Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Doctor slams Alcoa expansion

Article from: PerthNow

John Flint

A LEADING doctor has savaged the State Government's decision to approve Alcoa's massive expansion at Wagerup.

Andrew Harper yesterday said the move was ``outrageously irresponsible''.

Dr Harper, an occupational physician and medical practitioner with extensive expertise in chemical injury, was a member of the Government-appointed Wagerup Medical Practioners' Forum, which investigated chronic illnesses suffered by people living near the alumina refinery, 120km south of Perth.

The forum, chaired by the highly respected D'Arcy Holman, strongly advised against the expansion.

The Government recognised Dr Harper's expertise when it appointed him to investigate the Agent Orange saga involving government workers in the Kimberley.

Dr Harper said the health-risk assessment for the Wagerup expansion was fundamentally flawed, and ensuring that individual compounds -- from a mix of 260 contained in the chemical plume -- did not exceed accepted levels was no guarantee that more people would not get sick in future.

``All this talk about stringent conditions is crazy,'' he said.

``We have learnt in the experience of

Wagerup that all the health problems which have arisen from 1996, both on the worksite and in the community, have occurred when the emission levels have been within normal limits.

``We are measuring single chemicals independent of each other. It's clear that it is the mixture and probably the multiplicity that produces the toxicity.

``The monitoring does not protect people or identify the problem. These so-called stringent standards are misleading and they are ineffective, as proven already.''

Announcing the expansion approval on Thursday, Premier Alan Carpenter said: ``There is no way that this Government would have considered the expansion of this project if we had advice or we believed that people's health was being put at risk.''

But the Government did receive such advice from the Wagerup Medical Practitioners' Forum -- which it established and whose advice it had followed before.

``The forum said there was no basis whatsoever to reassure people that expansion would be safe -- and that was from an independent bunch of doctors experienced in the whole area,'' Dr Harper said.

He said he was appalled that the Government was selling the expansion -- which includes an offer for locals to have their homes bought out by Alcoa -- as a wonderful thing.

``My opinion is that the Government is working as an agent for Alcoa and not the community . . .
Alcoa have spent millions on improving the engineering and yet there are people who are 8km from this place who are very ill and have got ill since these improvements.''

In its advice, the Environmental Protection Authority said the Government would have to recognise ``policy and ethical questions as to whether expansion of the refinery should be considered while there continues to be unresolved health issues related to chemical sensitivities''.

The Health Department also acknowledged that people had become sick, despite there being no breach of emissions guidelines.

``The short-term plume strikes are recognisable by the public because they are often associated with a (wet cement) odour and have been linked to times when the prevailing wind is from the direction of the refinery . . . no health guidelines are available to assess the impact of these short-term plume strikes,'' the department submitted.

Environment Minister Mark McGowan did not consult the Government's new Environmental Health Foundation before making his decision on the

Wagerup expansion, despite the fact that it was set up to provide independent scientific advice to the Government on the potential impact of industrial emissions on environmental health.

The foundation, established by Mr McGowan's predecessor Judy Edwards and chaired by Charles Watson, of Curtin University, was set up as a direct result of the Wagerup issue.

Alcoa said it was committed to implementing the expansion with no increase in noise, dust or odour impacts.

``Extensive scientific investigations have shown both the existing and expanded refinery are safe for our employees and neighbouring communities,'' managing director Wayne Osborn said.

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