By Vannessa Hearman
Melbourne — A leaked government report, which was suppressed by both Labor and Liberal state governments, declares Mobil's Williamstown facilities and its controversial expansion plans unsafe.
The report, released on September 27 by a coalition of community and environment groups, was commissioned under the state Labor government in April 1992 after community protests. It analysed the short-term risks of fires and explosions posed by Mobil's Gellibrand dock installation and the Breakwater pier, used mainly by the Altona Petrochemical Company to unload petroleum products, crude oil and chemical substances.
Gellibrand pier and the Gellibrand tank compound are used by Mobil for the unloading of crude oil and petroleum products. There are five tanks in the compound, holding around 1.5 million litres of crude oil.
The study found that a fire or explosion in the case of a loading arm failure could reach up to one kilometre around the site. Fire in the tanks occurs with "not insignificant frequency", and there is a one in 10,000 chance per year of a roof fire on the tanks.
The Breakwater pier is used 15% of the time by the Altona Petrochemical Company to unload and transfer butadiene into tankers to be transported to the company's plant. The route of the tankers pass through residential areas, including schools. Flash fires could extend up to around 200 metres from the scene of an accident involving butadiene, the report found.
In an outline of the worst-case scenario of an explosion while oil was being transferred into or from the five tanks, the report warns of a possible fireball up to a kilometre in diameter. The study failed to consider the adjoining ship building dockyards, which store large quantities of LPG.
The report unequivocally concludes that the two facilities are considered "risk unacceptable" and suggests that for them to meet the "applied group risk criterion", population density would have to be reduced.
Paul Adams from the Hazardous Materials Action Group (HAZMAG) warns that a repeat of the 1991 chemical disaster at Coode Island storage facility, also in Melbourne's western suburbs, could occur and expose workers and residents to high levels of risk if the government and the petrochemical companies are not made accountable for the state of the facilities. According to Adams, the solution is to phase out chemicals such as butadiene.
The 100-page report was commissioned for the Occupational Health and Safety Authority of Victoria to analyse risks for workers and residents in the area in the event of accidents at the dock installation.
However, it was based on the current volume of tanker movements and did not consider the impact of Mobil's refinery expansion, given approval last year by the Kirner government. With this expansion, Mobil will switch from processing Gippsland light crude oil to the heavier Middle Eastern crude.
According to Julianne Scott, spokesperson for Coalition Against Refinery Expansion (CARE), this will lead to a greater number of large oil tanker movements through Port Phillip Bay, increasing the risk of accidents. Despite the report's findings that the pier facilities do not meet the Occupational Health and Safety Authority risk criteria guidelines, the Labor and Liberal state governments kept this a secret and fast-tracked the Mobil expansion.
Despite continual requests by Williamstown Council, community and environment groups, the report has been withheld by the government. The highly publicised release by activists from Greenpeace, CARE and HAZMAG was made after the confidential report was sent anonymously to the Melbourne office of Greenpeace.
Both former premier Joan Kirner and Phil Gude, minister for industry and employment, underplay the extent of the risk involved, while Gude concedes in a Melbourne Age report that he is concerned with not jeopardising Mobil's proposed $200 million investment.