By Andrew Watson
HOBART — Pasminco Metals-EZ has been given the go-ahead by the federal government to continue dumping the toxic waste product jarosite into the sea until 1997.
Federal environment minister Ros Kelly has extended the company's deadline for sea dumping by two years. The decision contravenes the recently ratified London Convention on Ocean Dumping, of which Australia is a signatory. This bans all countries from dumping toxic waste into the sea from December 1995.
Greenpeace described the government's decision as an "international disgrace" which is protecting one of the country's worst polluters. A Greenpeace spokesperson on toxic waste, Dr Paul Brown, said the decision makes a mockery of Kelly's recent claim in parliament that the federal government had a "very high international standing" on waste management.
Since 1973, Pasminco Metals-EZ has been dumping approximately 200,000 tonnes of jarosite per year into Bass Strait. This waste includes 15,400 tonnes of zinc, 38 tonnes of cadmium, 5760 tonnes of lead, 0.36 tonnes of mercury, 2280 tonnes of arsenic and 576 tonnes of copper.
Despite company and government claims that the dumping has had "no harmful effect on the environment", elevated levels of cadmium have been detected in seabirds which feed in the vicinity of the dump zone, 60 nautical miles south-east of Hobart. The company's own May 1993 Jarosite Report revealed high concentrations of heavy metals in marine animals at and near the site. In particular, cadmium levels in fish were well above national food standards.
Pasminco Metals-EZ is the only zinc company in the world to continue to dump its toxic by-products at sea. While the company is currently developing a new "co-treatment" process which will eliminate the need to produce jarosite, it says it doesn't have enough time to meet the 1995 deadline. This was Kelly's justification for granting the extension of the dumping licence.
However, according to Michael Lynch, director of the Tasmanian Conservation Trust, the "no time" argument is a furphy. Lynch told Green Left Weekly that Pasminco has already passed at least six deadlines since it first began ocean dumping.
"The licences run for between two and four years. Every time the licence comes up for renewal, the government directs them to move towards technology that doesn't require ocean dumping", Lynch said. As early as 1975, in a report on the renewal of Pasminco's dumping permit, the government told the company that it did "not see ocean dumping as a continuing method of waste disposal but rather as an interim procedure until satisfactory alternative treatment can be found".
Lynch pointed out that the alternative technologies already exist and have been in operation in other countries for several years. They include impermeable land fills via solidification and encapsulation in substances such as ceramic glass materials or the Australian-developed synroc.
"We're talking about current technologies, which would be easy enough to introduce, plus a few internal, technical adjustments. What is lacking is government pressure on the company, so Pasminco can continue to ignore the government's 'concerns'", Lynch said.
Lynch thinks that the environment movement can pressure Pasminco to meet the December 1995 deadline through campaigns and direct action if necessary. However, he warns that to be successful it will have to take on the "jobs versus environment" argument of the company.
"The company has always said it's a question of jobs or the environment, that you can't have both. They've even published studies to show how many jobs would be lost if the Risdon plant closed due to 'environmental pressures'. But in the last eight years they've actually halved their work force, so they're not a good employer from that point of view. We should also be arguing for new, 'green' jobs. Cleaning up the environment would require a huge number of new jobs."
Kest Courtice from the Environmental Youth Alliance agrees. "There's lots of work to be done. The Derwent River, for example, is still one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the southern hemisphere (Pasminco Metals-EZ also dumps toxic waste in the Derwent).
"In Hobart people are pissed off about ocean dumping and the state of the river, and we need to translate this anger into action. EYA will be taking up these issues in the coming weeks."
EYA is organising a "Stop ocean dumping!" protest for Friday, February 11, at 12.30 p.m. outside federal minister for justice Duncan Kerr's office in the Commonwealth Centre building, Collins and Harrington Sts. For more info, contact (002) 346 397.