It’s been three weeks since an industrial inferno spewed a chemical cocktail over Melbourne’s western suburbs, and Gillian says she is still dealing with the fallout.
“I’m currently soaking [my son’s] sheets from a nosebleed yesterday, and also drying another lot from one a few days earlier,” she said.
Gillian, who does not wish to use her full name, lives hundreds of metres from the site of the fire, where a 14,000-square-metre warehouse was engulfed in flames, sending a thick black plume of smoke across neighbouring suburbs.
Chemicals and firefighting foam also washed off into the neighbouring Stony Creek, leaving its ecosystem dead.
The warehouse, which was not registered under the Dangerous Goods Act, contained what one firefighter said was “so many 44-gallon drums that it’s impossible to count them“.
In the three weeks since the inferno, locals have told the ABC of a range of symptoms, including nausea, repeated blood noses, sore chests, asthma, coughs, colds, flu, headaches, migraines, sore throats and itchy eyes.
And for some, like Gillian’s young son, the symptoms continue: he has had around a dozen nose bleeds in the past three weeks.
While the ongoing blood noses “seem freaky”, doctors have not been able to say it’s from the fire, she said, and when she raised their health issues with authorities, she found their responses vague and unhelpful.
“They didn’t want to answer our questions,” she said.
“It really felt like they didn’t care about us at all.”
The Department of Health said there has not been an increase in emergency departments admissions, nor is it aware of a spike in visits to local GPs.
No one can say if it is safe to live here
Others are also feeling worried and anxious by what they consider a lack of information from authorities.
“The EPA have been extremely unhelpful and misinformed,” said Emma Coats, who lives with her four-month-old baby on the other bank of the creek.
While the EPA has been active in the community, and said it continued to monitor for 15 chemicals, including acetone, benzene and methylethylketone, locals like Ms Coats feel it has been unable to answer the most basic questions.
“No one from any of the agencies has been able to provide conclusive advice that it’s ok to be here, day in, day out, living with a baby,” she said.
Locals’ grievances with the authorities’ handling of the fire also include a lack of push notifications to nearby residents, delays in setting up of air-monitoring equipment, and water not being pumped from the creek for a week.
Another is concerned by the mixed messages coming from the EPA, which has said the state of the Stony Creek is “as bad as it could be”, yet has not fenced it off or installed, in the eyes of residents, adequate signage.
When the ABC visited the creek this week, dogs were playing it, despite repeated warnings to keep pets out of the water.
Ms Coats said the creek continues to stink of chemicals, and that until two days ago, advice on the EPA and VicEmergency websites was to stay inside, which made her feel trapped in her own house.
She says the current advice, to “stay clear of the area”, is equally as useless.
“This is not something that is possible to do for weeks, month on end,” she said.
‘It got worse through the night’
“They don’t seem like they know what they are doing,” said Peter Camilleri, a hairdresser from Yarraville.
“It seems like there’s a lot of hiding going on.”
Mr Camilleri is nursing a case of bronchitis, which he said he picked up from his children who were in and out of hospital in the fortnight after the fire.
In one instance, his daughter suddenly developed an irritated right eye after going to the local scout hall, which sits next to the poisoned creek.
“It got worse through the night, and in the morning, the left eye was sore too and they were both weeping yellow pus,” he said.
He’s noticed many others in the community are feeling sick.
They include John Dvizac, from Altona North, who woke up to what he describes as a “paranormal” scene.
“It [the smoke plume] was floating above the roofs of our houses. I’ve never seen black smoke like it.
“And there was this orange film on the bottom of the smoke cloud, streaky, going all the way across. It was eerie.”
While he developed a cough, his son suffered worse: after five minutes at soccer training that night, he experienced nausea and shortness of breath so severe that could not go on.
‘The EPA has not done their job’
Footscray-based Greens MLC Huong Truong was also unimpressed with the way the incident had been handled.
“The EPA has not done their job,” Ms Truong said.
“The EPA should be able to reassure residents in the west that everything has been done to make sure we are safe, and right now we are anything but assured.
“We need the EPA to come clean with what they know or don’t know about the impacts of this fire, and be clear about what they’re doing to ensure this never happens again.”
There is also a feeling of abandonment from the State Government, which has prompted the Friends of the Stony Creek residents group to write to the Premier demanding he visit the area.
“You’d think that nothing had happened,” Mr Truong said.
“We’ve had this industrial fire that has been just so outrageously out of control… and we don’t hear a peep from the Environment Minister or the Premier.
“Come out and see how concerned we are, come out and talk to us about what they know and what they don’t know.”
Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said she had not visited the community, but had been “working closely with the EPA and other agencies”.
The Government and Melbourne Water will together spend $1,650,000 to clean up the waterway, including $700,000 for remediation works and $350,000 for water sampling, testing and monitoring by the EPA.
That’s in addition to the $600,000 already spent by Melbourne Water.
Seventy million litres of contaminated water will be pumped out of the waterway.
EPA may never know all chemicals released into environment
The EPA defended its response to the fire, and said it has been in frequent and widespread communication with the community.
It said it is monitoring for chemicals, and publishing results on its website.
“EPA Victoria places real importance on getting transparent information about our environmental monitoring results to the community in as timely a way as possible,” said its CEO, Dr Cathy Wilkinson.
“We’re certainly wanting to maintain a really strong community engagement presence throughout the area.”
Dr Wilkinson said the EPA’s testing regime was based on the advice of the organisation’s scientists, and they have “a pretty good idea” about what was in the warehouse.
However, she could not say that the EPA was confident they would identify all chemicals released by the fire.
“I’m confident that we’ll have our scientists looking at the full suite of measuring, monitoring results that we can get,” she said.
She said if testing for further chemicals was needed, that would be undertaken.
For Ms Coats, the want for answers about what her family has been exposed to will continue, and she hopes a “substantial review” will be undertaken.
“The community expectation around action is not going to go away,” she said.