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Thursday, 11 October 1973
Page: 1937

Mr MORRIS (Shortland) - The subject I wish to bring to the notice of the House in this grievance debate is air pollution control. It is coincidental that today's 'Sydney Morning Herald' carried a heading on page 11: Air pollution in major New South Wales cities too high'. That heading arose out of the tabling in the New South Wales Parliament yesterday of the 1972-73 report of the Air Pollution Advisory Committee by the Minister for Health, the Honourable H. Jago. The report states that the major cities of New South Wales had average air pollution levels exceeding those already offered by the World Health Organisation as long term goals.

In a time of doomsday prophets it has become customary to expect a continuous deterioration in the quality of our environment. Consequently when one is able to report that there is somewhere at least where a few certain aspects of the environment have improved there are many cynics who would comment that such a thing is unlikely, if not impossible. One famous example of such an improvement is the air of London and the quality of the water in the River Thames. Another example is the air of the city of Pittsburgh, United States of America. One example in Australia is the air of my own home city of Newcastle. I would like to relate briefly what has been achieved there. It is all the more impressive because it has been a local operation originated by the people of Newcastle and its Council with the support of local industry and with only minimal help from the governments of New South Wales and Australia. At the same time, I emphasise that there is much to be done and that more money must flow from the Australian Government to enable the situation to improve further in Newcastle and to help to arrest the alarming decline in the quality of air in our major cities.

One section of the new 14 point environment platform of the Australian Labor Party, which was approved at its 1973 Federal Conference at Surfers Paradise, is 'regulate toxic or indestructible materials by the development of standards for ambient air quality, water quality, ocean release of materials and the land disposal of solid and liquid waste and by the development of integrated programs at all levels of government under the leadership of the Australian Government'. The platform item identifies the importance of the development of an adequate monitoring system for air quality in Australia. I will return to that subject in a moment.

Meanwhile, what is Newcastle's record? Newcastle in 1947 when our air pollution monitoring began under the supervision of the Smoke Abatement Panel of Newcastle City Council was a dirty and grimy city. Many people from other parts of Australia think that it still is. It is a reputation that Newcastle does not now deserve. I am informed that Newcastle is now the cleanest industrial city in the world. In 1947 the monthly average dust deposit was 94 tons per square mile. By 1972 it was down to 12.15 tons per square mile. The smoke haze in 1957 at City Hall was 2.6 haze units per 1,000 linear feet. In 1971 the figure had dropped to 0.9 haze units per 1,000 linear feet. These are just a few figures on the subject but behind them is a story of dedication and co-operation on restricted and tight budgets.

The story commenced 26 years ago when Newcastle City Council decided to establish its pioneer Smoke Abatement Advisory Panel and invited experts to join in its deliberations. This action was many years ahead of that proposed by any other city in Australia. In fact, the work carried out by Newcastle City Council has been detailed in its publication 'Air Pollution Monitoring, Newcastle 1951-1971' which has become a most useful reference work on air pollution control.

At this stage I pay tribute to the dedication of the staff and officers of the Newcastle City Council who have been associated with the activities of its Health Division in the long struggle to improve the quality of air in Newcastle. In many ways, the story of the improvement of air pollution control in Newcastle symbolises many of our real environmental problems. Progress will be made only by hard work and by the use of good technology. Progress in overcoming such problems will not be glamorous. The manifestation of environmental problems might grab the headlines whereas the slow work to rectify them seldom gains attention.

Having shown the improvement in air quality that has taken place in the past 26 years in Newcastle, I turn now to one of the few major sources of visual pollution remaining on the Newcastle scene. I refer to the ferro alloy plant operated by Broken Hill Pty Co. Ltd at Port Waratah. Whilst I commend the company on its activities in regard to antipollution control measures taken in respect of other plant, the history of the operation of the ferro alloy plant and the latitude extended by the New South Wales Minister for Health, Mr Jago, to that company through the Clean Air Branch must cause concern. This plant, constructed in 1941, emits thousands of tons of fine metallic dust into the air over Newcastle every year and has the permission of the New South Wales Department of Health to do so. Repeatedly the company has been granted a 'temporary' exemption from the provisions of the Clean Air Act 1961. Without those exemptions it would face prosecution and possible daily fines for each day that it continues to operate the plant.

