An ongoing investigation by the Socialist Equality Party
Dangerous practices covered-up in Area 21
In the days leading up to the Workers Inquiry, Ray Heaney received several phone calls warning him not to testify. Nevertheless he gave evidence, presenting a graphic picture of the hazardous practices employed by BHP in disposing of toxic chemicals.
Heaney worked in the BHP steelworks as a sub-contractor and then went to work for South Coast Equipment inside Area 21, BHP's vast waste dump in the middle of Wollongong's southern suburbs.
Area 21 contains mountains of steelworks slags and other noxious wastes. BHP has admitted that no comprehensive records have been kept of the poisonous materials which have been deposited there for decades.
Not only are those who work inside the dump exposed to chemicals known to cause cancers and other serious diseases, so are thousands of residents and school children affected by the dusts blown across the adjoining suburbs -- Cringila to the south, Unanderra to the west and Mt St Thomas and Coniston to the north.
Before Heaney testified, Dr Evan Whittaker had given evidence that pointed to the existence of proven carcinogens. After years of BHP coverup, its scientists had admitted that Basic Oxygen Steelmaking (BOS) slags, piled up in Area 21, contain up to 19,200 parts per million of vanadium, present as Vanadium Pentoxide. Whittaker warned that vanadium was known to increase the carcinogenic properties of benzene and other hydrocarbons.
Heaney also indicated the lengths to which BHP had gone to suppress evidence of the dangerous conditions at Area 21. He described how he had been victimised and sacked from South Coast Equipment after beginning to question the dumping of toxic chemicals into Area 21 and also Port Kembla harbour.
"They're very vicious BHP. Once you know too much in there, they just get rid of you. I had four witnesses who saw unpurified chemicals being thrown into the harbour, and for my concern I was told I was being defamatory to the company."
Heaney said acids from BHP's pickle line would go straight into Area 21. "I've seen things in the creek near the southern pickle line -- it contains acids that have killed half of whatever is living in Port Kembla harbour."
Heaney also described the pouring of acids into vast unlined pits, to which tonnes of lime were added, giving off caustic clouds.
"They needed 40 tonnes of lime every day to try to neutralise the high levels of acid. I got burned by the lime. It would come out like talcum powder and burn you very badly."
On many occasions when not enough lime could be obtained or the supervisor wanted to go home, untreated acids and other wastes were ditched directly into Port Kembla harbour in the early hours of the morning.
Heaney also said contractors would often load trucks with up to 40 tonnes of coal, coke dust and coke even though the safe working load for waste was 20 tonnes. None of the trucks were registered and no regular maintenance inspection procedures were carried out on them.
He and other drivers had loaded pepcoke, a very fine coal dust from the sinter process, as well as lime into open trucks. "The company would always work out whether anybody was watching and what direction the wind was blowing -- so that they wouldn't be implicated in disposing of this material in such a bad manner."
Many of Heaney's former workmates had died or were dying from cancers and other chemically-induced diseases. "Of the two blokes who were working in the same department as me, one's dead and one is very sick. He is now on a dialysis machine, his kidneys are gone, and I don't think he's got very long to live.
"Prior to BHP having the contract to remove the sinter plant waste, the contract was given to Brambles and a few of the blokes working there also died. So the last five blokes I've known, who carted around burnt lime, sinter dust and primary dust out of the bay houses and lime kiln, have all got diseases. One of them died only 12 months after leaving the job...
"Every time I finished work, I had to wash my clothes very thoroughly to get rid of all the iron ore and sinter dust. Washing the chemicals off my clothes has actually wrecked washing machines."
Heaney indicted the unions. "When I first started the job, there was absolutely no protective clothing. The last time I worked there, I was given a full respirator, overalls, gloves and boots. Prior to that there was nothing -- it was just open slather. The unions knew about it. Andy Gillespie, a union official, knew about it."