Developer ignores concerns about toxic site in Fawkner

May 6, 2017
A toxic site in Melbourne was used to make Agent Orange, which was used in Vietnam to defoliate forest.

Toxic sites in Australia are not well known or well managed. One such site is the old Nufarm chemical factory site in Melbourne’s northern suburb, Fawkner.

The factory operated from 1957 to 1974, making a wide range of noxious chemicals including dioxins; DDT; toluline-based emulsifiable concentrate; phenoxyacetic acid herbicide; 2,4-D; 2,4,5-T; esters; dichlorophenol and trichlorophenol and arsenic-based sheep dip.  

Dioxin is the most toxic chemical in Agent Orange, which was used by American and Australian troops during the Vietnam War to defoliate large areas of forest in Vietnam. It is widely believed that the factory produced Agent Orange, the chemicals in which still cause birth defects in Vietnam today, as well as causing terrible illnesses in Vietnam veterans from the invading countries.

Chemical fumes

During the time that the factory was operating, local residents could not keep plants alive in their gardens. Some even resorted to having plastic flowers in their gardens. The chemical fumes spewing out of the factory’s chimney stripped paint from nearby houses and fences and residents were frequently forced from their houses by the stench coming from the factory.

In December 1967, 20 families left their homes at 4am when the fumes became “too much” for them, according to an article in the Herald. In the same incident, the milkman’s horse bolted from the smell. The cause of the stench was reported to be an overheated furnace containing a weed-killer mixture.

There were midnight demonstrations of local residents outside the factory gates when the stench was at its worst. Elsie Snowden from the Fawkner-Broadmeadows Progress Association led the campaign against the factory.

Eventually, Broadmeadows Council successfully prosecuted Nufarm in the Supreme Court in 1972 for using McBryde Street “for the purpose of an offensive industry”. But, despite a promise to close and move the factory as soon as possible, production continued 24 hours a day for the next two years.

After the factory was eventually closed down, the residents faced another 18-year battle to have the factory demolished and the site cleaned up.

EPA no help

Until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970, residents had no one to complain to. However, locals reported that when they eventually began to make complaints to the EPA, it always took the side of Nufarm.

A 1991 Greenpeace report about Nufarm’s operations in Melbourne found that from the time the EPA became involved with the Fawkner plant until its relocation to Laverton, the EPA never prosecuted Nufarm. Instead, the EPA’s responses to the overwhelming number of complaints by residents, the local council and MPs tended towards a defence of Nufarm.

The EPA tested the Fawkner site in February 1990, but reported no significant levels of contamination. After Greenpeace carried out an action at Nufarm’s Laverton plant in May 1990, the EPA revisted the Fawkner site and found it to contain extremely high levels of chlorinated phenols and dioxin.

Cancer cluster

One of the other factors that prompted the EPA to act was the discovery of a significant cancer cluster close to the factory. Long-term residents of McBryde Street also knew people who worked in the factory and say that almost all of the workers there got cancer.

According to Greenpeace, the problems lay with the EPA relying on a system of self monitoring by companies.

Greenpeace quoted a report from the Auditor General in 1991:

"The EPA's emphasis on a self-monitoring strategy:

  • provides minimal assurance that licence holders, as recognised significant dischargers and hence of significant risk to the environment, are being honest; and
  • is of minimal effectiveness as a prompt to timely action when prevention or evidence gathering for prosecution is warranted."

In the early 1990s, Nufarm demolished the factory, removed some of the contaminated soil and put a clay cap over the site. The EPA deemed the site suitable for light industrial uses. However, no environmental audit has ever been carried out on the surrounding sites, despite the fact Nufarm had liquid waste in an open drain and was pumping waste liquid directly into the sewerage system and before that into the Merri Creek.

Development application

Now, there is a development application to build two warehouses on the site. Residents are concerned that construction activity will pierce the clay cap and release the toxins. They also worry that semi-trailers rolling over the site will degrade the clay cap.

This concern is justified given that illegal building work already occurred on the site in 2013. While this was going on, several workers became dizzy and had to go home with headaches when construction work pierced the clay cap.

The Nufarm site in Fawkner raises broader issues about the haphazard management of toxic sites. Government bureaucracies often do not maintain a good historical memory of these sites. This means that if there are no local residents with a long-term knowledge of an area, developments could occur that result in alarming health consequences later.

The acceptance that heavily toxic sites such as the Nufarm site can be suitable for light industrial purposes but not residential, does not give adequate consideration to the health and safety of construction workers who will have to handle the contaminated soil and the future workers on the site.

While unionised workers have a high consciousness of health and safety, often non-union workers on smaller suburban construction sites lack a good understanding of health and safety issues and may have bullying employers who put them in dangerous situations.

There have been similar cases, such as a housing development in the Brisbane suburb of Kingston that was built on top of an abandoned mine. In the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of people suffered health problems from toxic water seeping up from the mine.

Then there was the case of hundreds of residents having to be evacuated from a Cranbourne housing estate in 2008 when a dangerous methane leak from a nearby tip created the potential for an explosion.

Already, developers are eyeing off contaminated sites as the next possible development boom. We need proper safety regulations for these sites before vested interests start to create problems for the next generation of workers and residents.

A community group called Toxic Free Fawkner has formed to campaign against development on the Nufarm toxic site.

[Sue Bolton is a Socialist Alliance member and a Moreland councillor]

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