Posted 20 August 2011, by Sean Nicholls and Rachel Olding, The Sydney Morning Herald, smh.com.au
THE company behind last week’s controversial chemical spill near Newcastle has revealed it also discharged arsenic into the Hunter River yesterday.
While the Premier, Barry O’Farrell, resisted calls to stand down his Environment Minister, Robyn Parker, over her handling of a leak from Orica’s Newcastle plant, the company yesterday reported a discharge of arsenic into the river higher than its allowable limit.
It discharged up to 1.2 megalitres of effluent containing traces of arsenic above its environmental protection licence cap yesterday afternoon. The discharge occurred at the Kooragang Island plant near Newcastle, but the increase in concentration was not expected to affect the health of the Hunter River.
The Herald revealed yesterday that the Office of Environment and Heritage emailed an ”early alert” to Ms Parker’s office at 4.23pm on August 10, two days after last week’s chemical leak. It warned that parts of Stockton had been covered by a residue ”characteristic of hexavalent chromium, which is a hazardous substance if inhaled”.
The office of the Newcastle MP, Tim Owen, said he was informed of the alert soon after via a phone message, but Ms Parker made no warning public until 3.27pm the next day. Shortly after, the Department of Health issued guidelines to residents who might have been affected, including advice to wash surfaces children might touch.
The guidelines said hexavalent chromium could cause cancer, but normally only after high levels of exposure over a long period. They said ”current available evidence suggests a low risk” from the Orica release.
The Opposition Leader, John Robertson, demanded Ms Parker be stood down pending the findings of an independent inquiry ordered by Mr O’Farrell. ”This minister has bungled her management of this situation from the moment she was advised,” he said. ”She has chosen to ring the member for Newcastle and tell him rather than tell the people of Stockton.” Ms Parker’s office did not return calls.
The Office of Environment and Heritage alert has focused attention on her initial statements about when the government learnt of the leak. At a news conference on the Friday after the incident, Ms Parker told Channel Seven: ”The Office of Environment and Heritage first heard about this incident on Tuesday, so they immediately talked to Orica and, at first, we were told it was an emission on site.”
But she has subsequently said she first learnt about the incident from the alert.
The alert raises questions about why the Health Minister, Jillian Skinner, did not tell the public about the dangers of exposure to the chemical. Ms Skinner told the Herald she was told about the leak on Wednesday at 5.50pm by Ms Parker’s office.
”I confirmed that, as this was potentially a public health issue, it was most appropriately dealt with by the chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant,” she said. “I have total confidence in Dr Chant and the way she has informed the public.”
The chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Pepe Clarke, called for an industry-wide public inquiry into industrial pollution regulation and safety laws. ”How long is it going to be before a really large scale toxic incident occurs?” he said. ”Orica aren’t amateurs. If these things can happen at Orica, they can happen elsewhere.”