The Orica chemicals plant at Kooragang, near Newcastle NSW, released hexavalent chromium (VI) into the atmosphere on August 8. Up to 20 workers were exposed in the accident.
The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) was not notified of the accident for 16 hours. Residents of nearby Stockton were not told that the toxic pollutant blew over their suburb for 54 hours.
Their reaction to the exposure was outrage. The Newcastle Herald reported on a community meeting where a resident asked: “Didn’t you know there was wind blowing or did you think you could get away with it?”
Orica described the exposure on its website as a “small amount of diluted airborne sodium chromate”.
Chromium (VI) is mainly produced through industrial processes. It is about 100 to 1000 times more toxic than the naturally occurring chromium (III).
Yellow-brown droplets of it were deposited within the Orica site and in Stockton.
The EPA reported 11 out of 71 samples taken in Stockton a few days later showed low levels of Chromium (VI).
The degree of exposure to the workers, and the levels within the site itself, are not known.
Before the testing was completed, University of Wollongong Professor Alison Jones said at a joint press conference with environment minister Robyn Parker and NSW Health environmental health director Wayne Smith that she hoped to be “in a position very shortly to say the risk is zero”.
Greens Newcastle City councillor Michael Osborne told Green Left Weekly “you can never say the risk is zero”.
A parliamentary inquiry will be held into the incident. Shine Lawyers are also investigating on behalf of residents.
A few days later, Orica announced another accident. This time it discharged 1.2 megalitres of effluent containing 0.067 milligrams per litre of arsenic into the Hunter River on August 19.
It described the discharge on August 20 as equating to “70 grams diluted in approximately 30 swimming pools full of water.”
But it didn’t say the concentration was 34% higher than its environmental protection licence allows.
Orica announced a net profit of $264 million for the half-year ended March 31. In 2009, the former Orica CEO Malcolm Broomhead received a golden handshake of $4.8 million.
In 2009, Orica also successfully appealed to Newcastle City Council for a massive discount on the development levy it owed for its proposed $490 million expansion.
Instead of paying the standard 1% charge, or $4.9 million, Orica paid just $272,000.
Orica’s website claims it is “committed to effectively managing all events which cause or have the potential to cause … damage to the environment or public alarm”.
The claim of effectiveness is contentious. The Nature Conservation Council says Orica’s Kooragang facility has breached its pollution licence 131 times since 2000. Orica’s Matraville plant in Sydney has breached its licence 177 times.
Osborne told GLW that it is time to review the concept of giving companies licences to pollute. “They should be treated the same way as car licences,” he said. “If you break the road rules you face fines, loss of licence and imprisonment.”