Sunday, May 16, 2010

Toxic fire exposes working class community

A near-disaster involving toxic waste in the southern Perth suburb of Hamilton Hill has revealed that working class neighbourhoods are exposed to potential carcinogens local resident and Socialist Alliance candidate Sanna Andrew said.

The Fremantle Steam Laundry in Hamilton Hill burst into flames in the early hours of May 13. Fire fighters ordered some nearby residents to evacuate because the factory had a stockpile of the dry cleaning chemical perchloroethylene (PCE).

A Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) spokesperson was quoted in the May 13 on-line edition of the West Australian as saying that there was a concern about stocks of “berchloroethylene” at the factory. People living in a 1km radius were advised to close doors and windows and turn off evaporative air conditioners.

“Unfortunately it is all too common in WA that toxic chemicals are piled up in working class areas”, Andrew told Green Left Weekly.

“DEC said that one of the chemicals is berchloroethylene”, Andrew said. “They — or the West Australian — couldn’t even spell the name correctly; it is really perchloroethylene, which is terribly dangerous.”

DEC understated the danger, she said. “DEC said that the chemical doesn’t burn, which is true. But when it gets hot it breaks down into other products which the DEC said are hazardous when breathed in.”

“That is the greatest understatement of all time! Heated PCE breaks down into phosgene, one of the poison gases used in World War I. When it isn’t heated to a deadly gas it is one of the worst carcinogens around.”

Hours after the DEC statement the Fire and Emergency Services issued an all-clear, saying that the PCE stacks had been isolated from the fire.

This isn’t the first time that Perth residents have faced a PCE emergency, Andrew said. “In 2001 about a half a million litres of this stuff and worse went up in a massive disaster in Bellevue, a working class area in Perth’s eastern suburbs.”

“There was a Parliamentary inquiry into that, which studiously avoided talking to any of the workers employed at that site, so the full story never got heard.”

Since the Bellevue inquiry the situation has not improved, Andrew believes.

“The government has avoided facing up to dealing with these chemicals. There is no dump for them, there is no legal disposal in WA, nobody knows how much is piled up in the back of suburban dry cleaning shops or stored in factories like this one.

“You never hear of stockpiles of these chemicals in Peppermint Grove or Cottesloe, but it is relatively common in working class suburbs. They are only ever found after a disaster happens. We need a royal commission into toxic wastes in WA and if the government won’t agree, then we need the trade unions to take up the issue.”

PHOTO: Sanna Andrew at the May Day March

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly #837.]