EDITORIAL: Explosive fears in the Hunter

THE federal government has turned the terrorism dial to high alert, sent people and planes across the world to fight Islamic extremists and warned Australians to be aware of the risk of attack on their own soil.

Travellers are routinely inconvenienced in the name of national security and the government is arranging for everybody to pay higher internet access fees to cover the cost of its new intrusive surveillance regime – again apparently a security measure.

One might have supposed that, in this feverish climate, the government might have also taken at least a rudimentary inventory of stockpiles of potentially hazardous materials to ensure they are secured against the depredations of would-be terrorists.

Any such inventory, were it to be undertaken, would presumably identify sites where ingredients known to be favoured by extremist bomb-makers might be stored.

Perhaps the government has done that, but if so, it isn’t clear what the benefit has been.

It appears, for example, that in the Newcastle area a significant stockpile of ammonium nitrate – a product used to make explosives for the mining industry – has been readily accessible to practically anybody.

Twice this week, as an exercise in testing security, people with no other legitimate reason to approach this stockpile have been allowed to do exactly that.

Nobody is suggesting the owner of the business involved has done anything wrong. It has been pointed out, in fact, that the site complies with all the relevant rules and regulations.

Some might, however, sense a disparity between the florid government rhetoric about terrorism and the seeming lack of attention to security at a site that any genuine terrorist might find extremely interesting.

Ammonium nitrate is nothing to be complacent about. An explosion of about 240tonnes in Texas last year killed 15 people, and in Toulouse in France in September 2001 an explosion of about 300tonnes killed 31 and injured 2000.

This risky substance is commonly found in mining districts, for obvious reasons. The Hunter’s status as a major coal producer means it uses a lot of explosive.

Only this week, at a public meeting about the proposed expansion of an ammonium nitrate plant on Kooragang Island, residents of nearby suburbs expressed grave fears about the potential damage if things went wrong.

Their concerns are understandable given the tonnages potentially in storage number well in the thousands.

If the government is serious about its terrorism concerns, a greater focus on securing known hazards seems a reasonable thing to ask.

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