Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2011 Week 10 Hansard (Tuesday, 20 September 2011) . . Page.. 4023 ..
Just after 11 pm on Thursday, 15 September the ACT Fire Brigade attended at a fire at the Energy Services Invironmental site on Dacre Street, Mitchell. This facility is a privately owned and operated transformer oil PCB de-chlorination and recycling plant.
PCB is the common term for the chemical polychlorinated biphenyl. PCBs are injurious to human health and are persistent pollutants of the environment. Imports of PCBs to Australia have been banned since 1986. However, PCBs were widely used as an insulating fluid inside electrical transformers, and ESI treats that fluid to remove and destroy the PCBs so that the oil can be recycled. Some of the chemical reagents used in this process are also dangerous. This means the company requires a number of approvals to operate. I shall return to the regulation of this facility later.
The fire was fuelled by the dangerous substances on the site and this restricted the ability of firefighters to aggressively attack the fire. There was also considerable concern that the smoke plume from the fire was potentially toxic. For this reason the Fire Brigade commenced and continued atmospheric sampling at appropriate locations around the fire.
Heavy smoke, followed by a series of explosions on the site, caused the ACT Fire Brigade to pull back for the protection of firefighters. This allowed a reassessment of the fire and the marshalling of resources, ensuring a concentration of fire-fighting efforts to contain the fire while planning for an effective solution.
ACT firefighters continued to contain the fire throughout the night while the incident management team operating from the Fairbairn headquarters and the unified command on the scene planned a comprehensive attack strategy to be implemented over the following eight hours.
The potential toxicity of the smoke plume resulted in a decision by the unified command team on the scene to evacuate Exhibition Park in Canberra. Campers at Exhibition Park were evacuated to a centre established at Dickson college. Premises operating in Mitchell overnight were also evacuated.
In the early hours of Friday morning an emergency alert system warning, using the emergency alert telephone-based warning system, was issued to Canberra residents within a 10-kilometre radius of the fire. The warning was to stay indoors and turn off air-conditioning equipment.
Based on the results of the atmospheric testing, the area of concern was later reduced. However, because of fears for the safety of members of the public, Mitchell, including major roads through the suburb, was closed.
The fire was brought under control at approximately 10 pm on Friday, 15 September. Concerns about the impact of the fire and the potential for contamination by chemical toxins resulted in a decision to keep Mitchell closed for the weekend. Final extinguishment of the fire was achieved at 10 am on Saturday, 17 September after a strategic attack mounted between 4 pm and 6 pm on Friday evening and dealing with a flare-up overnight at approximately 4 am.