diversify into cleaner energy, organic agricultural systems and green jobs as part of phasing out the fossil fuel industry.
Are concerns about Kooragang Island risks scaremongering?
This past year has seen the improbable become the possible. Global warming coincided with bushfires in autumn and rainfall is increasingly unseasonal and leads to flooding (recently, we had water lapping at front doors in Mayfield).
Zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19, can be traced to food production systems which have become out of kilter with the natural ecology. Previous notions of acceptable risks are becoming increasingly unacceptable.
While the frequency of ammonium nitrate explosions is low, it is not zero. The consequences of an accident on Kooragang Island, or at the ammonium nitrate depot at Sandgate, would be immense.
The relatively low frequency of ammonium nitrate explosions does not make the risks posed by Orica's Kooragang plant acceptable.
Be happy, but do worry and do demand urgent action on this issue.
[Steve O'Brien is a health sociologist and a member of the Hunter Community Forum and Socialist Alliance. This article was first published in the August 27 Newcastle Herald.]