West Footscray fire fuels chemical cocktail and fish fatalities

;West Footscray factory fire rages

In the wake of the factory fire on Somerville Road in West Footscray, which took more than 140 firefighters 17 hours to bring under control, community concerns remain around toxic smoke and chemicals.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has confirmed that chemical contaminants from the factory itself, as well as firefighting foam residue containing a number of products and chemicals, entered Stony Creek with water runoff from firefighting efforts.

Water analysis detected chemicals phenol (an industrial chemical and cleaning product), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (fire and soot byproducts) and chemicals called BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) which are industrial solvents and found in fuels and oils.

EPA Incident Controller Marleen Mathias said nature of the industrial chemical solvents is that they will rapidly degrade over a period of hours to days after the source has been stopped.

“We expect the conditions in Stony Creek to improve in the coming days. The chemicals in some cases exceed human health recreational contact guidelines and so the advice is for people to avoid contact with the water and not to consume fish,” Ms Mathias said.

“If you do come into contact with contaminated water, remove wet clothing and wash areas of your body that have come into contact with contaminated water with warm soapy water. Seek medical help if you feel unwell.”

The environmental impacts of the fire have become increasingly evident, with fish deaths reported in the Yarra River, Maribyrnong River, Hobsons Bay, Port Phillip Bay and Middle Park Beach.

EPA Agency Controller Doctor David Barry said more than 54 staff have been involved in EPA’s response to the fire, noting officers had reported numerous fish deaths and taken a number of specimens for analysis.

“With considerable fish deaths occurring, we’re urging people again to not eat fish caught in the creek, or 5km north or south of the outlet into the Yarra River as it could pose a risk to their health,” Dr Barry said.

“We know places like the Warmies are very popular fishing spots and we want people to be able to enjoy their hobbies, but we also want them to stay safe, and unfortunately at the moment that means giving the area a miss for a few days.”

EPA Chief Environmental Scientist Doctor Andrea Hinwood said a contractor involved in the clean-up of Stony Creek had removed approximately 300 dead fish already and estimated a further 2000 needed to be removed.

“This is a large volume of dead fish, approximately a tonne, and we’re expecting more fish to wash up at bayside beaches. While the dead fish are distressing, we’ve seen no signs that water quality in the bay has been affected by contaminated run off,” Dr Hinwood said.

“We urge pet owners to ensure their dogs do not eat any dead fish on the beach. We know it can be hard to control our animals sometimes so if you think your dog won’t be able to control themselves, swap a walk along the beach for a park this week.”

It is understood that EPA officers will continue to monitor the bay from Williamstown through to Brighton, as well as investigate any potential breaches of the EPA Act that may have occurred.

EPA Chief Executive Officer Doctor Cathy Wilkinson said the EPA will join MFB and WorkSafe on a targeted blitz of industrial premises in the inner west, to ensure potentially dangerous chemicals are being stored correctly.

“The regulatory authorities will work very closely together on this blitz which will not only check the sites around the fire area but send a very clear message to all industry that compliance is a safety matter that is taken extremely seriously,” Dr Wilkinson said.

“Where we find instances of non-compliance we will work with those businesses to bring them back into compliance, but they could also face fines or even prosecution in the courts if they fail in their obligations.”

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