Dozens of people gathered to fish at a popular Newport angling spot late on Friday despite warnings from authorities that the water was contaminated with chemicals following a massive factory fire in Melbourne's west.
Dead fish and birds washed up along the banks of nearby Stony Creek after toxic chemicals and firefighting foam entered the waterway while crews worked to extinguish a factory fire in the city's west.
The huge warehouse fire in West Footscray caused toxic smoke to billow across Melbourne's western suburbs on Thursday, and was described by authorities as one of the biggest blazes the city had seen in decades.
The EPA issued a warning against eating fish from the lower part of the Maribyrnong River from the West Gate Bridge, and asked people to avoid Cruickshank Park in Kingsville.
But late on Friday afternoon many people were still fishing at the Warmies boat ramp in Newport, near where the Yarra River meets Port Phillip Bay, on the western side of the West Gate Bridge. (It was formed as an outlet for warm water from Newport power station, which is how it got its name).
Thao Le, who has fished in the area for the past 20 years, said she didn’t think there was anything wrong with the water.
“Today, I caught a mullet, trevally and pinkie fish,” she said. “There are no strange smells here, I’m not worried.”
At 4pm Parks Victoria ranger Chitta Phon arrived. He was unsure how to handle the situation, as people refused to stop fishing.
“We have to wait for Melbourne Water,” he said.
The police then arrived, but said they had limited powers to stop people fishing, as they weren’t breaking the law.
Melbourne Water employees arrived around 5pm to put up signs warning of the contamination and the associated risks.
The notice warned of poor water quality and recommended that people avoid contact with the water and wildlife.
But by then many of the anglers who had fished there on Friday had already gone home.
Williamstown and Newport Anglers’ Club vice president Colin Wilkinson, who hosts a regular fishing segment on ABC Melbourne, said he was disturbed about the impact on the angling community.
Mr Wilkinson said it was unfortunate and “really disappointing” that fishing in the area was deemed hazardous.
“It’s the most convenient place in the Yarra to go fishing. It’s sad that the fire was along Stony Creek.”
Mr Wilkinson explained that one of the popular types of fish in the river, the tailor, is well-known for chasing baitfish up and down the waters.
Fisherman Khaisar Houli was shocked after he was told fish were dying a few hundred metres away because of the factory fire run-off.
“It’s really sad that this has happened,” he said. “We have to pay for other people’s stupidity.”
Dirk Ottley said he only found out about the water pollution because he talked to the park ranger. There were no alerts that reached him or other many of the other people fishing.
“The EPA should have got onto it earlier,” he said. “And they’re not going to get all of the contaminated water out.”
Environment Protection Authority chief environmental scientist Dr Andrea Hinwood said chemicals from the fire water run-off could cause fish deaths and stressed that pet owners should keep their dogs away from affected waterways.
"There are a lot of products of combustion in there, unburnt materials, it's discoloured, there is also an odour associated with some locations, and there is a large volume of it," she said.
"We are testing up and down stream, we have been since early yesterday, and at the moment we can say it's quite an unfortunate complex of chemicals in the water and we need to assess the extent of it."
The marine life in Stony Creek is believed to have died as a result of low oxygen in the water.
Pumps are being used along the waterway to try and rid the creek of contaminated water. A number of booms have also been installed to capture debris, oil and foam. The EPA has also erected signs along the banks to notify residents about poor water quality.
"There’s been significant run-off from the incident site which has caused discolouration, contamination and odour in the creek," a Melbourne Water spokeswoman said.
"Melbourne Water has so far removed approximately 30 million litres of affected water from the creek."
Stony Creek runs through the western suburbs of Sunshine, Tottenham, Brooklyn, Footscray West, Yarraville and Spotswood. It meets the Yarra River near the West Gate Bridge.