Fawkner residents campaign against toxic site

[By Sue Bolton] Fawkner residents have formed Toxic Free Fawkner, to oppose development on the old Nufarm factory site at 102 McBryde St Fawkner and call for an independent environmental audit of the site and the surrounding sites. The group’s first public meeting showed the community concern with 95 people packing out the Fawkner Senior Citizens Centre on May 11 to hear speakers about the toxic Nufarm chemicals site at 100 and 102 McBryde St Fawkner and the development application for 102 McBryde St.

Nufarm used to manufacture DDT, arsenic and Agent Orange on the site between 1957-74. Local residents campaigned for 16 years to get the factory closed down, and then campaigned for 16 years to convince the Environment Protection Agency that the site was dangerous and needed to be cleaned up.

There was a good mix of new residents and older residents at the public meeting. The older residents know the history of the site and don’t want any development on this heavily toxic site. Some of these residents had close family members who died of cancer as many of the local children played in the creek where the factory pumped the contaminated waste liquid.

Harry van Moorst from the Western Region Environment Centre, based in Werribee, explained the health issues that result from exposure to dioxins, the most toxic by-product of Agent Orange. He said that the 1990s clean-up was carried out to 1990s standards, not 2017 standards and that clay caps for covering contaminated sites in the early 1990s were not as good as they are today.

Van Moorst said that the level of compaction on the clean fill used on the site was a temporary measure by contemporary standards and that the depth and extent of the excavation of contaminated soil is concerning. The standard of the clean fill used is unknown.

Van Moorst recommended that (1) A comprehensive assessment of contamination of the site be conducted but he said that this would be expensive and we would need to find an authority that was prepared to pay for the assessment; (2) Community needs to be involved in the scope of and assessment and clean-up; and, (3) the EPA needs to engage with and consult the community, take a prevention focus and apply principles of environmental and restorative justice

Percy Pillai, health and safety officer for the Australian Workers Union is helping workers who sprayed Agent Orange for the old Lands Department. The workers experienced immediate health issues as well as long term health effects. There were no standards in place around exposure to these chemicals until 2002. Pillai said that current agricultural guidance is that after spraying Agent Orange, potatoes should not be grown for 25 years.

Local resident Brian Snowden, described the contaminated site as a “weeping sore” which needs to be fixed. Snowden’s mother, Elsie Snowden, led the fight to get the Nufarm factory closed down, and then the fight to get the site cleaned up. Snowden said that most workers from the Nufarm site died of cancers and18 nearby households were effected by cancer deaths because of Nufarm’s operations. He also explained that illegal building work had occurred on both sites.

Moreland councillor Sue Bolton told the meeting that toxic sites are not well managed in Victoria. “We should be concerned about the ways the authorities handle toxic site issues, especially as the residents were ignored by the authorities for so long.”

After poisoning the community in Fawkner, Nufarm moved to Laverton and poisoned another community. The EPA ignored residents’ calls for the abandoned Nufarm factory site to be cleaned up for 16 years. It was only after the discovery of a cancer cluster in the nearby streets and across Merri Creek at Lakeside Secondary College in Reservoir that the EPA was forced to act.

The other factor which forced the EPA’s hand was when Greenpeace carried out an action at Nufarm’s Laverton site and got evidence that Nufarm was pumping waste contaminated with dioxins directly into the sewerage system.

The developer wants to build two warehouses on the site. Bolton has read the developer’s environmental report. It indicates that 16 screwpiles will be used to secure the warehouses with some of them penetrating the clay cap. In addition, the proposed connections to the sewer will require digging down two metres to access the sewerage pipes. The clay cap is only a maximum of one metre thick, with it only being 0.3 metre or 0.5 metre think in some places. The developer’s environmental report is only a desktop report. No testing has been done.

Bolton also queried the EPA’s assessment that the site is suitable for light industrial. “If it isn’t safe for people to live on top of it, how is it safe for workers to work eight hours a day on it”.

Bolton has already managed to get a motion passed through council calling on the EPA to do an independent environmental audit of the site and the surrounding sites. Despite some councillors opposing the motion, it did pass.

“It’s too risky to develop on this site”, she said.

The day after the public meeting, the site was put on the market, without any mention of the contamination.

Toxic Free Fawkner has launched a petition, calling for a full and independent environmental audit of the site and the surrounding sites: https://www.megaphone.org.au/petitions/toxic-free-fawkner

Toxic Free Fawkner’s next action will be to take our message to Council – Wednesday 14 June 6.30pm @ Coburg Council Chambers, (rear entrance in Urquhart St). Join Toxic Free Fawkner residents and supporters to raise your concerns about cleaning up this toxic site.