Chemical waste factory fire releases toxic fumes in Australian working-class town
A fire at the Weston Aluminum chemical waste treatment plant on November 14 in the town of Kurri Kurri, New South Wales (NSW), sent thick black toxic plumes into the air. A strong wind carried the fumes, fed by several chemicals stored on the site, over a large area, potentially affecting nearly 5,000 inhabitants.
The working-class town is located in the Hunter Valley, a coal mining region, near the port city of Newcastle.
Despite the potential health hazard, from the time the firefighters arrived, it took five hours for an SMS notification to be sent warning residents to stay indoors. Several schools and businesses were forced to close the next day while the fire was still active in several parts of the factory.
Due to the danger posed to firefighters from the rapid spread of the fire, they were forced to focus on containment. Nearly 300 firefighters were called to the scene. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
This dangerous heat treatment plant is licensed to be located within one kilometer of the city. This demonstrates the lack of proper planning and oversight by governments and departments, including the NSW Environmental Protection Authority, and the lack of respect for the health of workers, including those employed at the plant.
Weston Aluminum was founded in 1996 to process and recycle aluminum by-products. In August 2015, it restructured its operations due to the global downturn in the aluminum industry and the closure in 2012 of the Norwegian smelter Norsk Hydro, which once had more than 900 workers and contractors.
The 2012 shutdown devastated Kurri Kurri and nearby Cessnock. Gillard’s Federal Labor government spoke a few words of sympathy for the workers, but fully supported the aluminum producers who, like Norsk Hydro, were ruthlessly restructuring the industry. The Australian Workers Union has ruled out any struggle to defend jobs and secured an orderly shutdown.
Since 2015, Weston Aluminum has expanded its operations, with state government approval of the NSW Liberal-National Coalition, despite community and government opposition recognizing that the plant poses a potential emissions risk. atmospheric.
A December 2018 approval allowed the company to burn environmentally harmful materials such as clinical waste, pathogens, pharmaceutical waste, cytotoxic substances, solvents and paints, pitch slurry residue , oily rags, documents and hard drives, quarantine waste and illicit materials, including drugs.
An assessment report by the Planning Department had admitted that “the handling and incineration of the proposed types of waste can potentially release a range of air pollutants which, if not properly managed, could result in quality. air and acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) health effects.
When an accident, breakdown or malfunction occurs at the site, the pollutants can include particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen fluoride, acid gases, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, dioxins and furans.
The plant is also licensed to process 45,000 tonnes of aluminum slag, including 8,000 tonnes of other problematic waste and 35,000 tonnes of aluminum waste each year. Weston Aluminum can operate the plant 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
At a community meeting of more than 100 people, held at the Weston Workers Club the day after the fire, residents expressed their opposition to such operations so close to homes. Loud applause erupted when a local said the factory had been built in the wrong place.
NSW Fire and Rescue Assistant Field Operations Commissioner Jeremy Fewtrell tried to reassure residents. But when asked if automated firefighting equipment was installed in the factory and what emergency equipment was in place, Fewtrell replied, “I won’t speak specifically of what was and was not. not here. I don’t have the details.
When a resident asked if the fire department would post a list of chemicals in the plant, Fewtrell said no. He said it was not the fire and rescue area.
Despite claims by the NSW government in 2018 that it had imposed ‘strict conditions’ on Weston Aluminum’s operations, firefighters entered the plant without a prepared list of the chemical fumes the blaze would produce. .
As elsewhere in the world, the for-profit government’s disregard for public safety shown to Kurri Kurri is reflected throughout the Newcastle-Hunter region. Some of the biggest companies in the world are involved. This includes multinational mining companies whose surface coal mines have produced some of Australia’s worst air qualities in the mining towns of Singleton and Muswellbrook, particularly endangering the health of miners who work till at 1:30 p.m.
Many other examples exist, such as:
* At 9 p.m. the day before the Kurri Kurri fire, firefighters and paramedics were dispatched to the ammonia nitrate facility on Kooragang Island near Orica, a transnational chemical manufacturer and explosives. A fire outside a carbon dioxide removal vessel forced the plant to close. It was not clear how workers at the site were affected. The company’s assurance that there was no problem with “off-site” contamination will do little to allay concerns.
The Orica factory is located in the Hunter River near the outskirts of Newcastle, just half a mile away. In August 2011, a major chemical leak occurred of 10 kilograms of carcinogenic hexavalent chromium, which the company covered for more than two days. The NSW government was subsequently notified of the event but withheld the information for an additional 24 hours. Residents of Stockton, the worst-hit suburb, then held an angry reunion with Orica, but the company showed its contempt for them the next day by dumping 1.2 megaliters of effluent into the river containing arsenic well beyond the authorized quantities.
The plant stores between 6,000 and 12,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, mainly for explosives in the mining industry. This compares to the 2,750 tonnes stored in the Lebanese port area of Beirut which exploded in August 2020, killing more than 200 and injuring 5,000. Tony Richards, a former blasting operations manager for Orica and BHP, told the Newcastle Herald in 2020 that if an explosion were to occur, 40,000 people would be in the explosion zone.
* Prior to the 2003 closure of the lead and zinc smelters operated by Pasminco, the world’s largest zinc producer, at Cockle Creek, near Newcastle, the plant did, along with the company’s Port Pirie plant , the subject of a class action lawsuit by residents for serious health problems caused by the company’s inability to take sufficient precautions to stop toxic emissions. When the Cockle Creek plant closed, the soil in the nearby town of Boolaroo was found to be heavily contaminated with lead, cadmium and other heavy metals. Blood tests on children have revealed high levels of lead.
These experiences of workers and residents of the Hunter region are paralleled around the world. Safe manufacturing and mining cannot be conducted under a profit system because every aspect of economic life is subordinated to the insatiable appetite for wealth accumulation of corporations and individuals. The ruthless exploitation of workers, environmental disasters and the risk of mass death are seen as the costs of doing business.