Illawarra air pollution dangers ignored

Issue 

By Liam Mitchell

WOLLONGONG — Two of the Illawarra's most polluting industries, BHP and the Corrimal Coke Works, are either evading repercussions or receiving official sanction for their output into the atmosphere.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) recently studied a number of workers at the Corrimal Coke Works for health problems associated with the plant, finding that there "weren't any real problems with the health of the workers on site".

The study was commissioned by Kembla Coal and Coke (KCC), which owns the plant, on the basis that if there were any problems of ill health associated with the operation of the plant, they would be manifested in the work force.

EPA regional manager John Aveyard said the EPA had received 19 complaints about pollution from the coke works during February, 25 in March and 19 in April. "The most frequent complaints are over odours resulting from coke quenching", he said.

The EPA report has been heavily criticised by members of the Corrimal Residents Action Group (CRAG). Green Left Weekly spoke to Chris Illert, a spokesperson for the group, who described the study as a whitewash.

Illert has been fighting against KCC's pollution for about 15 years. So far, there has been no action from the company, the Illawarra Area Health Service, the EPA or local or state governments.

He told Green Left that the coke works produce approximately 50 times the World Health Organisation's limit of 1 mg per cubic metre of benzpyrene. (This WHO level is enough to cause cancer in 9 out of 100,000 people.)

The factory is located in the middle of a heavily populated area, with eight schools within a one kilometre radius. Eighteen months ago, seven children and two teachers at the Corrimal High School were hospitalised after suffering ill effects from gas released from the coke works.

CRAG has been calling for the IAHS to produce a cancer map of the Illawarra region for the last 15 years. The Illawarra Public Health Unit, which receives funding from BHP, has refused to do this, and the cancer unit in Sydney, which has the figures, has refused to release them to the public.

Illert said that the EPA survey was unsatisfactory because it studied only 15 current employees at the coke works and no-one from the local area and no former or long-term workers.

He said that residents who had campaigned against the pollution had been abused by politicians, including Lord Mayor David Campbell, and that it was impossible to rely on members of parliament because of their ties to the industries.

Meanwhile, BHP is facing action in the Land and Environment Court over the release of a cloud of gas from its ovens which was captured on film by a WIN TV news camera crew. The maximum fine is $125,000.

World Environment Day organising committee spokesperson Freya Pinney told Green Left that this amounted to no more than a slap on the wrist for BHP.

"BHP is constantly polluting the atmosphere. It is common knowledge that the pollution is worse on Sundays, when it is not being monitored. It is only because they have now been caught on film that they are being prosecuted", she said.

"$125,000 is a very small sum of money for a company like BHP. It is unlikely the fine will even be that big. The EPA is ineffective. Much stronger action is needed to force the company to stop polluting our environment and destroying our health."