I worked in Gladstone, Queensland, from 1971 to 1980 on construction projects and four or five times a year visit children and grandchildren who still live there. There have been a couple of small articles about the pollution situation in Gladstone recently, such as Lionel Elmore in Crikey last week, but nothing can adequately express the horror of the true situation.
Since the start of construction of the alumina plant in the 1960s through to the new construction project of the LNG gas plants, Gladstone has been the victim of an incredible, unregulated flood of pollution from industry. It has taken 40 years for the penny to drop with Gladstone residents that the state government has actually been lying to them systematically about the health of their environment. From the deformed birth clusters in the late ’70s to Australia’s highest levels of childhood asthma for the past 30 years, the high levels of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to the caustic blowouts taking the paint off their cars, to the diminished bone density of the local raptors (at the top of the food chain).
It is only now that they are no longer allowed to carry out their favourite leisure activity of fishing that they realise that something is terribly wrong. But it is too late.
In the late ’70s, QEGB placed a pollution-monitoring caravan at Mount Larcom to measure the atmospheric pollution from the new power station and the impact on the paw paw crop at Yarwun. They did not like the results, so the caravan was removed. The oil shale pilot plant was an absolute environmental disaster too big to ignore, so it was closed, but to reopen soon. The smelter, the two alumina plants, the power station, the cyanide plant, the limestone slurry plant, but especially the coal stockpiles blowing their poison into the community and the harbour, have all contributed to the disaster that is Gladstone.
Last year, the Director-General of Queensland Health crowed that the air quality around Gladstone was fine, but that was before the ABC news report at the end of August that whistleblowers had advised that the results, provided by a private company, were routinely falsified, or invented. You and I only have to smell the air; it is bad. The final straw, of course, is the closure of Gladstone Harbour, and 500 square kilometres of fishing grounds, due to diseased fish making fishermen and consumers very ill.
One main cause is the dredging of 6 million tonnes of spill for the new Curtis Island gas plants. Mass deaths of dolphins, dugongs and turtles have been witnessed. Professional fisherman are lobbying for a three-year closure of these grounds and compensation to be paid. The gas plants have been built on what was a pristine, sub-tropical island, where I used to go for weekends with the family, but which has now been turned into an industrial wasteland.
Gladstone has suffered from the booms and busts of unplanned development, each one conducted in a “gold rush” scenario. This current one is the worst, and with the ridiculous wages of $250,000 to $300,000 being paid for workers prepared to work a 90-hour week, there is a definite two-tier class structure evident. Again, because the Queensland government did not bother with any infrastructure planning, there are not enough houses, and people are forced to sleep in cars and tents. ULDA has started a small housing project, but too small to have any impact. Rents are $1000 a week minimum for a small house and as leases run out the landlords join the gold rush and double or triple the rent.
This has resulted in many local people being forced to leave the town, so off go the retail staff, the hotel staff and the council workers and public servants because they cannot afford to live there. Estimates range from 1000 to 2000 leavers in the past 12 months of this modern-day diaspora. The situation has become so critical that the LNG company offers people who don’t work for it, but fulfil residential and income requirements, a rental subsidy to encourage them to stay; this must be a first for Australia.
With the 2000 single men’s “dongas” on the outskirts of town and high wages, there is a drug and alcohol culture that has to be seen to be believed. They can afford the good stuff and of course that means increasing levels of street and community violence. Speed is the drug of choice because it clears the blood stream very quickly and can’t be detected. Thirty extra police have been brought in to deal with this, but many young police are taking the opportunity to work for the mines and the big money and are leaving the force.
Public servants cannot afford the rent and positions are remaining unfilled. This is especially worrying with a lack of social workers to fill child safety and domestic violence roles. Because of worker fatigue and drugs/alcohol, a bad combination, domestic violence and child abuse are very high. It is always the women and kids who suffer from the effects of high wages and no sleep.
The AMWU carries a notice on its front window about the discussions taking place with Bechtel, the American-owned gas plant constructing authority, regarding fatigue management. But it is a vain hope; the unions lost this one years ago, rolled by their own members. The mining companies don’t actually care if their workers die, I know, I worked for them in the Hunter Valley for a few years. Bechtel is the same company that, at the Boyne Island Smelter, got the workers to throw the union out in a famous vote that took place on a public holiday and in which non-union staff were the main voters.
I urge the sociologists, historians and town planners to look at the recent history of Gladstone, with a view to never repeating the mistakes made there. Sadly, for Gladstone, it is too late.