Contamination fears at ADI St Marys

Issue 

By Con Gouriotis
and Nadya Stani

SYDNEY — Watching the decontamination process at the Australian Defence Industries (ADI) site at St Marys is like trying to understand, while digging up a serial killer s victims, how it ever could have happened.

In the suburb of St Marys, an ADI-owned munitions factory, occupying 1500 hectares — is being closed down — its operation moving to Benalla in Victoria. The site itself is being rezoned for commercial and urban redevelopment.

For some years now, community resident groups have been campaigning against the waste dumping that has occurred at the site over the years. The level of contamination has been a concern to local residents, as has the nature of the factory s work.

ADI claims that 1% of the site is contaminated and can easily be decontaminated because toxic levels are low. The decontamination is being undertaken by ADI. When asked why there was no independent assessment, David Pattmore, general manager of ADI s NSW division, replied, "... we had the people, we had the skills, we had the knowledge". However, Pattmore later admitted that there are independent companies capable of doing the job.

The NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and the NSW Department of Planning (DOP) are confident that ADI can decontaminate the St Marys site. But ADI is beyond the laws of NSW; as a federal agency, it is supposedly accountable only to the defence minister. So, the EPA and the DOP can t go any further than being confident — they can't require ADI to do the job. In reality it is difficult to clearly define who ADI is accountable to.

If the ADI site is eventually sold for development, the taxpayers, according to Greens (WA) Senator Dee Margetts, will not receive a cent because the money from the sale will go directly into the coffers of ADI even though ADI is currently owned by the Australian taxpayer and the St Marys site belongs to the people of Australia.

The indemnification of the St Marys site by the federal government automatically exempts ADI from having to pay any compensation for any recurrence of the contamination. Consequently, the Australian people wear the health and economic costs of that contamination.

The DOP assigned Kinhill Consultants to research a Regional Environmental Study (RES). Residents who attended the consultations felt alienated from the process because the DOP had set the agenda for an intense urban development project of 40,000 new houses as the only option.

Other options such as nature reserves or sanctuaries to provide better air and water quality for the greater western Sydney region were brushed aside. The DOP s desensitising strategy landed them with egg on their faces. It was clear to the people at the consultation that the DOP was suppressing their opportunity for an informed decision on the future of the St Marys site.

Workers who were employed by ADI at the site for over 20 and 30 years believe the 1% of area contaminated is an extremely conservative assessment. One ex-engineer there said, "Probably like 50% of the area would be contaminated ... chemicals were just randomly dumped, explosives were buried. There were open labyrinths that were running directly into creeks, explosives were running into creeks. One of the particular creeks, South Creek, had run red at times ... from the explosives that it contained."

Other workers said they were ordered to dig holes, only to come back the next morning to fill them up, while during the day, three or four times a day every day, eight tonne trucks dumped toxic waste which was randomly buried. One worker claimed the waste was considered too dangerous to be dumped at sea because it would have had to travel through populated areas.

Inside the factory, workers complained of their skin and urine changing colour, mysterious rashes, poor protective clothing and equipment. They worked in the presence of carcinogenic substances and explosive devices. An ex-engineer at the site said, "People wouldn't have known what they were using or in fact that it was carcinogenic ... or else, they wouldn't have used it. They were generally told what was required ... it was felt this is all they had to know so the ammunition could be produced."

At an ADI presentation in March, David Pattmore admitted that TNT is "a known carcinogen, and the materials within the fabric of the building could have caused cancer". However, in a later interview the same day, Pattmore denied saying that TNT contamination in the building's fabric could be linked to cancer.

Over the last few years, former workers and members of the ADI Action Group have collected anecdotal evidence linking the deaths of some 58 workers to the factory. All who have died have been under the age of 60, with some in their 20s and 30s.

They have died from brain seizure, asbestosis, neck and face cancer, cancer of the kidneys and chemical poisoning. Some 17 ex-workers are living with TNT poisoning or lung and kidney cancers. ADI dismissed the claims as non-specific evidence.

Dr Helen Abrahams, fellow of the Australian College of Physicians in occupational health, was concerned about the complaints that workers at the site were making about their health and the lack of action by ADI. She had this to say: "This industry needs to pay a lot more attention to occupational health and safety immediately ... rather than do nothing until investigations actually tease out whether or not that s a work-related incidence or not. It certainly is an unusually high number."

It is also unusual that ADI never allowed direct access to emergency services. They had to be invited in. The policy was taken to extremes, as an ex-worker explains, citing an incident that involved the NSW Fire Brigade and Ambulance Services.

The services were responding to a fireball that shot 600 metres in the air after two trucks loaded with propellants exploded inside the ADI site. The service officer in charge of the emergency response was refused entry. He threatened to crash through the gates, but was told by the Australian Federal Police that they would fire on anyone who tried to enter. A worker later died in hospital from a heart attack suffered as he tried to run from the explosion.

Australian lawyer and Bougainville activist Rosemary Gillespie discovered in Bougainville ADI St Marys-manufactured ammunition, mortar bombs and chemical weapons, which were systematically used on Bougainville civilians by the Papua New Guinea military. According to Gillespie, the Australian government is the only country that supplies weapons to the PNG military at no cost.

Missiles manufactured at St Marys were exported to the Indonesian navy.

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