The deadly consequences of private neglect

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Worked to death. Nearly a decade ago, I spent several hours with the partner of a workmate who had been killed on the job. I was a union delegate, and had organised a collection to pay for the funeral costs. The entire place was in shock and full of grief and disbelief. Our colleague and friend had left home one morning and would never return. This tragedy is repeated hundreds of times a year, an ongoing death toll which corporations and government treat as an acceptable by-product of business operations.

This article is about the Victorian Gas Crisis and the decay of urban infrastructure. But it’s important to recognise that two working people died, and eight others were horribly injured in an industrial catastrophe. Most of us suffered two weeks of inconvenience during the crisis. But the families, friends and workmates of the dead and injured will live with the consequences of the disaster for many years to come.

The end of a cosy relationship. In the mid 1960s huge reservoirs of crude oil and natural gas were discovered beneath Bass Strait. In 1969 Esso – a subsidiary of the giant multinational, Exxon Corporation – began operating the Longford refinery. The state government, eager to gain political advantage, signed generous contracts for the supply of refined natural gas. On the one hand, Esso’s monopoly was guaranteed for decades. On the other hand, gas was supplied to the state-owned Gas and Fuel Corporation at a huge discount.

The relationship between successive state governments grew so close that, until the recent disruptions, many Victorians did not know that the gas was supplied by a private operator. It seems that scrutiny of Esso’s operations was cursory at best. Safety incidents, some minor, others serious, tended to the shrugged off.

In 1993, the Thatcherite state government of Jeff Kennett handed safety management over to employers and broke up the Gas and Fuel Corporation into three distribution companies and a “network operator” Gascor, responsible for the overall supply of gas to 99% of the population. The kid glove approach to Longford became a hands-off approach. So lax had the supervision become that, days after the fatal explosion, the company was granted a backdated license. For weeks, it had been operating illegally! As Ian Clewley, an organiser with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union asserted, the plant was a disaster waiting to happen.

The relationship has come unstuck. The Kennett government has convened a Royal Commission into Esso’s Longford disaster. The point of Royal Commissions is to distance the government from blame. In this case, it means hanging Esso out to dry. Evidence given to the commission so far reveals a negligent disregard for safety and shoddy management at Longford. What is missing, of course, is an examination of the government’s role in the catastrophe.

Early warning. In July last year, Victorians had a sharp introduction to the state of the gas supply. For two days, many industries were forced to shut down, because a 10-metre-long ice plug had formed in one of the pipes connecting the Longford plant to the Bass Strait drilling platforms. The pipes contain a mixture of gases, water and crude oil, and ice formation is a known hazard. The fact that such a huge and persistent plug had formed without detection pointed directly to a lack of maintenance. Despite the disruption costing industry over $50 million, the company was allowed to conduct its own investigation. Evidence given at the Royal Commission confirms that the July incident was part of a chain of events which led to the September explosion. Maintenance at Longford was almost non-existent.

Inferno. Shortly before 12.30 pm on 25 September, plant supervisor Peter Wilson was attempting to stop a hydrocarbon leak in a heat exchanger at the No. 1 gas plant. With him were John Lowery, Shane Vandersteen and Andrew Knight, all maintenance fitters.

The plant, together with two other gas distilleries, was operating at full capacity. This was even though what is called a “low temperature incident” had been going on since early in the morning. Normal operating temperature is around 280 C, but ice had formed on the pipes and equipment around gas plant 1. The plant was operating at minus 55 C, well below the minimum temperature for which it was designed, and had been leaking since around 8.00 am. It should have been closed down and, in fact, Wilson had ordered this at 10.30. But Esso obviously wanted to avoid the political damage it suffered in July. Somebody apparently overruled Wilson, and the evidence points to Esso operations manager, Peter Coleman. Coleman spoke with Wilson at 12.08, and it was after this conversation that the four men were making their futile attempt at repair.

At 12.27, after looking at the leak, Vandersteen grabbed Knight and told Lowery: “Fuck this, I’m out of here.” The two men fled the area, seconds before the plant began to disintegrate. Another heat exchanger cracked open, drenching the area with gas concentrate. Seconds later, the cloud ignited and flashed over a vast area, rocking the complex to its foundations. Lowery and Wilson were killed instantly, and eight others were badly injured.

Meanwhile, Vandersteen had gone to get his firefighting gear. There were no gloves or boots, and he was forced to try on several firefighting suits before he found one that fitted. The single fire warden was too busy to issue orders via the radio, but that would have been futile anyway: there were not enough radios to go around. In the end, it didn’t matter. The fire system was 30 years old, and no preventative maintenance had been carried out it in all that time. When it was activated, there was not enough water pressure to reach the fire.

In the confusion, the fire brigade was not called for 16 minutes. When firefighters did arrive, they were refused entry by security guards – only after a heated argument was a fire officer allowed to check on the damage. A third, massive detonation then occurred, forcing the evacuation of the entire facility.

It became obvious that the situation was out of control. At the edge of the fire were four 220,000-litre tanks of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). If these went up, everything within a 5 km radius of the plant would be killed. A decision was made to evacuate the area, leaving the antiquated fire equipment and a pumper truck to douse the threatened tanks. Longford was shut down. Victoria now only had what gas remained in the distribution network.

Cold comfort. Late on the 25th, the Governor signed orders directing Victorians not to use gas. To enforce this, volunteers were mobilised to shut off supply to all consumers. Fines were threatened, and in a few cases, gas meters were confiscated when desperate people restored their supply. Electrical goods disappeared from shops, and people made what preparations they could for an indefinite period without heating and cooking fuel. My household bought an electric wok and rigged up a gravity-fed warm shower, made from camping equipment and a gardening hose. For us, it was inconvenient. For others it was a disaster.

