Non-sniffable fuel demand in Taser-burn case

Debbie Guest | The Australian | August 03, 2009 + RELATED ARTICLES

non-sniffable Opal fuel The petrol an Aboriginal man was sniffing before being shot with a Taser and bursting into flames came from a service station that continues to sell sniffable fuel, despite repeated community requests.

Police told The Australian that Ronald Mitchell, a 36-year-old petrol sniffer from Warburton, 1540km northeast of Perth, was sniffing fuel from the Laverton BP station before he threatened police with the fuel and was shot with a Taser.

Sergeant Nick Hamer, who fired the Taser, said he was acting in self-defence.

Aboriginal women in the central desert region said BP Laverton refused to sell non-sniffable Opal fuel because they wanted a bigger subsidy per litre from the federal government.

Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women's Council chairwoman Margaret Smith said petrol from Laverton was coming into Warburton and putting young people at risk of permanent health damage.

Laverton is 550km away and is the closest non-Opal station to Warburton, which sells only non-sniffable Opal fuel. "We can't wait any longer. There are kids sniffing at Warburton and other Ngaanyatjarra communities," Ms Smith said.

Ms Smith said the council wanted the government to force local stations to sell Opal immediately. Moves to legislate such powers would take too long.

Minister for Indigenous Health Warren Snowdon said the government had refused a demand for a 30c-a-litre subsidy from BP Laverton to compensate for the cost of delivering Opal, and offered the station a 20c-a-litre subsidy instead.

He said the government was considering legislation to force station owners in affected regions to sell Opal.

Laverton BP station manager Beatrice Fuamatu said she was happy with the subsidy offered by the government but other issues including distribution needed to be addressed before Opal could be introduced.

Mr Mitchell is in a serious but stable condition at Royal Perth Hospital, with burns to his face, neck, arms and chest.

Police are expected to charge him, but are yet to interview him because of his medical condition.

Taser cop say he fired in self-defence

Maria Noakes | Sunday Times - Perth | August 01, 2009

The police officer who fired his Taser at a petrol-sniffing man who was then engulfed in flames has spoken for the first time, saying he acted in self-defence.

Sgt Nick Hamer, who burnt his own hands putting the flames out, said the man had a history of violence towards police.

Ronald Mitchell, 36, from the remote town of Warburton, is in Royal Perth Hospital with burns to his face, neck, arms and chest.

"I told him to keep his distance from me and if he did come any closer then I was going to Taser him," Sgt Hamer told The Sunday Times.

"He just kept coming so, with his prior history of violence both directed at people and police, I just wasn't going to take any chances with him. There were too many people around that could have got hurt.

"The fire has then started on him. I then dropped the Taser and threw him on the ground. The surface up there is fairly loose red sand and I held him down and shovelled sand on to him wherever there was flames and I burnt my left hand and my right finger.

"Once I could see he had flames around him my No.1 priority was his welfare and to make sure the flames didn't totally engulf him."

Sgt Hamer also sustained injuries to his head when a woman also sniffing petrol hit him with a rock as he was putting out the flames.

Children from Warburton welcomed Sgt Hamer back into their community on Friday after he was released from RPH.

Police are conducting an internal investigation into Sgt Hamer's actions, but are not expected to finalise it for months. They will examine a chip in the Taser to see how many times it was fired.

Mr Mitchell is expected to be charged with attempted assault, but because of his condition still has not been interviewed by police.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Treaty Republic

Statistics on petrol sniffing

Concentrated Petrol Sniffing Regions Petrol sniffing is a serious problem that has claimed over 100 Indigenous lives from 1981 to 2003 across Australia [8]. It is very common in Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory and Western Australia and not restricted to Aboriginal youth. The practice was first observed in 1951, and is believed to have been introduced by US servicemen stationed in the nation's Top End during World War II.

Of the Indigenous population in 1994, 4% had tried petrol-sniffing but only 0.3% practised it at that time.

In 2005 there were some 700 petrol sniffers across central Australia [9], with the addiction linked to as many as 60 Aboriginal deaths in the NT between 2000 and 2006, and 121 deaths between 1980 and 1987.

The general age range of users is from 10-19 years with a mean of 12-15 years, but use by children younger than 10 is not uncommon.

Petrol sniffing leads to the death of an Aboriginal boy in the movie "Yolngu Boy".

Effects of petrol sniffing

Petrol sniffing produces a variety of short-term effects from pleasurable feelings of excitement, to alcohol-like intoxication, to loss of consciousness. The effects are experienced within a few minutes and only last for a short time (which is the main reason for its use), usually less than an hour.

Short-term effects include euphoria and excitement, feeling light, sensations of numbness, dizziness. These effects may be followed by giddiness, nausea, slurred speech, sneezing, coughing, shortness of breath, indigestion, chest pain, hallucinations, muscle weakness, loss of motor coordination and slowed reflexes.

Long-term use can damage internal organs, the brain and the nervous system. Some damage can be reversed by ceasing use of certain substances, but permanent damage can occur to the brain, liver and kidneys. The person becomes degraded, disabled or dies.

On a larger scale petrol-sniffing devastates not only the sniffer's health but also their families and the wider community by increased domestic violence and family breakdown.