YARLOOP, AUSTRALIA: US health campaigner Erin Brockovich takes on Alcoa
May 1st, 2009
The Sunday Times, AUG 5, 2007
Brockovich has taken a strong interest in the plight of communities
near Alcoa's controversial Wagerup refinery, 125km south of Perth. Brockovich -- made famous in the movie that starred Julia Roberts -- is currently in WA.
Sunday Times understands that Queensland's leading plaintiff law firm
Shine Lawyers will tomorrow announce it is preparing to sue Alcoa on
behalf of aggrieved locals -- many of whom have fled the area after
In June, lawyers spent five days in Yarloop
before deciding to take on the case. The firm, which has links to
Brockovich's consulting firm, has offered its services on a no win, no
After a decade complaining about poisonous fumes
from the refinery's stacks and red dust from its waste stockpiles, many
locals are looking forward to their day in court.
of Yarloop is bitterly split on the issue. Many residents are desperate
to leave, citing a multitude of health problems, while others say they
have been unaffected by emissions and accuse their neighbours of making
it all up.
There has been an exodus from the area in recent
years. Census figures show that Yarloop's population has fallen from
874 to 546 in the past five years.
More than 200 families have
submitted applications in the past few months to have their homes
bought by Alcoa under a scheme negotiated with the WA Government that
will allow production to double at Wagerup.
Alcoa, a major
employer in the South-West, has consistently denied its operations pose
a health risk to Yarloop, Hamel and Cookernup.
In June, The
Sunday Times revealed that new laser technology, not previously used in
Australia, had corroborated residents' long-held complaints that
emissions were reaching homes up to 5km away.
The fumes, containing a mix of 260 chemicals, also linger close to the ground for up to 18 hours.
from the Department of Environment and Conservation said that seasonal
weather conditions, combined with the area's landscape, can result in
emissions from the refinery being trapped near the ground.
Alcoa has stressed that tests on individual chemicals in the air showed that concentrations were within health guidelines.
Puccio, co-chairman of local pressure group CAPS, which is now working
with Shine Lawyers, said he hoped it didn't come to court action.
``We hope that common sense will prevail and we don't have to go down the legal path,'' he said.
people just wanted a fair deal so they could relocate without being out
of pocket. ``What we want is accountability and for Alcoa to take
responsibility for what they've done and the Government to take
responsibility for sitting on the fence,'' Mr Puccio said.
``We will be meeting with the lawyers again for three or four hours today and then meeting with Erin on Monday morning.''
currently works as an advocate for community awareness and fights
passionately to overcome ``deceits'' that end up jeopardising public
health and safety.
She attends major summit meetings on
environmental issues, works on major trials affecting people's health
and well-being and refers cases to the lawyers, researching and
providing information and support services to communities.
Larson, who worked with Brockovich and lawyer Edward Masry in
successful legal cases against toxic-fume spewing refineries in
California in the mid-1990s, also visited Yarloop in June.
Larson was trying to empower locals with the help of the ``bucket'' --
a cheap and easy-to-use device that can measure air pollution for a
fraction of the cost of more sophisticated equipment.
A buy-out scheme for homeowners to escape the Yarloop area has been swamped with applications.
Former deputy premier Hendy Cowan, who was appointed to oversee the scheme, this week said that 45 sales had gone through.