Mandogalup dust-up heats up

On Mandogalup Rd, near Kwinana, rows of white corflute placards are tied to fences, strung from trees and spiked along the road. They carry messages like “just another Alcoa land grab” and “the only dust is bulldust”.

Local resident Reid Donald is standing next to his fence in a blue flannelette shirt and a pair of weathered gumboots when an ABC news crew drives past in a white Land Cruiser.

Donald just laughs and gives them a patronising wave.

Six months ago, no one cared about his struggle, but now this community has a voice.

Mandogalup is just 33km south of Perth but, apart from the journalists, it has the look and feel of a leafy country town with long dusty driveways that lead to rustic family homes.

Those homes live in the shadow of residue lakes that are operated by United States aluminium refiner Alcoa.

But Alcoa’s shadow could soon be cast further than its barb-wire perimeter fences, with an extended buffer set to be made law.

In October 2015, the WA Liberal government introduced the Western Trade Coast Protection Area Bill, which aims to prevent residential development from coming too close to the industrial strip between Rockingham and Cockburn.

The State Government says the buffer will provide certainty for landowners and industry, and prevent future conflicts between land users.

But the Bill has sparked debate between government, property developers, industries and residents.

Some, like property developer Nigel Satterley, want the State Government to keep the original 1km buffer included in the 2007 Jandakot Structure Plan, and want Alcoa to honour its earlier commitment to close a large part of its residue area.

Others, like Kwinana Industries Council president Chris Oughton, want an extended 1.5km buffer, which was adopted by the WA Planning Commission in 2010.

On June 28, the argument reached State Parliament with a protest from residents, backed by Mr Satterley.

Their complaints forced WA State Development Minister Bill Marmion to refer the matter to the Environmental Protection Authority for assessment.

The period for public submissions closed on September 12, with a total of 56 submissions received by the EPA. The authority will advise the State Government on the size of the buffer, taking into account the potential health and amenity impacts on current and future land uses in Mandogalup.

Over the years, Alcoa has conducted its own air and water quality monitoring, and health studies.

“Alcoa does not believe there should be any concern about the health of employees or local communities in relation to emissions from its residue areas,” the US refinery says.

Mark & Christopher Anderton

Mark & Christopher Anderton

Still, Alcoa insists the buffer needs to be 1.5km as a measure of “good planning”.

“The legislation is based on the Kwinana industrial buffer boundary adopted by the Western Australian Planning Commission in 2010,” Alcoa says.

Oughton says the Department of Health recommended the 1.5km buffer in 2014 because “the dust may adversely impact the amenity and wellbeing”.

“Individuals who may be more susceptible to the adverse health effects of fine dust and coarse dust particles include the elderly, children and people with pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular conditions,” he says.

But Oughton says health impacts are not the main issue. It’s the amenity issue that warrants a 1.5km buffer because the dust could cause headaches for future home owners.

“Imagine it, with all these houses with solar panels sometimes getting covered in dust, nappies getting orange, or the swimming pool getting orange dust in it sometimes,” he says.

But does the buffer aim to protect residents from dirty solar panels, or increase investor confidence in a growing industrial area?

Oughton insists that it is both.

Cockburn MLA Fran Logan says the support shown for the buffer by the Kwinana Industries Council and Alcoa is not based on science, instead it is based on avoiding future liability.

“You can’t say there is nothing harmful, then at the same time say there is scientific evidence that shows that people shouldn’t be living in the area,” he says.

Satterley Property Group’s Mandogalup consultant Ron Edwards says dust is not an issue.

“If you look at the water quality information and the air quality information, there is absolutely nothing to fear,” he says.

But considering Satterley has made a $60 million investment in the area, it certainly makes financial sense for them to dismiss dust concerns.

Some residents want to be able to sell their property to developers, and others worry the buffer will impose on their existing land rights.

Kugan Kugananthan

Kugan Kugananthan

The naked truth of the situation is hard to determine among the confusion of opposing opinions, interests and agendas.

Local resident Mark Anderton and his son Christopher think the amenity issue is a “load of bulldust”, as one corflute sign puts it.

Like most Mandogalup residents, the Anderton family’s main water supply is rainwater – potentially contaminated by dust – and they say it hasn’t affected them at all.

Anderton says dust clouds are rare and have not had nearly as much impact on his life as Alcoa’s broken promises.

“We knew where we were moving to, we knew the [Alcoa] ponds were there,” he says.

“[But] Alcoa made promises that they were closing Area F.”

In Alcoa’s Long Term Residue Management Strategy 2005, the company committed to the closure of its easternmost residue area (Area F) by 2010 and rehabilitation of the area by 2015.

At one end of Mandogalup Road, there is a large Hindu temple, an open and welcoming place of worship, filled with several elaborate southern Indian sculptures.

The Sri Bala Murugan temple was founded in 1996, and is one of only two Hindu temples in WA.

Temple President Kugan Kugananthan says he sometimes notices red dust collecting on the temple’s roof.

“We get the water from the roof, it gets treated with ultraviolet and filtered,” he says.

“You can cook with it, but drinking, I don’t know. We don’t want to take chances.

“What we do is either buy water or bring water from home.”

When asked if people don’t drink the water because of health concerns, Kugananthan replied: “No not because of that, because it is rain water and it is treated. Every month Kwinana council come and check the water quality for us.”

But Kugananthan says he has never seen the results.

The City of Kwinana was approached about its test results, but declined to comment.

Kugananthan says the buffer could put his community’s plans to build housing for priests and foreign visitors in jeopardy.

Jenny Swift says her family has lived in Mandogalup since 1928.

“My grandad had [the farm] with my father and his brothers,” she says.

Swift says the amenity issue is a load of rubbish.

Brendon Valli & Cecilia Vinals

Brendon Valli & Cecilia Vinals

“I just think they are using it as an excuse,” she says.

“My mum still lives [in Mandogalup]. She has lived there for 65 years.”

“There has been a few people complain about the dust and things, but they haven’t lived there all their lives.”

In fact, Alcoa has received a total of six dust complaints since 2012.

Brendon Valli and Cecilia Vinals have lived at their 0.55 hectare property on Clementi Road for seven years and say they have never had dust issues.

Vinals ran a family day care business from her home for more than six years until January this year.

“The council gave me the license to provide food, because I ran a family day care,” she says.

“Every six months I had to get my water tested by the council.

“But I wasn’t allowed to have the results of the readings.”

Valli says he does not want industry to intrude on his peaceful lifestyle.

“I don’t want a neighbour who is in there with forklifts and sea containers,” he says.

“I would rather be looking out and seeing horses in the paddock next door.”

Vinals says living in Mandogalup is beautiful.

“For someone to come here and try to take it away from us is very frustrating,” she says.

Donald moved from Scotland in 1967, and bought his home in Mandogalup for his wife Margaret and their family in 1984.

Reid & Margeret Donald

Reid & Margaret Donald

He has a strong accent, swears like a soldier, and sports a devilish humour.

Donald loves his home, and he gets up every morning to take his “idiot dog” for a walk around the farm. He says he cannot see the amenity problem.

“In the paper, it says it can hurt your washing or dirty your car, well that doesn’t bother me,” Donald says.

“It’s my home. I brought up my son, my daughter, and my wee grandkids here.

“If I thought there was any risk to the kids I wouldn’t have them here.”

While Donald and many of the Mandogalup residents have been given a voice, all they can do now is hope that someone is listening.