The Guardian

The Guardian March 20, 2002


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

On our side?

In the classic films of the American director Frank Capra  films like 
You Can't Take It With You, American Madness, It Happened 
One Night and State of the Union  capitalists are portrayed 
not as decent people, but as potentially decent people.

Bankers, industrialists and assorted millionaires invariably see the light, 
usually through contact with ordinary people, and become human. It's a 
fairy tale of course. It went down well during the dark days of the 
Depression, but it remains a fairy tale.

But sometimes capitalists do things that, just for a moment, make you think 
that Frank might have been right. One such event happened recently in the 
Sydney suburb of Botany.

The people of the area and green groups have been fighting a determined 
rearguard action against a company called Orica that wants to install a 
toxic waste disposal facility in the suburb.

Orica has had a plant at Botany Industrial Park for some 20 years, and in 
all that time has apparently put the matter of disposing of its toxic waste 
in the too hard basket.

Now the company is faced with the problem of disposing of its accumulated 
waste: a mere 60,000 barrels (ten thousand tonnes) of carcinogenic 
Hexachlorobenzene (HCB).

Orica decided their best option was to burn it using the GeoMelt process. 
Basically, that is to use a superheated furnace. To complete the task, the 
furnace would have to be in continuous use 24 hours a day, seven days a 
week, for five years!

Needless to say, the local residents did not welcome this proposal with the 
kind of enthusiasm that the company probably hoped for.

Supposedly just the thing for disposing of volatile chemical waste, heavy 
metals and other toxic garbage, GeoMelt's very high temperature furnace was 
touted (in a report Orica commissioned) as ultra safe and non-polluting. 
But those pesky green groups were unconvinced.

Greenpeace toxics campaigner Matt Ruchel pointed out that Orica's "bucket 
chemistry" (GeoMelt) was commercially untested and had failed in trials in 
South Australia and the US. On several occasions the plants used in the 
trials actually exploded, and apparently outbreaks of fire were common.

But the company (and presumably their friends in government) were not 
unduly worried. After all, Planning NSW, the commercially-named government 
department responsible for overseeing this sort of thing, had expressed 
itself contented with the report that Orica had commissioned, which 
basically told how the plant would run if all went well.

Greenpeace was leading the fight to stop the GeoMelt furnace, but it looked 
like too little too late, until the US transnational Kellogg's came riding 
up, as unlikely a white knight for the environment as could be imagined.

Suddenly Orica and the NSW government were confronted by an array of 
Kellogg's high-priced lawyers waving injunctions and declaring themselves 
highly dissatisfied as to the furnace's safety.

Planning NSW promptly backed away, calling for another report from Orica 
(still an internal report, however).

Meanwhile, the job that the government body should be doing is being left 
to a transnational corporation: Kellogg's are being left to wield the big 
stick on behalf of the community and the environment.

Frank Capra would have been pleased. Except that the corporation's altruism 
was not caused by the influence of Capra's "little people"  by which he 
meant "ordinary working stiffs", not Irish Leprechauns, incidentally.

Why is Kellogg's involved then? Because their factory is less than 500 
metres from the proposed toxic waste furnace.

I can just see the Kellogg's executives sitting around the Board table 
debating how they will counter a Sanitarium ad campaign "Our rice bubbles 
are not produced next to a toxic waste dump".

Visions of snide jokes about "Free cancer test kit or radio-active toy in 
every pack of Corn Flakes" would be dancing before their eyes.

Then there is the potential for lawsuits from their employees if the 
company takes no action and subsequently employees come down with cancers 
traceable to Orica's toxic waste disposal.

Frankly, Kellogg's has lots to lose and nothing to gain from the GeoMelt 
furnace going ahead.

I am sure, if Orica's plant had been elsewhere in Sydney, far enough away 
not to have any adverse effects on Kellogg's market share, the 
transnational food giant would have been a non-participant in this battle.

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