An ongoing investigation by the Socialist Equality Party
Outraged meeting denounces Labor's gag on smelter challenge
An outraged public meeting of more than 250 workers, residents, students and professional people in the Wollongong suburb of Warrawong on June 1, 1997 condemned the Carr government's extinguishment of all legal rights of appeal against the reopening of the Port Kembla copper smelter.
The turnout for the meeting, called on just two day's notice, demonstrated the growing concern throughout the area with the rising cancer and leukaemia death toll and its links to the noxious fumes of the Port Kembla smokestacks -- those of the copper smelter and the BHP steelworks in particular.
It also revealed intense hostility toward the Carr government and the entire ALP, accompanied by a feeling of profound shock that the government had so blatantly shut down the court case by Port Kembla resident Helen Hamilton challenging the government's approval of the smelter project.
Hamilton, who lives 300 metres from the smelter, initiated the case because she and 7,000 other affected residents were not notified of the development application. Before the previous owners, CRA, shut down the smelter for economic reasons in 1995, it had a proven record of pumping out tonnes of harmful lead and sulphur dioxide, as well as carcinogens such as cadmium and arsenic.
At 10pm on Wednesday May 28, the night before Hamilton's case was due to commence eight days of hearings in the NSW Land and Environment Court, the Labor government introduced special legislation to halt the case.
By lunchtime the next day, the government had rushed the Port Kembla Development (Special Provisions) Bill through the lower house of parliament with the bipartisan support of the Liberal-National Party coalition and every Labor MP, including local MPs such as Gerry Sullivan.
In the meantime, the QCs representing the government, working in tandem with those hired by the smelter consortium, applied for an adjournment of Hamilton's case until June 30, by which time the legislation is expected to have passed through the upper house.
The Bill was accompanied by a second piece of legislation extending the same measures statewide. It has sweeping political implications. It gives government ministers absolute powers to grant development applications and wipes out basic democratic rights.
Barely a word has been said in the media about this legislation, which means that opposition to any mining, industrial and real estate project in NSW can be legally squashed.
Hamilton's barrister Tim Robertson told the public meeting that the Carr government blocked the legal challenge at the last minute because it received advice that it could lose the case.
Robertson said confidential documents had been obtained showing that the health and environmental problems caused by the smelter's reopening would far exceed the government's claims.
Hazardous ground level sulphur dioxide concentrations would be double the government's predictions and the lead emissions would be four to six times higher. The impact on residents would be intensified by the prevailing spring to autumn winds.
Robertson debunked the government's claims that the smelter would feature the most advanced environmental technology in the world. The equipment would be vastly inferior to systems in operation in Canada and Japan and would allow up to 20 percent of toxic emissions to leak into the atmosphere.
The barrister pointed out that residents had been given similar assurances at the time of the smelter's last refit, in 1988, only to have acid rain falling on them by 1991.
Robertson reported that senior officials of the state Environment Protection Agency had initially opposed the granting of the smelter's licence.
In 1994 the EPA had recommended that the smelter be forbidden to exceed World Health Organisation guidelines for sulphur dioxide emissions, but in February 1996 the government had approved up to 150 exceedences per year. After secret negotiations with the company, a level of 75 exceedences per year had been set.
Robertson repeatedly stated that he could not divulge any more information because it was confidential under court rules.
One older worker intervened, demanding to know why. Robertson said he could be charged with contempt of court. His answer showed how the legal system seeks to prevent ordinary people from finding out the truth about the operations of large companies and their dealings with governments.
Robertson also declared that his criticisms of the Carr government did not extend to local state Labor MP Gerry Sullivan, who was sitting on the platform. Robertson claimed that Sullivan was "doing his best" to moderate the government's position. This argument flies in the face of Sullivan's support for the reopening of the smelter and his vote for the draconian anti-appeal legislation.
Necessity for Workers Inquiry
Workers News editor Mike Head, invited to speak on behalf of the Workers Inquiry into the Wollongong leukaemia and cancer crisis, said the Carr government's actions demonstrated the necessity for the Workers Inquiry.
It would be the only forum through which working people could speak out and establish the truth about the cancers and other serious ill-health affecting them. He appealed to everyone present to support and participate in the Workers Inquiry, including those who had intended to give evidence in the court case.
The organisers of the meeting, Illawarra Residents Against Toxic Emissions (IRATE), then allowed Gerry Sullivan MP and a Liberal, Philip Williams, to speak.
Sullivan was repeatedly booed, jeered, catcalled and challenged by workers and residents as he baldly sought to justify his vote for the gagging legislation. Howls of disbelief and anger greeted his ludicrous claim that he voted for the Port Kembla Bill because he feared that otherwise the smelter would be reopened without any pollution limits.
As soon as the speakers concluded, and without any debate whatsoever, the meeting chairman, IRATE spokesman David Gilmour moved a resolution calling on the upper house MPs to block the legislation and call a public inquiry into the smelter. The motion was passed overwhelmingly without any discussion.
When question time began, Mike Head answered the first question. It was from a veteran BHP coke ovens worker who demanded to know what was going to be done about the fact that so many steelworkers, including those he knew personally, were dying of cancer.
Head said the question showed why the Socialist Equality Party had initiated the Workers Inquiry. It would be the only means for workers to speak without being hogtied and intimidated by legal procedures and where all the information would be made available to the working class.
Head pointed out that a so-called public inquiry conducted by the upper house MPs or any other official body would be another coverup, just like the original commission of inquiry into the smelter re-opening, the Carr government's official leukaemia investigation and the 1990 inquiry into the death of nine Huntley Colliery miners from lymphomas caused by toxic waste.
The only answer to Carr was to go forward to convene a powerful Workers Inquiry where the entire record of the government and companies like BHP and the smelter owners would be laid bare and from which workers and residents could begin to organise a movement for fundamental social change.
Throughout the rest of the meeting, workers, retired workers, residents, students and professional people bombarded Sullivan with hostile questions and statements of condemnation.
Within two days of the public meeting, the Carr government had given its blunt answer to the concerns expressed by so many residents. In an "open letter" published in full by the local Fairfax paper, the Illawarra Mercury, Carr re-stated the government's determination to proceed with the smelter.
Carr added nothing new in his letter, but he blurted out the fact -- already suspected by many people -- that the smelter consortium had threatened to terminate the project unless the legal challenge was quashed immediately.