How greenie grannies did Port Kembla proud

Helen Hamilton at the NSW Land and Environment Court.

Helen Hamilton at the NSW Land and Environment Court.

In a small conference room on the edge of Port Kembla harbour a little over a week ago, a dedicated few dozen citizens looked back on their achievements since forming the first Port Kembla Pollution Meeting 30 years ago.

Powerhouse: Helen Hamilton and Olive Rodwell on Reservoir St shortly before the copper smelter stack came down. Picture: Adam McLean

Powerhouse: Helen Hamilton and Olive Rodwell on Reservoir St shortly before the copper smelter stack came down. Picture: Adam McLean

Residents, council, the EPA, and industry would get together and discuss the growing concerns over the “fallout” from heavy industry at Port.

They didn’t know it at the time, but grandmothers Olive Rodwell and Helen Hamilton, driven by the effects of pollution on their families, were setting off on a path to buck the system. 

Ms Rodwell’s speech, read by her daughter, started with the meeting’s formation, sparked by inadequate responses to residents’ complaints about toxic emissions.

“The number of attendances have shown the levels of frustration in the community,” it said.

“When the pollution was at its worst, over 250 residents came to voice their disapproval to authorities and governments.

“Now, the meeting is (to use an industrial term) in care and maintenance.”

Over the three decades, concerns about the health effects of pollution have become mainstream, rather than fringe, concerns.

The issue of climate change has brought more scrutiny of pollution. And as heavy industry has declined in size, the argument that it should get special treatment on environmental matters has lost some of its power.

All of this makes the pioneering efforts of the “green grannies” – and grandfathers, fathers, daughters, sons and mums – stand out. They did the hard yards standing up for the community when it was much easy to do so.

“It is amazing what dedicated people can do,” Ms Rodwell said.

“The meeting has evolved into a strong advocate for best industrial practice by becoming proactive in the development stage of new industrial developments.

“We study all the development applications that might have a pollution impact and put in submissions to the approving authorities.”

There have been critics. Some, from the premier down, slung insults like “anti-development”, ratbags trying to bring the industry down, or “rent a crowd”.

All of which was way off the mark. These people were Port Kembla born and bred; they had grown up with industry all around. Many of their families made their income from manufacturing.

And the passage of time has shown many of these citizen activists’ concerns were well-founded. The re-opened copper smelter, for instance, was a disaster.

The pollution meeting has become a grandparent itself – spawning numerous other community interest groups.

Not all their battles have been victories. The copper smelter was re-opened after the Carr Government passed midnight legislation to head off Ms Hamilton’s court challenge. Opposition to the port’s privatisation did not win the day.

But the group has succeeded in giving a legitimate voice to a level of concern the Port Kembla community sometimes had difficulty expressing. And this what they tried to do from the start.

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