Kerry Packer's toxic plume

October 2, 1991

By Max Bridson

MELBOURNE — The toxic smoke plume from Coode Island that hung over Melbourne for two days in August belonged to Australia's richest man, Kerry Packer. Naturally enough he didn't boast about it, or apologise for it. That's not Kerry's way. Very few people know what Kerry is up to.

However, the event does highlight the danger of his bid for the Fairfax newspaper empire. The fact that no commercial media outlet in Australia reported his ownership of the burning chemicals shows the fear media people have of his octopus-like grip.

His ownership is clearly documented. Terminal Pty Ltd's chemical manifest on August 19, headed Plant and Tankage Status, listed the chemical in tank 80 as Acrylonitrile (vinyl cyanide) and noted its owners were Chemplex. Chemplex is Kerry's West Footscray refining and manufacturing plant. Consolidated Press Holdings Ltd, Kerry's company, purchased Chemplex from Monsanto three and a half years ago.

Tank 80 was the first to spontaneously change its position at the tank farm. It rose high in the air and landed in front of the administration block.

Since Kerry is Terminal's largest customer, it is not surprising that the second tank to leapfrog around the depot was also Kerry's. This tank, 55, contained a crude benzene, also bound for Chemplex. The refinery uses 300 tonnes of benzene a day. The two trucks destroyed at the depot were also loading chemicals for Kerry.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to call Coode Island, Packer's Island. Kerry's West Footscray plant is supplied from two other plants on the island. The August 19 manifest shows at least two-thirds of Terminal's holding tanks contained Chemplex chemicals.

Apart from the disaster that did happen, perhaps from lightning striking an outlet valve (the valve containing vapour flowing from the inside of the tank), others are still possible. Kerry's chemicals are unloaded from the most dangerous chemical wharf in the Western world.

A chip away from disaster

Labor MLC Jean McLean visited the wharf recently. She said it has no security.

"I walked into it unchallenged, which was a bit of a worry", she said. "But apart from this, a major safety problem is that the wharf juts offshore like a small pier running parallel to the bank. The slightest knock from a docking ship would destroy it."

According to McLean's newsletter, "Gazette", published the week before the fire, the Coode Island hazardous chemical terminal is, in the words of harbour pilot Peter McKeown, only a faulty computer chip away from disaster. McKeown said it was the only harbour in the world where a pilot assisting the berthing of a ship directed the helmsman to "steer towards the other tanker". All ships depend on computer chips. According to McKeown, the last time a chip failed, the tanker ploughed into the bank between two other ships.

He was quoted in the "Gazette" as saying vessels have docked at Coode Island with only a few inches of clearance at low tide. The danger of this is that a ship compresses water beneath it at such a tremendous pressure it could slide the ship into the dock — a phenomenon that has occurred when oil tankers have been docked inappropriately.

The spillage trays (to collect the chemicals when leaks or sprays occur while linking the off-load pipes to the ships) are inadequate, and it is suspected the present untrained Port of Melbourne workers simply empty the trays over the side of the dock. The unloading was, until recently, performed by the highly trained but now disbanded Port Emergency workers.

Mclean said it was unfair that comparatively untrained people were in charge of such a chemical hot spot. "Melbourne could easily have its Bhopal", she said.

No escape

Approximately 35 pipes, all of which could be unloading at once, are contained on the 20-metre wharf. If workers are caught at one end of the wharf during an emergency, they have one escape route — over the side into river water, 10 metres deep. This option is open to them only if the emergency does not involve spillage into the water.

Not that the water jump is very safe if you're wearing heavy protective boots and clothing and there is no ladder allowing you to return to the wharf 197> which there isn't. It would be impossible to make the shore in heavy rubber clothing.

This is all small stuff compared with two chemicals mixing while loading or off-loading. Japanese authorities are still searching for the ship that stored caustic soda next to acrylonitrile. It disappeared somewhere off the east coast of Japan.

The pipes travel to Kerry Packer's storage site along a half kilometre of river bank. Not only are these vulnerable to passing vessels, but there is no lighting along their length. At night patrols are undertaken by Terminals Pty Ltd, every hour, in a four wheel drive vehicle. Using a spotlight, they examine the flanges along the lengths of the pipes to see none have sprung a leak, which is not an unusual happening. The lost chemical escapes into the river.

Although the river bank is the responsibility of the Port of Melbourne Authority, management of chemical companies are highly sensitive to the appalling accidents that have happened over the years.

It behoves proprietors, especially rich ones, to lobby bureaucrats and politicians to provide safe docking and storage facilities. They might even contribute to providing the facilities. Bureaucrats are particularly slow in recognising chemical dangers and quick at disguising their lack of monitoring procedures.

Cloud not tested

The Environmental Planning Authority admitted at a closed meeting of the Western Suburbs Environmental Task Force that it didn't test the black plume that hung over the city for two days while the Packer Island fire raged.

Stunned task force members attempted to argue that this was a gross oversight on the part of the EPA. They were told that, although it "might seem a bit funny", the EPA didn't need to because it already knew what was in the cloud.

"Why did you need to test on the ground if you knew what was in it?", they were asked. The officers indicated they needed reassurance that there was nothing harmful in the atmosphere.

The EPA had announced within hours that it had tested the air and nothing of a harmful nature was in the fallout. It is indicative of how harmful it thought the smoke might be that one of the substances tested for was vinyl cyanide.

However, there is no recorded instance of either of the people monitoring — there were only two — entering the smoke that reached the ground.

One of those monitoring told television journalists that he hadn't found any smoke to enter! He apparently kept well away from the Westgate Bridge, where travellers were assailed by smoke. He said his instructions were to travel beneath the smoke plume and test there. The smoke plume was hundreds of feet in the air. But the smoke descended on parts of North Fitzroy, St Kilda and South Melbourne.

The chemicals were not necessarily in a concentration to kill instantly (though vinyl cyanide could kill even in low concentrations) but in a form that could lodge in body tissues and possibly cause a great deal of trouble a decade on. Vinyl cyanide is a known carcinogen and mutagen (causing genetic mutations). Benzene is also a carcinogen. Instead of taking this into account, the mainstream media and various authorities rejoiced that there hadn't been an immediate disaster.

They claimed that the chemicals had been burnt at such a high temperature there were no harmful fumes left. The evidence for this, they said, was that a fire burning with black smoke indicates complete carbonisation of the chemicals it contains.

The problem with this theory is that no-one tested the fire temperature, no-one tested the smoke, and on the second day the smoke was grey for an hour.

Unfortunately this small warning — and it was a small fire compared to what it might have been — has had very little effect on the bureaucrats or industrialists, and obviously none on Kerry Packer, who decided to hide from the public that he owned the burning material. He could have apologised to Melburnians. After all, he wants their most prestigious newspaper, the Age. One wonders if the integrity of the Age has already gone up in smoke.

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