Having in mind that the New South Wales Clean Air Act came into operation 12 years ago and that polluting industries were given a 5-year period in which to comply with its provisions, since 1969 the Newcastle City Council has sought definitive action from the BHP Co. and the New South Wales Department of Health to control the emissions of the plant. Following further requests from the Council through 1971 and 1972, in the course of which the technological difficulties faced by the company in obtaining suitable air pollution control equipment were pointed out, advice was received from the company in July 1972 that it had been granted an extension of time until 30 September 1972 to submit firm plans to the Minister to fit fume collection equipment to the ferro alloy plant to control the emissions.

However, a further exemption was granted and, by letter of 24 July 1973, the then acting Minister for Environmental Control in New South Wales, Mr Lewis, advised that he had been informed by the Minister for Health, Mr Jago, that the company had informed the Health Commission that it would not install air pollution control equipment on the obsolete plant and that, if required to do so, it would close the ferro alloy plant. He went on to point out the technical difficulties associated with conversion of the existing plant and stated that the company would be allowed to continue to operate the plant until June 1974. On receipt of this advice, the Council resolved on 7 August 1973 to inform the Minister for Health: . . that the report be received and the Minister for Health be advised that the Council strongly disapproves of his allowing the plant to continue to pollute without control until June 1974, having regard to the time which has elapsed since the promulgation of the Clean Air Act in 1961.

The Minister has ignored Council's requests and has virtually given BHP unlimited permission to continue use of the present polluting ferro alloy plant.

Whilst I appreciate that there have been difficult technical problems in designing effective emission control equipment and that BHP has expended large sums in installation of other anti-pollution equipment at its Newcastle plant generally, the continued operation of the ferro alloy plant is a major source of visual pollution in Newcastle. Proper control of its emissions would result in a further dramatic improvement in the air quality of the city. I believe that the installation of control equipment is a matter of urgency for the sake of the citizens of Newcastle and that Mr Jago should take a much more vigorous line with the company. The longer the installation is delayed, the greater the savings in private cost to the company but the greater the social cost to the people of the area in terms of poorer visibility and air pollution and possible illness. After all, 32 years of operation for any plant is a long time. The company ought not to be adopting the attitude that 'if we do not get further exemptions we will close the plant down and about 70 men will be displaced'. Surely the City of Newcastle has waited and suffered long enough?

Having referred to the problems associated with the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. ferro alloy plant and the additional improvements that would follow effective control of its emissions, I emphasise again the progress which has been made in the reduction of air pollution in Newcastle since 1947. It is one of the cleanest heavy industry centres in the world and is certainly much cleaner than comparable centres in Australia. It does not deserve the reputation of being a dirty, smoke-affected city. I challenge any such criticism.

Elsewhere in Australia other problems of air pollution continue to exist. Despite a regulation in some States which allows only the use of industrial fuel oils containing a maximum of 1 per cent sulphur, air borne sulphur dioxide and sulphur trioxide still represent a potential danger to people. If they continue to increase, they might cause many respiratory diseases. My attention was drawn to a Press report this week which detailed the imposition of a $1,000 fine on a Geelong company for the emission of a high quantity of sulphur dioxide on a day on which there was a temperature inversion layer over the area and which resulted in 14 children and 3 adults being affected.

We solve some problems, but other related problems remain or even get worse. That is the message of most of our environmental problems. We need to be vigilant and to think in a total planning framework if we are to deal with such complex and interconnected problems. Above all, we must recognise the very limits of the natural systems, the air sheds and water sheds which we are using to our advantage. We must plan and locate our industries recognising these limits. This will require a great deal of basic research and good monitoring. If we do not, we will lose all.

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