By Ray Fulcher
MELBOURNE — On June 13, 350 residents and workers rallied outside Premier Joan Kirner's office in Williamstown to oppose a proposed expansion of the Mobil oil refinery.
The working-class western suburbs have long been a dumping ground for toxic chemicals and dirty industry. Under Labor, little has changed: the government seems to think it can get away with anything because the area is unlikely ever to vote Liberal.
But residents of the west have had enough and are fighting back. Organised by the Coalition Against Refinery Expansion (CARE), the gathering heard a written statement from Kirner saying she was committed to the expansion for the sake of jobs and the environment, and promising consultation with the community and consideration of the impact on the local area, particularly Paisley high school (which regularly contacts the Environment Protection Authority to inquire about fumes wafting through its classrooms).
Local activist Shirley Winton briefly described the proposed expansion ("modernisation" according to Mobil) which will push the refinery into an existing buffer zone, bringing it within 500 metres of residential areas. Winton said the government had approved the expansion even before a (one-person) review panel was set up. There had been no environmental impact study or risk assessment on the proposal despite a call by occupational health and safety authorities for an assessment of the current facility.
Mobil has so far not released detailed plans or information on extra emissions, though it has admitted emissions of sulphur dioxide will increase due to a switch from Bass Strait oil to less pure and cheaper Middle East oil. The company has threatened job losses if it is not allowed to proceed and if workers continue to demand safer working conditions.
Local resident Kay Hoff said there was little Australian data on the health effects of living close to such a facility, but overseas studies had revealed high levels of lung cancer, asthma, leukaemia, birth defects and cancers directly related to hydrocarbon exposure within three kilometres of refineries.
An official of the Victorian Health Department told Hoff that higher rates of cancer were to be expected in Williamstown because it's a working class area "and working class people drink and smoke more." She was also told the refinery workers were relatively healthy.
Denise Ogilvy of the Mobil Community Liaison Committee advised the rally to be very wary of anything Mobil says. The company has always denied plans for expansion, and the committee found out about the proposal on the 6 o'clock news. Mobil later said it had been unable to advise the committee because Premier Kirner couldn't wait another day to announce the expansion. To reinforce their point, company representatives handed out a glossy brochure extolling the project, hardly evidence of a hasty decision.
Kirner has agreed to chair a public meeting on the issue in Williamstown in the near future. For details about the meeting or to get involved in the campaign, contact CARE, 23 Mason St, Newport, phone (03) 391 2244.