Illawarra residents battle corporate polluters

[Green Left Weekly, #397, March 15, 2000]

WOLLONGONG — Industrial pollution, in all its many forms and with all its attendant consequences, has long been a fact of life in the Illawarra. And nowhere are the effects more pronounced than in the suburbs near BHP's giant Port Kembla steel complex. In recent months, concern over emissions, dust fallout and other problems has risen sharply.

But since the secretive start-up of the smelter at Port Kembla Copper (PKC) on February 4, the misery — and anger — of local residents has massively increased. The facility was closed in 1994 due to its appalling pollution record. However, despite new owners and buckets of hype from the company, Bob Carr's Labor state government and the ALP-controlled Wollongong City Council, nothing has changed

Noxious emissions, mainly sulphur dioxide, routinely blanket the area. One bitter letter to a local newspaper made the point that safe injecting rooms for heroin addicts were all very well, but Port Kembla residents needed safe breathing rooms to gain some respite from the onslaught.

On March 4, in Port Kembla, a record crowd of more than 260 people attended the monthly council-facilitated pollution forum. They heard reports from representatives of BHP, PKC and the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and, despite the restrictive format of the meeting, were able to ask some very pointed questions. The anger and frustration were palpable.

PKC's line is that the emissions are just teething problems peculiar to the process of getting the plant up and running, and that during normal operations there will be no problems. Apart from the fact that commissioning the plant will take six months, during which residents have the problem of somehow surviving, they have absolutely no confidence in the company's assurances.

On March 5, 200 residents and supporters rallied to protest against PKC's plan to begin dumping large amounts of toxic smelter slag into the Korrongulla Wetland in Primbee. The action was organised by the Primbee Residents Committee.

The suburb is situated immediately south of Port Kembla, on the narrow peninsula between Lake Illawarra and the sea. The massive slag operation will comprehensively degrade the environment of the area and drastically impact on residents' quality of life.

Big business attack

It is hard to avoid concluding that the residents of the Illawarra are under sustained attack by big business, especially on the environmental front. The struggle around the copper smelter is certainly the most striking issue, but it is far from the only one.

In its cover story, the March 1 Wollongong Advertiser, for instance, blew the whistle on Wollongong council's secretive approval of a major treatment plant for contaminated soil, to be located in Unanderra, on the edge of the steelworks. Toxic waste from the Illawarra and other parts of NSW will be transported into the plant by truck.

It is clear that the council took extraordinary measures to avoid any public awareness, let alone discussion, of the project and its dangers.

Last year, determined opposition by residents killed a proposal to set up a steel strap manufacturing plant at Albion Park Rail. The residents didn't see why they had to live next to all the pollution and noise problems that would inevitably accompany a steel plant. They pointed out that people want jobs, but also a livable environment.

Wollongong's ALP mayor, David Campbell, claimed that the 1998 devastating floods were an act of god, a one-in-300-years chance event. In reality, the water was only the immediate cause of the damage: the council's longstanding "pro-development" stance was the main culprit. Housing developers had been permitted to build on the lower escarpment, on flood-prone land, to fill in watercourses and so on.

BHP's steel complex has been routinely poisoning whole generations of Illawarra workers and residents. But in 1996-98, following the chance discovery of a leukemia cluster in the steelworks suburb of Warrawong, the spotlight of public concern and anger focused on the issue of carcinogenic emissions from the plant.

People or profits?

In capitalist society, the interests of the big corporations and their millionaire owners — just a few per cent of the population — count for more than the needs of millions of ordinary people. Happy myths about the "lucky country" notwithstanding, Australia is no different in this regard.

What is happening in the Illawarra is a particularly striking example of what is occurring all over the country. In a context of sharply intensifying competition at home and abroad, big business is constantly seeking new sources of profit, more profit and higher rates of profit. It wants ever more concessions from working people: more "flexibility" on conditions, less job security and lower wages.

The corporations want to slash spending on education, health and welfare, and increase handouts and tax breaks to business. They want people to put up with the environmental consequences of "development", even if this means often unbearable living conditions.

"Development" is sold as progress and the only way to provide jobs. The reopening of the copper smelter was packaged in just this way. The promised jobs provided the excuse for the South Coast Labor Council's shameful endorsement of the PKC project. The job figures are most likely hyped up but, in any case, how does that justify the state of siege under which residents must now live?

In 1998, Carr came to Wollongong to inaugurate the new PKC smelter. Dodging angry protesters, he attacked residents' opposition, arguing that if such views held sway there would be no industrial development. In the next breath he claimed that PKC would be subject to stringent environmental regulation.

This is where the EPA comes in. The EPA might collect some useful data, but it essentially functions as a fig leaf to cover the ugly nakedness of corporate pollution. It is designed to provide the illusion of "regulation" without seriously impeding the operations of big business.

Recently, the Illawarra Mercury prominently featured an article reporting a fine imposed on BHP for breaching its EPA licence conditions. The sum? A whopping $42,000! Wow, now we're really getting somewhere!

In reality, the only effective check to the corporate polluters is organised, active community and worker opposition. However, "people power" can only work on the condition that it is politically independent of the Labor Party.

The ALP is part of the problem, no less than the Liberals and Nationals. The corporate rich in this country have two political instruments; the Coalition is the obvious one, but Labor is also a party of the wealthy and powerful, despite its name and the empty rhetoric it wheels out from time to time.

The involvement of ALP figures in popular struggles invariably leads to attempts to subordinate them to the interests of the ALP and big business, to tone down their activism and militancy. That's the role of the ALP. However, the antidote to this is not to exclude people but to achieve political clarity and independence.

The copper smelter struggle has opened the eyes of many longstanding Labor members and supporters to the real role of the party. There has been a massive process of disillusionment which is still playing out.

Is pollution inevitable?

We might ask: does industry always have to be synonymous with pollution? Is that just the price we have to pay for jobs and the products society needs? Should we just resign ourselves to the situation and make the best of it? Our answer should be a resounding no! It could be so different.

In brief, there are two aspects to this: the technical and the social-political. It is clear that if the will were there, if "world's best practice" technology were employed, industry could be reorganised to operate on virtually waste-free, emission-free principles. Power could be generated cleanly from non-fossil fuel sources and rail freight and public transport could largely supplant the heavily polluting trucks and motor cars on which we are all forced to depend. Even then, perhaps it might be prudent not to have industrial facilities right in the middle of residential areas.

Of course, this attractive — and perfectly realistic — scenario depends on a society which operates quite differently to the one in which we live. It requires a society where the bulk of the economy, including all the industrial plant and infrastructure, is in the hands of society as a whole and is not the private property of a handful of greedy millionaires and billionaires grown rich through the toil of working people. It requires a society where the needs of the vast working-class majority are the overriding priority of all government policy.

In such a society, if an industrial plant malfunctioned and started to emit pollution, the problem could be addressed immediately. The community, knowing that the government was a genuine workers' government, would be able to achieve a quick shutdown while the problem was addressed. The plant workers, confident that society would look after all its members, would not be fearful for their jobs or their livelihoods and would be fully involved in rectifying the problem.

Such a system is called socialism. As people battle against the corporate polluters and their profit-pursuing capitalist owners, as the sign of the almighty dollar rises ever higher above our society, bathing everything in its ghastly glare, this is something worth thinking about.