Greed suspected cause of Altona explosion

Wednesday, December 11, 1991

By Peter Boyle

MELBOURNE — A 38-year-old plant operator received severe burns to 75% of his body when a 12-metre high tank containing gas oil tar exploded at Altona petrochemical refinery on December 2.

Firefighters believe that the fire could have spread to other tanks and caused a disaster.

While an official investigation is still under way, several experienced workers in the refinery believe that the explosion was caused because the company ignored safety guidelines in order to run equipment faster in order to boost its valuation in preparation for a merger.

The company is Altona Petrochemical Corporation and its parent is the US-based transnational Exxon. APC is in the process of merging with subsidiaries of Mobil and Hoechst operating at Altona. According to our sources, APC began putting some of its relatively old equipment through the paces so that it would appear to be worth more than it was.

Part of this process, it appears, involved keeping the levels in some tanks several metres lower than was usually considered safe, in order to reduce the time it takes to pass the contents through. This is dangerous because, at the bottom of tanks containing tar, there is always a residue which can ignite spontaneously.

On the afternoon of December2, a plant operator was instructed to initiate a tar transfer from the tank. He did not know that a fire was already smouldering in the tank, and it blew up.

These tanks are supposed to be constructed so that their tops blow off first. But this tank blew up at the bottom, causing it to fall over and crush the automatic firefighting equipment attached to it.

The tank was last inspected by the Department of Labour about two years ago. Recently the department informed APC that it would carry out inspections only once every six or 10 years instead of once every two — because of budget cutbacks.

A team of APC workers, not trained firefighters, had to battle the fire for some 23 minutes before the fire brigade arrived.

The next day, the fire started up again (the company had decided not to keep extra staff on as a stand-by firefighting crew) and once again workers had to fight the fire.

The black smoke billowing out from Altona was an eerie reminder of the Coode Island chemical fire in August. Workers and residents in Altona were told to stay indoors and close their windows until the smoke clouds dispersed, but the Environmental Protection Authority insists there was no real danger from the cloud.

Victorian Trades Hall Council environment officer Ellena Galtos told Green Left that the company had carried out an illegal discharge hting water to the sewerage system after the fire but that workers at the sewerage plant had detected it in time to prepare appropriate measures.