An ongoing investigation by the Socialist Equality Party
Testimony of Helen Hamiliton
Helen Hamilton is a longtime Port Kembla resident whose legal challenge to the reopening of the Port Kembla copper smelter was blocked by the Carr state government. The Labor leaders also extinguished rights of appeal against all major business projects statewide. The following is an edited report of Hamilton's testimony to the Workers Inquiry
I'm not a political person but I do believe in social justice and democratic rights.
Three generations currently live in our house. There were four generations last year but my eldest daughter quickly moved when they announced the reopening of the smelter. She is a health worker and she did not wish to subject her child to further heavy metal contamination.
Life in Port Kembla over the last two and half years since the smelter closed has been like living in heaven. We now know what it is like to have fresh air. Our gardens, our grass and our trees are growing. Some of our trees are flowering for the first time.
It is a new experience to be able to have a barbecue and to invite someone over. We always used to be worried that when visitors came their cars would be damaged by acid rain fallout.
In our house alone illnesses, including asthma and allergies, have mysteriously disappeared. People no longer have to load their children into the car at night and race to the casualty whilst the kids are gasping for breath. That is very important because we no longer have a casualty department at Port Kembla Hospital and our ambulance station at Warrawong is not staffed on a 24 hour basis.
For many decades we endured heavy toxic pollution but this past decade has been the worst. After an "upgrade" at the smelter, we were suddenly introduced to acid rain.
One morning in 1992 I was in the front garden cradling my then baby granddaughter in my arms. We had waved goodbye to her mum and were smelling and touching the roses as we normally did. The next day I noticed a weird sore on the back of her scalp. She was less than 10 months old. I thought, babies just don't get sores like that. I took her to the chemist for an opinion. He refused to give advice and told me to take her to a doctor.
The doctor treated the sore but could give no explanation for what it was. A few days later a friend of mine who worked in the environment department at the smelter saw the sore. He said it looked like a burn.
I put two and two together. I checked the top that I wore in the garden that morning and, sure enough, there were the telltale spots of acid rain.
My mother took a speck of the fallout that used to get in the clothing. She placed it on her arm and put a drop of water with it. She still has the scar to this day, five years down the track.
That's how I first became involved in the community's pollution affairs.
You can surely see why the closure of the smelter in February 1995 was great news for us, along with the news that it would most probably never open again. We didn't celebrate, we just heaved great sighs of relief.
In April 1996 we were told by the media
that the dream was over and our lives were about to take a great
tumble into the dark ages again. Not only was the smelter opening
again, it was expanding.
It wasn't long before our worst fears were confirmed when Melissa Cristiano, suffering from leukaemia, eventually went to the media, finally convincing the Public Health Unit that a leukaemia crisis is killing our young people. The Public Health Unit, as you know, did not discover this or even show any interest.
Our concerns and experiences mounted but they were smothered by officials manipulating statistics or simply labelling them coincidences.
My youngest daughter revealed to me that she used to go to school with some of the leukaemia victims -- Jimmy Veljanoski and Goce Ilioski.
I eventually saw Dr Westley-Wise of the Health Unit and asked what my daughter could do. The reply was that there was no screening test and to just see a doctor if she was really sick. I had to go home and give my daughter the news. She replied, 'so I'm sitting on a time bomb, which could go off at any time?' This still weighs heavily on my mind.
We the people of Port Kembla feel that we have been immorally victimised by this company, the council and governments. We feel very strongly that a true balance of interests has not taken place.
We asked for simple things like protection for ourselves and our children, especially whilst at school, and our flora and fauna. We begged for better monitoring and better EPA action when licence conditions were breached. We requested a clean up of the past pollution and a complete health survey before we were subjected to more toxic pollution.
In our submissions prepared for the court case we pointed to faulty emission figures. My court case had to be stopped. The government, backed totally by the opposition, revealed its true colours. It would go to any length to have this case kept out of the democratic legal process.
For the last few weeks I have been trying to obtain the court documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The facts contained in these documents should be revealed to the public, but so far I have been denied access. I will continue my efforts to bring to you the truth that my legal team was obstructed from presenting.
We must realise, however, that people are the only ones who can change the situation, and it is not going to be easy or done overnight. Everything has to be brought out into the open and if this Workers Inquiry can do that, it is more than our politicians are doing. I thank the organisers for their efforts and I thank you the people for listening. May we the people continue to stand up and be counted!