By the end of the week 200,000 workers in three states were stood down or placed on compulsory leave. Many small businesses were unable to trade. Most hotels had no hot water. Bread and milk supples had to be brought in from interstate, and the army was called on to provide emergency sterilisation equipment for Melbourne hospitals. All non-emergency surgery was cancelled, and many dentists were forced to halt procedures, because their instruments could not be sterilised. Commercial nappy washing services shut down, adding a further burden to the many families struggling to cope with maintaining hygiene without hot water. Added to this was the fact that the privatised electricity grid could not cope with the increased demand, and tens of thousands of households were left without power or heat on several occasions.

Twelve days after the explosion, and heroic efforts of construction and maintenance workers to by-pass the destroyed gas plant enabled supply to be restored to some industries. Supply increased over the next 24 hours, and by 3.00 pm on October 8, all consumers were allowed to restore supply – if they were able. For some older and disabled customers, the woefully inadequate assistance provided meant a wait of 3 weeks before their gas was reconnected.

But Victoria was in the grip of a mid-spring cold snap. We were ordered not to use gas heating. It turns out that there is not enough gas to cope with next winter’s peak demand. Come July, Victorians face severe gas restrictions, unless alternative sources of supply can be found. Esso, faced with multi-billion dollar damages bill, scrambled to rebuild the destroyed gas plant and then, apparently realising this was impossible, engineered a 3-week industrial dispute with construction unions. Guess who they’ll blame as we sit shivering in our lounge rooms next winter.

Infrastructure crises. This is life in late capitalist Australia. The country has vast supplies of energy, but the infrastructure to distribute it is at the point of collapse. Australians have experienced a number of infrastructure breakdowns in the last few years. Some are regular, like the midsummer blackouts in Southeast Queensland, caused by the failure of ageing power generators. Others are progressive, such as the degeneration of large parts of Melbourne’s sewerage system and its transport infrastructure. Some are potentially catastrophic – Victoria came within hours of a complete collapse of the gas network, meaning months of disruption and unemployment.

In July and August, Sydney’s 3.5 million residents had to boil their water for weeks. The privatised water filtration plant at Prospect failed to prevent deadly levels of parasites Cryptosporidium and Giardia. In fact, the contract didn’t even require testing for these well-known pests. Fortunately – this time – a major health epidemic was averted, although Sydney doctors have claimed that hundreds of cases of intestinal illness were covered up. There’s no guarantee it can’t happen again. Sydney’s catchments are used for boating, fishing and watering stock, and there are not enough rangers to watch for contamination. The next alert may be only as far away as the next dead cow!

Auckland, New Zealand has a far worse experience. In February last year, the four oil-cooled electricity cables feeding the Central Business District failed. The power was not even partially restored for many weeks, and was not fully reinstated until Christmas. Residents were evacuated, and almost all business activity ceased. The cost to the New Zealand economy is incalculable. The corporatised Mercury Energy had viciously cut back maintenance staff and virtually abandoned its responsibility for the upkeep of 25- to 40-year-old power mains, even though it was known that they were about to fail.

In every major city, utility networks – including road and public transport – are operating beyond their planned capacity and contain worn-out components. There is no spare capacity, as both Auckland and the Victorian Gas Crisis demonstrate. The failure of only one of the four cables supplying Auckland overwhelmed the other three.

Private ownership vs public good. The Longford facility was built with one main aim – to make profits for the shareholders of Esso. Its design was flawed. Only one of the three gas plants at Longford blew up – but they were on a common feeder pipe, and so the other two were disabled. No doubt this saved money in 1969. Gas plant 1 was part of the original installation, and it is obvious that this 30-year-old equipment was life-expired and in need of replacement. There was no preventative maintenance on vital equipment, and not enough staff to deal with emergencies.

This flawed refinery operation is the only source of gas for 99% of the population, and most of the state’s industry. It is a public utility, a vital part of the state’s economy and community amenities. Yet politicians and bureaucrats are hell-bent on privatising vital public services. In November, the Victorian government announced its intention to sell the gas industry by next July – an attempt to avoid blame for the threatened winter supply crisis. Longford is an argument for the nationalisation and strict regulation of the gas supply. But the economic rationalists have only one rule: increase profits at all costs.

Workers’ control. Although privatisation of utilities has gone a long way in the past decade, for most of the time since settlement, water, gas, electricity and communication networks have been run by governments. In some cases, this has meant high standards of services. For example, the telecommunication network is the best in the world.

But the upkeep of the pumps, pipes, cables and transformers needs money, that is, higher taxes. Governments have introduced “user pays” pricing systems to raise as much from the long-suffering consumers as possible, but there’s a limit to this price-gouging. Higher taxes for business means lower profits, and the point of capitalist governments is to maximise profits. So gradually and inevitably, the reticulation systems of major cities have been decrepit through lack of investment.

The only way to combat this is through community scrutiny of utility operations. And the best scrutiny is by experts – the workers who build, operate and maintain the various networks. Workers’ control is crucial in the state management of essential industries. The four workers who struggled to prevent the 29 September disaster knew what was needed: a shutdown of the chronically over-strained plant. Wilson had ordered just that; he was overruled and died as a result. All workers in that position need the power to turn off malfunctioning equipment.

“Management prerogative” at Longford resulted in the deaths of two workers and inconvenience to millions of others. The same prerogative operated to contaminate Sydney’s water and turn the lights off in Auckland, even though the utility companies are state-owned. Privatisation and unaccountable management threated disaster for Australian cities. No more sell-offs! Resume state ownership of essential industries! For workers’ control of public utilities!