EPA: 'Emission Permission Authority'

[Green Left Weekly, #404, May 10, 2000]

WOLLONGONG — Since its reopening in February, emissions from Port Kembla Copper's smelter here have made life miserable for residents in nearby suburbs. For those with health problems, it has often been life threatening. The main culprit is sulphur dioxide, although it is far from the only one.

PKC's line is that the various emission problems are simply a part of the plant commissioning process and that, when it is up and running normally, everything will be fine. A report in the April 13 Illawarra Mercury sheds some light on just what "normal" operations imply.

According to the conditions of its Environmental Protection Authority licence, PKC is legally allowed to emit 6300 tonnes of sulphur dioxide each year — more than 17 tonnes every single day of the year. It is also allowed to emit up to 24 tonnes of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury annually.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realise that all this is poisoning Illawarra residents, who for decades have had to live amid a cocktail of toxic emissions from BHP's giant Port Kembla steel complex. Not even the towering PKC smokestack, designed to "dilute" and "disperse", can make these wastes disappear; they all go somewhere and they do no good.

Noxious gas

PKC's general manager described the company's permitted 6300 tonnes as "piffling" compared to the output from motor vehicles and other industrial plants. Whatever the comparative figures, "piffling" is clearly the wrong word to use when a plant daily pumps out 17 tonnes of a noxious gas.

In any case, according to the National Pollutant Inventory's 1998-99 entries for NSW, he's wrong on motor transport: the figure for the Newcastle-Sydney-Wollongong region is listed as 4200 tonnes.

But the NPI figures do show that some other industrial facilities are indeed far worse. For instance, the annual figures for the Bayswater and Liddell power stations at Muswellbrook are 78,000 and 34,000 tonnes respectively. Power stations are the worst emitters of sulphur dioxide in the state by far, all in the tens of thousands of tonnes each year.

But after the Tomago Aluminium smelter (8200 tonnes), PKC will top the next section of the list, ahead of such operations as Shell's Clyde refinery (4400 tonnes) and Capral Aluminium's Kurri Kurri plant (3700 tonnes).

Licensing pollution

All this is perfectly legal. The Environmental Protection Authority licences industrial pollution; EPA might just as well stand for "Emission Permission Authority".

That's what it's there for. It is designed to serve as a screen between big business (including the corporatised state utilities that serve it) and the community.

The EPA presents the facade of regulation and control but the reality is very different. It simply is not going to seriously inconvenience the corporate polluters. In the contest between the health of workers and residents and the corporate bottom line, big business will always be a clear winner.

The EPA's 1998-99 annual report makes this very clear. As you would expect from a modern government agency these days, it's a very slick production.

"Everyone in NSW is responsible for the environment", it says right up front. That sounds nice but, when you think about it, it's rubbish (so to speak). Ordinary people need a healthy environment but the fundamental cause of environmental degradation is the operations of big business. The great mass of working people has no say in it whatsoever.

We don't have any control over how industry is run. Yes, we may drive polluting motor vehicles and buy supermarket goods which lead to ridiculous amounts of waste, but all this is imposed on us by the realities of contemporary life under capitalism.

Earth-shattering

The EPA has an annual budget of almost $80 million. It employed some 750 staff in 1998-99. What did we — that is, ordinary people — get for all these resources?

In this period the EPA issued 6113 infringement notices and levied $1.87 million in fines. This is an average of $306 per fine — hardly earth-shattering stuff.

Even if all these fines had been imposed on a single big company like BHP, it would have hardly dented its balance sheet. As it was, almost 3000 of these notices were for motor vehicle smoke and noise offences.

The EPA also completed 85 prosecutions, of which 78 were successful. But 40 of these were for smokey or noisy motor vehicles (four against a hapless individual named Foggo).

Doubtless we're all relieved that the EPA is busy keeping our roads free of smokey and noisy vehicles, but the prosecutions list reveals no evidence of a serious assault on the big corporate polluters such as BHP or the state's power stations.

Three prosecutions were against Capral Aluminium for breaching its licence conditions. The result? The company was fined the colossal total of $100,000!

In fact, the highest fines resulting from these court cases were $217,000 against Emerald Peat for water pollution offences, $100,000 against Sydney Water for a licence breach and $50,000 against Bega Valley Shire Council for unlawful waste disposal.

Perhaps the EPA's 1999-2000 report will reveal a different picture? Perhaps it will show the agency locked in battle with the likes of PKC and BHP, fighting to impose strict licence conditions on behalf of long-suffering residents of industrial regions like Port Kembla? Don't hold your breath.

Although the thoroughly modern EPA has both a "vision" and a "mission", neither involves challenging capitalism and that's what's needed if people's needs are finally to come before business profits.