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Carr backtracks to protect BHP
On May 1, the day after BHP announced the closure of the Newcastle steelworks, NSW Premier Bob Carr visited the plant and, in an unguarded moment, made the following comment:
"You think of the workers who got up in the early hours of the morning to do dirty and dangerous work. You think of the workers who carried cancer in their bodies because of exposure to dangerous chemicals in this place."
His remarks let slip the fact that he and other Labor leaders had been aware for years that BHP steelworkers had been contracting cancers from toxic chemicals.
The Workers Inquiry immediately addressed an Open Letter to Carr demanding answers to a series of questions. "What information do you and your government have about the exposure of workers to cancer-causing chemicals and the dangers of working in the steel industry?" it asked. "Why have you never made this information available to workers and their families?"
The letter continued: "All of BHP's operations, including its toxic emissions, have been licensed by government agencies such as WorkSafe Australia and the Environment Protection Agency. Why have you and every other Labor leader allowed this to go on?
"The issue does not stop there. If steelworkers are being exposed to dangerous chemicals then doesn't this mean that residents in the surrounding suburbs are also being exposed to leaks and emissions of the same chemicals?"
The events which followed the presentation of this letter to Carr's office by a Workers Inquiry delegation on May 22 provide a revealing insight into the real relationship between business and governments, both Labor and Liberal.
BHP swiftly brought Carr to task. Speaking on ABC radio in Newcastle in response to an interview with Workers Inquiry convenor Peter Stavropoulos, a company spokesman condemned Carr's comments as "irresponsible".
Carr's office quickly went into damage control mode. It did not even acknowledge receipt of the Open Letter until June 30 -- nearly six weeks later -- despite repeated assurances that a note to that effect had been both posted and faxed.
Carr's formal reply to the letter was not sent until nearly 4.30 pm on Friday July 18, the day before the Workers Inquiry. Its content revealed the crisis the government had faced in answering the letter. To admit to the existence of any cancers among steelworkers would be to indict BHP.
So the reply provided no response whatsoever to the questions raised. Instead, Carr tried to backtrack completely. Following BHP's strictures, he denied that any problem existed at all.
He claimed that successive state governments had introduced measures to reduce and monitor workers' exposure in steel and coke producing industries, citing regulations requiring employers to conduct risk assessments, exposure monitoring and health checks.
Steelworkers testified at the Workers Inquiry that BHP's health checks are a fraud, its monitoring results are manipulated and its levels of toxic emissions are negotiated with the EPA on the basis of commercial viability, not health standards.
Carr went on: "You also requested an update of the status of the government's investigations into the incidence of cancer among steel workers and residents in surrounding areas. As you would be well aware, the New South Wales Department of Health has conducted an investigation into the community incidence of leukaemia and other cancers in the Illawarra."
In other words, Carr's reply simply referred back to the whitewash carried out by the Illawarra Public Health Unit -- a report commissioned by the government itself to cover-up the link between the leukaemias and other cancers and the industrial pollution of Port Kembla.
Thousands of steelworkers and their families, many of whom have suffered multiple cases of cancers, still want answers. How many steelworkers have died of cancer? What dangerous chemicals was Carr referring to? They will draw the conclusion that Carr's reply, like the leukaemia report, is a cynical exercise to protect the interests of BHP ... and the ALP.