Kirner stalls on Coode relocation

September 4, 1991

Kirner stalls on Coode relocation

By Melanie Sjoberg

MELBOURNE — As the immediate danger from the Coode Island chemical fire subsides, it seems the government is hoping the initial shock and anger will also subside. The Kirner government has announced the establishment of a panel to carry out a two-stage study, but "no easy solution", has been an ominously recurrent rider to talk of relocating Coode's chemical storage facilities.

At a hurriedly called public meeting at Footscray Town Hall on August 27, residents were not easily reassured by Labour minister Neil Pope's appeal for patience. "Obviously it has taken too long. I make no apology for that", he told the meeting, citing his own "good record" in attempting to get the issue on the agenda of cabinet.

The panel nominated by the government includes representatives of the Altona Petrochemical Complex, Trades Hall Council, the Australian Conservation Foundation and a community nominee. Its terms of reference are loose and ambiguous.

According to the Hazardous Materials Action Group (HAZMAG), the government's actions send out a different message than the terms of reference, which make concessions to public participation. Community groups were given only 24 hours to respond to the proposed terms, and some positions on the panel were already fixed.

"The terms of reference neglect to mention how the community will be involved and to what extent", said HAZMAG. "The government is asking us to support its actions; this puts us in a situation similar to signing a blank cheque before we know what we are buying. It appears that the government has learnt nothing from the experience of the high temperature incinerator in Cowra.

"We have seen too many committees, task forces and inquiries whitewash or stall progress on safe storage and handling of hazardous materials."

HAZMAG thinks there is some potential for progress because long-term issues such as removing certain chemicals from use, producing them on a just in time basis or recycling are now being considered.

Residents' confidence was jolted anew, however, when Rob Joy from the Environmental Protection Authority told the meeting that benzine was still leaking from one of the tanks. Although the area had been deemed an "official clean-up site", work had been hampered by the need to seal leaking tanks and get some products

out. Some toxic seepage had been detected along the banks of the Maribyrnong River, but the EPA still had not confirmed whether it was localised.

There are also concerns about the effectiveness of the state disaster relief plan, DISPLAN. The Australian Services Union has pointed out that the Melbourne City Council will not employ the necessary trained emergency staff outside normal working hours. As well, the Port Emergency Service has been disbanded. Police on duty during the Coode Island fire had not been trained in the use of specialised breathing apparatus.

Several hundred people braved pouring rains to protest in the City Square on August 29. Speakers included Colleen Hartland from HAZMAG and Lyn Thornstensen from Greenpeace, who said Greenpeace had got it right when it warned recently of the activities of the Nufarm company. "There is no need for so many highly poisonous substances which are toxic and cancer causing", she said. "There are examples of clear alternatives". She called for government guarantees on phasing out DDT, greenhouse gases including CFCs, and asbestos.

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