By Sarah Harris and Alistair Dickinson
PENRITH — For the last six years, residents have campaigned against the proposed large-scale development of housing and industry on the federal government's Australian Defence Industries (ADI) site at St Marys in western Sydney.
The St Marys munitions factory, 45 kilometres from Sydney's CBD, was in operation from 1941 until the early 1990s, when the factory moved to Benalla in Victoria. Toxic waste and explosives have been buried on site over the decades.
The 1535 hectare ADI site is covered by native eucalypt woodland and is a haven for wildlife. The bush land is one of the few green belts in western Sydney. It is home to 110 bird species, 10 reptiles, nine mammals, eight frog species (including three endangered frog species) and many plant species, including four rare ones. There are persistent rumours that some animals in the area have suffered deformity.
In 1993, a soil and water contamination report was released by local and state governments. Samples of soil and ground water taken from up to one metre deep showed contaminants such as trinitrotoluene (TNT), lead and organochlorines at much higher levels than EPA standards required for development approval. The EPA is currently conducting its own follow-up study of the area, taking into account clean-up of soil already undertaken.
The land comes under the jurisdiction of Blacktown and Penrith councils. The federal Coalition and NSW Labor governments are keen to allow the land to be developed by the giant Lend Lease corporation. The state Department of Urban Affairs and Planning is currently meeting with local government, the state Environmental Protection Authority, National Parks and Wildlife Service; ADI and Lend Lease attend meetings with no voting rights. Local government is meant to represent residents' interests. These meetings are known as the "Section 22 Committee".
Urban Affairs and Planning is likely to give Lend Lease the go-ahead for development by the end of this year. Nine months ago residents were doorknocked by the ADI Residents Action Group (ADI RAG) with a petition calling for the state government to conduct a health survey of ex-workers and local residents.
Some 2500 residents signed the petition, which was presented in February to state Labor MP Jim Anderton, in the presence of the federal Labor MP, Roger Price. So far there has been no response from Anderton on the possibility of a health survey.
Former ADI workers met during the doorknock said that low-level radioactive waste had been buried on site without adequate recording of location. They were concerned about unsafe handling of a dye used for army smoke canisters.
The site has been contaminated by ingredients for explosives, including TNT, that can cause cancer. It is believed that the ADI site was used to dispose of wastes from other military testing sites, including radioactive material from Woomera. Former workers have lodged workers' compensation claims against ADI.
The ADI RAG was formed six years ago in response to local government's invitation for community consultation on the proposed development of housing and industry at the site.
ADI RAG's submissions call for the area to be zoned as a nature reserve or limited development, including green industries. Other industrial sites in the western Sydney region, such as Dunheved Industrial Estate, are underutilised, the group argues.
On October 8, a meeting of the ADI RAG, attended by 50 people, heard a Lend Lease spokesperson outline its proposals for the site — ranging from 4500 homes and industrial sites to its favoured option of 11,250 homes and industrial sites. The development would have a population of 30,000.
The meeting was overwhelmingly against housing and industrial development, despite Lend Lease's offer to upgrade the St Marys sewage treatment plant and improve bus and train services for the site to minimise pollution.
Residents and activists voiced concern about the possible loss of bush land, decreased quality of life, increased rubbish disposal problems including toxic waste from industry and increased air and water pollution. They were also concerned for the health of people living on the site because of buried toxic waste and munitions.
With the deadline for the Section 22 Committee decision being the end of the year, there is increased urgency to defend the site from development. Lobbying over the last six years has not changed the minds of local and state governments, which continue to push for development.
There is discussion among residents and activists about the need for a renewed campaign to begin public protests including meetings, marches, pickets and blockades if need be. The campaign could include cooperation from unions in the form of green bans.
Other demands of the campaign could include that ADI do a thorough clean-up of the site and the state government allow non-governmental, independent environmental and health surveys.
Anyone interested in building the campaign can contact Alistair Dickinson on (047) 9873 2545 or John McCusker on 9675 3092.