Port Kembla copper smelter blows its stack

Issue 

BY CRISTINA SACCO

WOLLONGONG — Following an explosion at the Port Kembla Copper smelter (PKC) on June 8, the Wollongong City Council has asked PKC to stay closed until an independent safety investigation has been carried out. NSW planning minister Andrew Refshauge has ordered a team of technical experts to thoroughly examine the plant's operations.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of damage is thought to have occurred when molten copper overflowed from a furnace and came into contact with water. One employee was slightly injured and nearby homes were shaken by the blast.

Coincidentally, four days after the explosion the CSIRO released a report which stated that incidents involving sulphur dioxide release were the smelter's biggest problem, followed by “brown spotting” damage to properties and cars.

Brown spotting is caused when steel ducting and pipes corrode after being exposed to sulphur dioxide. The report found that the smelter could not reach full production and stay within the Environmental Protection Agency licence conditions without a number of improvements to the plant's technology.

The smelter was fined $116,000 last August for five breaches of its pollution licence, involving high sulphur dioxide emissions.

Local federal MP Colin Markham has outlined other incidents that have occurred since September, including fires, the discharge of sulphuric acid into Port Kembla harbour (for which PKC was fined $34,000), and complaints from residents of high-pitched noises coming from the plant. Residents regularly complain of skin irritations, sore throats and breathing problems.

Residents are furious at the PKC's blatant disregard for the health and safety of the Port Kembla community that lives near the smelter.

PKC operations manager Ian Wilson has offered to look into brown spotting incidents but has not offered any promises that they will come to an end. He has also said that the company is doing everything in its power to ensure there will be no repetitions of the June 8 blast. However, he was quick to add that, with a plant of this nature, “unforeseen” incidents may occur.

From Green Left Weekly, July 10, 2002.
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