[By Sue Bolton] On May 11 local residents packed the Fawkner Senior Citizens Centre to hear speakers and oppose development on a toxic site in Fawkner in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. The next day the owner listed the site for sale with a real estate agent without any mention of the contamination. In Victoria, there is no legal requirement for the sellers of contaminated land to indicate that a site is contaminated.
Several of the older residents who attended the public meeting have family members who died of cancer that they suspect is linked to the operation of chemical company Nufarm on this site from 1957 to 1974. A cancer cluster was discovered in Fawkner and on the other side of Merri Creek at the Lakeside Secondary College.
Toxic chemical cocktail
Nufarm manufactured DDT, arsenic, 24-D and 245-T, as well as Agent Orange, the pesticide that has destroyed the lives of generations of Vietnamese people after it was sprayed by the US army during the Vietnam War. When 24-D and 245-T are mixed together they form Agent Orange. A by-product of the process is dioxin, which is the most toxic element of Agent Orange.
The site was heavily contaminated with dioxins until it received a partial clean-up in the early 1990s.
Harry van Moorst from The Western Region Environment Center explained to the public meeting that dioxins are particularly dangerous: “They are carcinogenic. They create tumors. They possibly cause genetic mutation. They are also seen as possible teratogens, causing malformation of the embryo and they have massive effect on immune systems, central nervous systems and diabetes.”
“Dioxins are one of those things that really affect your system as a whole. As a result it makes you vulnerable to a whole lot of other diseases and illnesses that aren’t necessarily attributed to dioxin but are attributable to the impact they’ve had on your immune system and nervous system. It makes you extremely vulnerable.”
He said that there are a number of “legacy sites” as a result of past contamination that need to be dealt with. One of those is the Nufarm site at Fawkner.
Van Moorst said that in the early 1990’s clean-up of the Nufarm site, only part of the site was excavated and the company only tested to a certain depth, usually about half a meter. He said it is not clear that all of the areas that should have been tested were tested: “If you don’t test [the soil] you won’t find [the contamination] so you can say it’s not there.”
The other problem is that only certain spots were tested, leaving a lot of areas that could be contaminated. Because the site was only excavated down half a meter to a meter there could be toxins under the first meter of soil that was not excavated.
Van Moorst said the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) will not allow the building of big structures on top of a capped landfill site. They will not allow the construction of factories, warehouses or any other large weighty type of structures because they could damage the cap and the other infra structure that is usually underneath the site.
Nufarm want to build two warehouses on the site. The foundations for the warehouses would penetrate the clay cap.
Van Moorst explained that the 1995 environmental audit after the clean-up was based on the earlier assessment by a company employed by Nufarm. The auditor is legally bound under EPA rules to be independent. But the problem is that the auditor is dependent on the report that came from the consultant employed by the company.
The auditors do not normally go in there and do their own testing. They rely on the testing done by the consultant, otherwise they would be there for a year doing testing.
Given this information, residents are rightly suspicious that the site is still toxic. Residents are also aware that illegal building work that penetrated the clay cap in 2013 caused the workers to get headaches and become dizzy.
Local resident Brian Snowden described the site as “a weeping sore” that “needs to be fixed”. Snowden’s mother, Elsie Snowden led the fight to close the factory. When the factory was in operation, there was a stench over the suburb and people couldn’t grow plants in their gardens.
Once the factory was closed, residents fought for another 16 years to get the EPA to take their concerns seriously and order a clean-up.
Brian Snowden explained that the factory had contaminated liquid waste flowing in open drains into Merri Creek and into the sewerage system so the surrounding sites would have been contaminated as well. The surrounding sites have never been tested for contamination.
We need to know how contaminated the site currently is. There needs to be a comprehensive assessment.
In these cases, van Moorst said, the question becomes who is going to pay to do the comprehensive testing, because it is a relatively expensive process, particularly on a site that is as big and old as this one. It would probably cost several million dollars, although this is a small amount given the amount of money Nufarm made out of the factory.
Van Moorst said it would be difficult to get the money out of Nufarm because they sold the site so long ago. Will the EPA, the state government or the council pay?
Van Moorst explained that another problem is that there are not many independent auditors or companies in Australia because it is a very small industry here. In contrast, in the US there are a lot of people working in the industry who are genuinely independent, as well as significant community-based researchers who can do these sorts of studies.
A recent inquiry found the EPA’s role is partly to promote environmental justice. This is important for members of communities such as this one who lived next to this factory while it was operating and then next to an abandoned contaminated site.
A number of people are talking about restorative justice for communities like Fawkner. For example, where a community has had to put up with this kind of contamination they should be compensated.
Van Moorst’s message to the Fawkner community was “We have to rely on people power. We can’t rely on governments. We can’t rely on the EPA. We have to work with them but relying on them, trusting them and sitting back is just not going to cut it. People power is the only way to make sure the community benefits from whatever happens, rather than someone making a lot of money.”
He added that “the community has the right to demand that unless there is absolutely no risk, development shouldn’t proceed on the site. Why do we keep building on risk? This [contamination] is cumulative. We don’t know half the risks of it.”
“Restorative justice could also include giving the community the right to decide what happens to this block of land rather than somebody else. The community has had to put up with it and all its consequences,” van Moorst said.
“One of the compromises may well be that this land be turned into public open space or something for the community if it can be rehabilitated further. There may be something the whole community can benefit from other than whoever wants to build a warehouse there.
“The choice should be the community’s not the developer’s. But it’s going to be up to you to fight for that.”
Fawkner residents have formed a community group, Toxic Free Fawkner, to campaign against development and for a permanent solution for the toxic site. It is important that a final resolution is found now, while the older generation who know the history of the site are still with us.
[Toxic Free Fawkner has launched a petition, calling for a full and independent environmental audit of the site and the surrounding sites. For more information go to Toxic Free Fawkner’s Facebook page.]