A potential Bhopal in Melbourne's west

May 15, 1991

By Peter Boyle

MELBOURNE — The bulk chemical storage facility in Coode Island (in Melbourne's dock lands) is a serious menace to residents in nearby suburbs, to workers and to the environment, according to documents obtained by the Hazardous Materials Action Group (HAZMAG) through the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents reveal that there have been numerous spills at the facility (54 officially recorded in the last 10 years) and some 390 cases of workers being affected by toxic fumes in one year. Government and industry officials admit that spills and other accidents are unavoidable in the operation of the facilities.

Coode Island is actually a 50-hectare peninsula bounded by the Maribyrnong and Yarra Rivers. It is only 1.4 km from the main shopping centre of the working-class suburb of Footscray and 4.7 km from Melbourne city centre.

Millions of litres of explosive and toxic chemicals are stored on Coode Island (in 1989, 653.4 million litres of bulk chemicals passed through). HAZMAG spokesperson Paul Adams told Green Left the facility was a "potential Bhopal-type disaster".

"In the worst possible scenario of a major explosion at Coode Island, everything within a one-kilometre radius would probably be devastated. A fireball would race through Melbourne's inner-west and western suburbs, and deadly gases such as cyanide would be released. As in Bhopal, workers and residents in nearby areas may only have minutes to avoid asphyxiation and death."

But even lesser accidents pose grave dangers. Coode Island has major holdings of acrylonitrile (gives off cyanide gas), benzene (acts on the nervous system and can cause leukemia), butyl acrylate (causes irritation, liver and kidney damage and cancer), phenol (highly poisonous and corrosive), propylene oxide (causes irritation, cancer and attacks the nervous system), tetraethyl lead (attacks the digestive system and nervous system and causes anaemia) and toluene di-isocyanate (which gives off cyanide when burnt).

Coode Island is managed by the Port Melbourne Authority, which has tried to dismiss HAZMAG's charges by claiming that the spills were very small. But Adams said the recorded spills include nine in which benzene was spilled and in two cases in large quantities (500 and 800 litres). In 1988 alone there were 10 spills of acrylate, toluene di-isocyanate, genklene, cyclohexanone, benzene, caustic soda, bunker fuel, syrene and methyl ethyl ketone.

There were probably many other unrecorded spills, says HAZMAG. In the year September 1984 to September 1985, work had to stop on 65 occasions at Seatrainer Terminals (which is on Coode Island but does not handle toxic chemicals), and 390 workers reported for first aid ymptoms such as headaches, irritated eyes, upset stomach, sore throats and nausea.

These are all symptoms characteristic of acrylate exposure, said Adams. For the fumes to have affected workers at Seatrainer, large spills must have taken place in adjacent storage facilities.

Some companies go out of the way to hide spills. One method is to use deodorants. A Port Emergency Service officer called to investigate an obnoxious odour in September 1983 found it hard to prove the origins of the fumes because a large amount of a deodorant had been released. As Seatrainer management has complained in letters on numerous occasions to the PMA, the use of deodorants serves only to destroy the smell but does not eradicate the pollution.

According to Adams, there are several small companies on Coode Island (acting as suppliers and transporters for larger firms) which use non-union and casual labor, hence increasing the chance of accidents because of poor safety conditions.

Some of the larger firms are also prepared to take risks to increase profits. Powell Duffryn, for instance, has recently demanded of its unionised workforce that its environment unit (a series of emergency pumps and accident detectors) be left unstaffed as part of a "productivity bargain". Maintenance workers would be issued with beepers so that they could be paged if there was a problem in the unit.

A PES report to the PMA in 1983 (obtained under the Freedom of Information Act) concluded that spills occur as a matter of course while chemicals are loaded or unloaded from ships and during maintenance. "There is only one real answer — the removal of the berth and terminal installation from the area. This option should be seriously considered by the Port, not just because of the odour problems, but mainly because of the potential disaster hazard that is created by the storage of such large quantities of hazardous and toxic substances near high population areas."

HAZMAG favours relocation of the chemical terminals to Point Wilson, south of Geelong, where there can be a 15-20 km buffer zone.

According to Adams, the bulk storage of chemicals at Coode Island has developed since 1968 without any public consultation or even the council approval that most such developments would go through. This is because Coode Island is owned by PMA and governed by its own legislation.

The PMA gets high rents from the chemical companies and so has little incentive to shift these hazardous industries out of the city centre. The chemical facilities at Coode serve major multinationals like Mobil Oil, Terminals Ltd, Powell Duffryn, BP, Colyer Fehr, Gordon Brandon, Gardner Smith and Con Australia. They are saving transport costs while endangering the lives of people living and working in the area. The Labor government also prefers these hazardous industries to be sited within "safe" seats like the working-class suburbs of Melbourne's west: Coode Island is only one of some 50 chemical storage depots in the Footscray area.

A series of major chemical spills in the western suburbs last year forced the state government to open an inquiry into relocating the facilities at Coode Island.

At one of these accidents, at the South Dynon Railway Depot (just north of Coode Island), several tanks of sodium hydroxide began leaking. A desperate attempt to evacuate housing in the immediate area succeeded in moving only 5% of the population in the affected area — and this took five hours! Emergency personnel experienced great difficulty communicating with the high proportion of non-English-speaking migrants in Housing Commission flats. Fortunately, there were no serious casualties.

In response to public pressure, the Victorian government set up a Hazardous Materials Taskforce, which it promised would look into moving the chemical storage depots out of the area. HAZMAG members were elected onto a consultation committee.

However, two weeks ago, HAZMAG was informed that the Kirner cabinet had decided to reserve the right to decide on relocation of the Coode Island chemical depots and to remove this question from the alternatives report being prepared by the task force. Last year the Liberal opposition promised it would support a relocation, said Adams, but now it has withdrawn that commitment.

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