GALLERY: How these women cleaned up Port Kembla

For most of its 49-year life, the mighty copper smelter stack reigned unchallenged as the dominant landmark in Port Kembla.

Looming 200 metres above the industrial edge of Military Road, visible from as far as the Illawarra stretches, it sent a powerful message of what Port Kembla was about, where the money came from, and who stood where in the pecking order.

But when some residents did take it on, campaigning against the smelter’s reopening in the late 1990s, it was two unassuming ladies who led the push.

In the 1980s, before they became sceptical environmental activists, Helen Hamilton and Olive Rodwell were like any other locals. They worked hard – Olive as a teacher, Helen at Metal Manufactures – voted Labor (‘‘it was stamped on our foreheads’’), raised families and put up with pollution as a fact of life.

'The teacher came running in and said ‘quick, everybody out, come and get the kids inside’ – they were collapsing in the playground.'

Olive says she learnt to check the wind direction before hanging out the washing, so clothes would not be ruined. She learnt not to sleep with an open window, not even on hot summer nights.

‘‘If you did and they released the fumes, you’d wake up coughing and spluttering,’’ she said.

‘‘It was horrific. Back then though, you didn’t think anything of it. It was just the way things were.’’

The stack, and its produce, was part of every day.

Olive remembers a turning point came one day when she was teaching at Kemblawarra.

‘‘The teacher on duty came running in and said ‘quick, everybody out, come and get the kids inside’ – because they were collapsing in the playground.’’

The fumes were too much. They hauled the students inside.

‘‘They recovered,’’ Olive said. ‘‘We didn’t call any ambulance or anything back then.’’

She started going to Port Kembla pollution meetings, and Helen was there as well.

Helen had gone along after noticing her granddaughter’s head had been burnt by ‘‘brown-spotting’’ – fallout from the stack – while playing in the garden one day. Enough was enough.

The smelter was closed down in 1995 after an ultimatum from environmental authorities but by 1997, it was due to reopen, with emission-reducing technology and promises of best-practice environmental controls. But its pollution licence also allowed emissions limits to be breached up to 36 times a year.

Residents, saying they had not been properly consulted, challenged the development approval in court.

While inspecting plans at the Planning Department, Helen met a ‘‘man in a suit’’ called Michael Sergent, a community-minded lawyer who would be one of the driving forces behind the group IRATE (Illawarra Residents Against Toxic Emissions).

IRATE grew larger and more organised, with students from the University of Wollongong joining the campaign and major media interest. 

Helen became the plaintiff in the court case because she had a ‘‘bomb car’’ and no house to lose. But a shock was coming.

The night before Helen’s case started in the Land and Environment Court, the Carr government passed special legislation to gazump her.

The Port Kembla Development (Special Provisions) Bill was simple and blunt. The development consent would be ‘‘valid to the extent of any invalidity’’, and despite any cases in court.

Helen found out on the way to court the next morning.

‘‘You were white,’’ said Olive on Friday, remembering Helen entering the court.

‘‘She’s just got the word. We knew something was up.

‘‘I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach.’’

Helen would describe it as ‘‘the day democracy died’’. She thought governments were meant to act in the interests of the citizens.

In fact, governments had done this before and they would do it again, in NSW and elsewhere.

But Helen was not finished. She would mount a Freedom of Information claim for documents relating to the smelter’s approval, its health and environmental effects. 

Much of her claim was denied but she appealed in court and won, the case becoming a landmark in the release of government information.

Her path as an environmental activist opened up and a spotlight had been turned on pollution in Steel City.

Helen won awards, she would be described as ‘‘Australia’s Erin Brockovich’’, the ‘‘poster girl of the environment movement’’ and so on. 

She was invited to universities to give talks on advocacy – ‘‘so I got my dictionary out and found out what ‘advocacy’ was.’’

For Helen, when the time came to stand up, she had her own life to change too.

She had survived abusive relationships, keeping her head down out of fear.

‘‘I was getting belted up in my relationships because I didn’t stand up for myself,’’ she said.

‘‘Then I was thrown in the deep end because I didn’t have a house that I could lose.

‘‘I learnt to tread water, I learnt to stay down at the bottom sometimes, and I’d swim at other times.

‘‘It was my meditation and faith that got me through it all.’’

When the smelter reopened in 2000, the controversy had been so great that the company and the government could not afford for anything to go wrong.

But several attempted reopenings brought a series of explosions, gas clouds and failures to adhere to the pollution licence. After numerous fines, the investors shut the plant down in 2003.

By this time next week, the stack will have been felled.

Olive’s street will be devoid of its major visual feature. But rather than popping champagne, Olive has campaigned to preserve it – for history or use as a tourist attraction.

‘‘It’s not the chimney that’s at fault; it’s the governments that are at fault,’’ Olive said.

‘‘Don’t hold it against the chimney. It’s a wonderful structure.

‘‘Rather than bring it down because it’s very dangerous to bring it down, why not leave it there for other purposes and fix it up?’’

Opinions in Port Kembla are mixed about whether the stack should go.

Some see it as a proud statement of the region’s history, others see a reminder of toxic pollution inadequately policed.

For many, it’s simply a 200-metre statement of Port Kembla’s identity, a monument to the industrial history that brought many of the suburb’s families there. 

There are some who trust it is being done with due care, and others who are not so sure it will be safe nearby. Helen and Olive have fought to ensure it will come down safely.

Port people pride themselves on being realists. And with the steel industry shrinking and the smelter closed, the demolition of the stack will be a significant milestone.

While they may miss the familiarity of the structure and its dominance of the landscape, no-one will miss the emissions.

Helen and Olive are still deciding what they will do on the day. Olive will likely close the windows and wait for the rumble.

Helen, who’s not so sad about it coming down, wants to keep an eye on her house, which is right on the edge of the exclusion zone.

‘‘I don’t really mind,’’ she said. ‘‘But if it’s got to come down, it’s got to come down safely.’’

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