An ongoing investigation by the Socialist Equality Party
Detailed submissions expose air and soil pollution
A central feature of the Workers Inquiry was the presentation of a number of detailed submissions by local residents exposing the industry contamination of the air and soil throughout Wollongong and its impact on working class families.
Philip Colless and Shirley Shead, both active members of the Workers Inquiry committee, raised crucial questions on these issues.
Colless, a Port Kembla resident and father of two young children, presented a researched submission on lead and other toxic metal pollution.
"In and around every Port Kembla home there is a whole range of toxic metals. They are in the soil, in the roof, in every crack and crevice where dust gathers, and also in the bodies of everyone who lives, works, or attends a school there."
Referring to a 1993 survey of metals in roof dust in Port Kembla houses, Colless used graphs to show that lead, cadmium, arsenic, cobalt, copper and nickel contamination was concentrated in areas closest to the copper smelter.
"Before the Port Kembla copper smelter closed down it is estimated to have emitted 46.5 tonnes of lead per year," Colless added. He explained that exposure to lead causes mental and behavioural problems, especially in children. It also inhibits the uptake of essential trace elements such as iron, calcium, zinc and copper deficiencies. This, in turn can cause still births and birth defects including spina bifida and anencephaly, a lack of brain development.
Cadmium, a confirmed carcinogen, is produced solely as a by-product of the smelting process. It can cause prostrate cancer, emphysema and numerous kidney diseases and has been liked with still births and hypertension. Arsenic, another carcinogen emitted by the smelter, is linked to respiratory cancer, scrotum cancer, skin cancer, and damage to kidneys and intestines.
"The people of the Port Kembla area have suffered from the effects of lead, cadmium, arsenic and sulphur dioxide (which causes respiratory problems) for 90 years of the smelter's operations. The Illawarra Public Health Unit has not conducted any health studies of the adult population to assess the levels of lead, cadmium and arsenic in our bodies..."
"If we allow the copper smelter to reopen, lead, cadmium, arsenic and sulphur dioxide will fill the air again. There will always be a fine layer of toxic dust over every surface in our homes. It will cover the floors, tables, benches, beds, pots and pans, cups and plates, clothes and toys, everything. The concentrations of toxic metals in the soil and roof dust will increase year after year. The build up of toxic metals in our bodies will continue."
Shirley Shead, who has lived in Primbee for 49 years, outlined the dumping of steelworks and copper smelter slag.
She gave the example of the Windang Gardens Estate, built on copper slag. Shead said a Health Unit report "admitted that a serious health problem existed but said that no-one could be held responsible for it and that the residents just had to live with it."
Residents were told that if they wanted to grow vegetables they should dig out the slag to a depth of at least half a metre, lay down plastic and put in fresh soil.
She detailed the environmental damage done by Southern Copper to Korrongulla Swamp, near Primbee. In 1984, despite intense opposition by residents, the smelter owners were given permission to extract 2.4 million tonnes of sand from the swamp and fill it with 6.2 million tonnes of copper slag. This decimated the swamp, the last natural wetland left on the Windang peninsula.
Local residents fought a protracted battle to have slag heap seeded and grassed, but in March this year Wollongong Council gave another company permission to dig up the waste and remove it for industrial grit blasting.
Again, approval was granted despite protests by the residents on the grounds of noise pollution, slippage to land, damage to property and dust hazards.
Shead concluded: "Whatever industry wants, they will get, whether it is from councils or governments. It makes no difference what residents feel or how they suffer."
Shead revealed how the Health Unit had dismissed evidence of a serious increase in birth defects in the Port Kembla area.
She and two other residents had held a four hour discussion with the unit's director, Dr Victoria Westley-Wise, presenting evidence that showed that in one class of 16 girls in the area, seven had given birth to children with severe birth defects including Downs Syndrome, spina bifida and other serious health problems.
"In a letter dated March 19, 1997, Dr Westley-Wise informed us that no adequate government records had been kept of birth defects prior to 1990. She also stated that hospital data for the years before 1984 was not available.
"Based on the lack of official records Dr Westley-Wise declared: 'We found no additional records of babies born with neural tube defects from this area.'
"In other words, on the basis of incomplete records, the Health Service says it is all a coincidence. We can't accept that. We can't accept the way they are dealing with the leukaemias and the oesophageous cancers in First Avenue Warrawong either.
"That is why we are holding a Workers Inquiry, independent of the government and all the bureaucratic authorities. They are all working hand in glove to accommodate big business and at what cost? -- our health, environment and lives.
"It is up to the working class people now to band together to find the answers and push for a different sort of society where we have decent health and living conditions for our families."