Article courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald | Shared as educational material| November 30, 2014 |
Residents around the Hillsdale area may at last have their homes, parks, and schools tested for mercury and other dangerous substances
After two years of campaigning by residents to have homes, parks, and schools around the Hillsdale area tested for mercury and other dangerous substances, the Environment Protection Authority has announced that a first round of soil sampling of public land may finally go ahead early next year.
The EPA made the announcement last week – just days after Orica announced it was to sell off its chemical division which had in the past been responsible for pollution in the area.
Orica’s former mercury-cell chlor-alkali plant, which operated between 1944 and 2002 at Botany, was over the years responsible for the largest chemical spill in the southern hemisphere. Orica has already committed $167 million to clean up the area, which includes a moving toxic plume in the groundwater under Botany.
But EPA environmental regulator Mark Gifford told Fairfax Media last week that the EPA did not have any money in trust from Orica, should contamination be found in the nearby homes, parks and schools.
Greens NSW MP and spokeswoman for the environment Mehreen Faruqi said she was “deeply concerned that Orica was intending to dispose of its chemical business at the same time it was sitting on 15,000 tonnes of toxic HCB chemicals on the Botany site, let alone the unresolved questions of mercury contamination”.
“The government needs to make sure that Orica will remain fully responsible for cleaning up the Botany site now and into the future,” Dr Faruqi said.
A spokesman for Orica said it has been consistent in its commitment that it will retain responsibility for all historic environmental liabilities arising from past operations at Botany and it supports completing the testing program.
In February last year a local Hillsdale resident, Chantal Snell, took a 9000-signature petition to the AGM of Orica, calling for the company to pay for independent testing of soil in the areas adjacent to the former chlor-alkali plant.
The residents had asked their own expert, Andrew Helps from Hg Recoveries, for a proposal to test the area to put their minds at ease about potential contamination from the former chlor-alkali plant. He suggested testing in a 1.5 kilometre radius around the site.
Ms Snell said last year that despite Orica making a $400 million profit … “they won’t spend $400,000 for independent testing”.
The EPA refused Mr Helps’ proposal, and instead called for tenders for a review of the historical mercury emissions from the site, paid for by Orica. The review ended up recommending independent testing of 150 homes, schools and parks after finding about half of the 957 tonnes of the toxic metal used during the life of the plant “cannot be reliably accounted for”.
The report said the risk in residential areas appeared to be low but a testing regime was necessary before any “robust and scientifically defensible” health risk assessment could be made.
After the discovery last year of mercury, lead, chromium and other toxic chemicals in a Hillsdale park, the EPA said the soil testing next year would be expanded to include those metals and chemicals such as PCBs and PAHs.
Sydney Water, which owned the park opposite the Orica site, had to remove 30 cubic metres of soil, put a capping barrier in place and truck in new clean soil to prevent exposure to the contamination in some areas of the park.