Australia Sells Tons of Ozone-Depleting Halon to U.S. Defense Dept.

By Andrew Darby

CANBERRA, Australia, January 28, 2000 - Despite calling on the rest of the world to stop using halon gas, Australia is selling 250 tons of what it describes as the most aggressive ozone depleting chemical to the U.S. Defense Department.

The $A9 million ($US5.5 million) sale was ordered by the Prime Minister, John Howard, against the advice of the Federal Government's own Ozone Protection Consultative Committee, records show.


Australian Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill (Photo courtesy Government of Australia )
The Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, yesterday confirmed the government's sale from its own Halon Bank, a storage in suburban Melbourne set up to destroy halon and to provide a supply for essential purposes, such as some fire-fighting.

The Halon 1301 sold to the U.S. Defense Department will be used in fire suppression and as an explosion retardant in enclosed spaces where human evacuation is impracticable - tanks, planes, and submarines. Environment Australia said that the Australian Defence Force uses it for similar purposes, and all commercial aircraft in Australia use Halon 1301 for this purpose. Its use in planes is mandated by Australian national safety authorities.

But in September 1997, Senator Hill used International Ozone Day to call on the world to follow Australia's lead and stop using halon in fire protection systems.

Senator Hill described halons as 16 times more potent than chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). He said it was illegal in Australia to have fire-fighting equipment containing them if an alternative could be found. And he urged other countries to strengthen limits on halon use and emissions.

When the sale of halon 1301 came before the ozone protection committee last November, state authorities expressed worries about it, but, the minutes revealed, "Commonwealth acknowledged concerns but reiterated that the sale had been signed off personally by the Prime Minister."

Defending the sale, Senator Hill said it was a "one-off," for an essential purpose within the letter and spirit of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Protection. He told an interviewer, "if you need it for extinguishers on aircraft and there isn't a substitute at the moment, what are you suggesting, ground all aircraft?"


Senator Nick Bolkus represents South Australia which is most at risk of ultraviolet rays allowed to reach the Earth's surface by the hole in the ozone layer. (Photo courtesy Australian Labor Party)
The Federal shadow environment minister, Senator Nick Bolkus of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), said it is both immoral and irresponsible for the government to allow halons to be sold.

"The Australian Defence Force has led the world in phasing out halon use," Senator Bolkus said. "In contrast the U.S. Defense Department is actively shopping for halon supplies throughout the world, to cover for lack of action and its continuing unnecessary dependance on halon."

Instead of selling the halon, it should be destroyed, according to one of the country's largest environmental groups, Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), which described the sale as a breach of trust.

"This halon was collected from industry, state governments and the Australian military, who all acted with great responsibility and in good faith to make sure this gas was destroyed," said ACF executive director Don Henry.

"No matter where it is sold it will eventually end up depleting our ozone layer, and Australia, with the highest skin cancer rates in the world, will suffer most," Henry warned.

Senator Hill tried to turn aside criticism by foreshadowing the Halon Bank's work would be expanded to offer assistance in the destruction of these gases to other countries.

The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1988 and ratified in 1989 by the former ALP government, specifically allows for the sale of halon for essential use applications.

Senator Hill said the sale, "represents a constructive Australian contribution to international efforts to maximise recycling of existing stocks of halon 1301 and so minimise the potential for further global production of new halon."

The proceeds from the sale and other operations of the Halon Bank will be directed to ozone protection activities.