Residents of Melbourne’s west took to the streets on 25 September to protest terminal neglect and environmental contamination of working-class suburbs. The protest was organised by Victorian Socialists alongside local community groups. The demonstrators demanded an end to the industrial fires that plague the area, a crackdown on industrial waste dumping, the halting of the third Tullamarine runway project and improved infrastructure, including public transport and green space.
About 20 percent of Melbourne’s industrial-zone land is in the inner west. Corporate negligence has meant the area is rife with toxic industrial fires, dust and noise pollution. Hospitalisation rates for respiratory and heart conditions are well above the Australian average, according to a 2020 report by the Inner West Air Quality Community Reference Group. Hospitalisations for asthma are 40 percent higher in Maribyrnong and Brimbank than the country’s average.
Dutch multinational Azko Nobel has been targeted by residents, who complain of noise and air pollution from the company’s paint factory in Sunshine North. Since 2019, strong odours and high levels of noise have been coming from the factory.
Another important flashpoint has been the Barro Group’s landfill in Kealba. The site has been on fire for more than three years, spewing chemicals and a foul odour onto the surrounding houses as debris from construction sites burns underground.
It would never be allowed to happen in Toorak or Brighton.
“Residents have had to deal with the toxic smoke from it for year upon year—having to close their windows, avoid sending their kids outside. Dealing with nausea, having respiratory symptoms”, Victorian Socialists Western Metro candidate Liz Walsh said in a speech at the demonstration. “And this landfill site is run by one of the richest families in the country.”
The Barro family, which owns the landfill site, has a net worth estimated at more than $1 billion. All of it has come from exploiting workers, polluting their neighbourhoods and lungs, and digging quarries to rip construction materials from the earth. In 2005, a boilermaker was crushed to death at a quarry owned by the family. In the hearings that followed, the judge determined that his death was preventable. The Barros were fined $650,000 for failing to provide a safe system of work and adequate training. Since then, their wealth has more than doubled.
“Living with the physical and psychological impacts of the landfill fires has been devastating for the last three years”, Anna Jezierski, a community organiser, said in a press release.
“Our right to clean air has been taken away from us and the most devastating aspect is that not the EPA, not our minister for environment, not our local state MP and not Brimbank Council have acted with any sense urgency on this matter ... The community have been left to suffer with little help from any of those who should have protected us from this disaster. The west has been forgotten.”
The Environment Protection Authority has received a surge in odour reports relating to the landfill fire this year, reporting 204 in the first two weeks of September. In July and August, there were about 60 per month. Barro Group has so far missed three EPA-imposed deadlines to put out the fire. In August, the EPA refused to grant an application to extend the deadline until February 2023—but the fire burns on.
According to the notices issued by the EPA, Barro group can be fined up to $400,000. But so far, only one $8,000 fine has been issued—not even a slap on the wrist for a billionaire family.
To continue generating profits, the ruling class need to be able to rip up and pollute the earth. They have never cared about living conditions for working-class people, and this won’t change as the climate crisis worsens. They watch as the earth burns and toxic smoke fills the air, and all they see are dollar signs as they sit in their mansions on the other side of town.
“Rather than looking to the rich to solve the climate crisis, or focusing on small individual actions like using reusable cups or dietary changes, we think that, to solve the climate crisis, working-class people need to organise against the wealthy”, Walsh said.
“Victorian Socialists understand that it’s when people get organised that we’re powerful.”
Hundreds of Victorian Socialists volunteers have been staffing early voting polling booths since 14 November, building on the more than 150,000 doors knocked across the north and west of Melbourne during the state election campaign. They are bringing a new style of campaigning to the state election, and have found a constituency of voters fed up with the prevailing pro-corporate, mainstream politics.
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