Toxic cover-up: a million tonnes of poison

Issue 

By Zanny Begg

SYDNEY — In 1982 Alan Mills moved to Londonderry to find a peaceful plot on which to relax and grow native trees. Mills, who teaches maths at the local school, soon found that relaxing was the last thing he was going to be doing on his land. Mills had unwittingly moved close to the Castlereagh toxic waste depot.

Over the next 10 years, Mills became very familiar with what living in the shadow of the depot meant. In 1992 he became president of RAGE (Residents Action Group for the Environment), which was helping residents fight the depot that was poisoning them.

"RAGE has a list of over 130 properties", Mills explained to Green Left Weekly, "where the owners have reported over a number of years serious problems caused by the depot. These include family members dying of cancers and children born with deformities, particularly cleft pallets. Animals are also affected; the most common problem with animals has been birth defects, including cleft pallets. We have also had numerous reports of animals like rabbits being found with no fur. Goats have been found without a coat. Dogs have been born with their organs on the outside of their bodies. On one dog farm alone, over 30 birth defeats were reported at one time.

"There are places where farmers have watered crops with ground water or water from their dams and it has killed all vegetation. In wet periods, property owners report seeing black sludge oozing out of the ground. A number of farmers have reported an unnatural scum forming on their dams. A farmer I know lit the scum on his dam and a blaze spread right across it."

Cancer

The NSW Department of Health found that the incidence of brain cancer among men was three times higher near the depot than the state average. Mills feels this figure, serious as it is, hides the real growth rate of cancer in the region.

"There were no cancer cases reported in the first 6-8 years after the depot was established. In the next 6-8 years there were two cases. In the next 6-8 years there were six. The Health Department study finished in 1992, but we know of at least three cases that will come up in the next period. The incidence of cancer is growing alarmingly."

The cancer affecting men in the region is astrocytoma glioma, the most common form of brain cancer. One man living opposite the depot is reported to have had five operations for brain tumours in the last three years. Only one woman in the region has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

Despite the mounting evidence, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has said that it doesn't intend to take action.

The depot was established in 1974, in the face of strong opposition from residents, officially as a small, temporary site for liquid waste. The people living in the area were told it would be gone in six months. Twenty years later, it has grown to cover 360 hectares filled with 8000 holes plugged with toxic waste.

Between 1993 and the start of 1994, the site took 47.4 tonnes of pesticides, 29 tonnes of metals such as chrome, iron and zinc, 347.7 tonnes of alkalis, 790 tonnes of paint and 200 kilograms of acid. In all, the depot has received more than a million tonnes of waste.

The NSW Waste Service, which runs the depot, has issued statements claiming that no pesticides are stored at the depot, yet Alan Mills has found internal documents listing many tonnes of pesticides stored at the site.

"Tanker load after tanker load of waste arrives here every day", complained Mills. "We get unburnt medical waste, we get companies like Cleanaway dumping waste, we get waste from the waste depot at Lidcombe. Toxic waste was never officially approved to go to the depot, yet it is dumped there. No-one wants to tell the truth about what is going on."

'Most studied land'

Confronted with information about birth defects and other abnormalities in the region, the EPA responds that three studies have not proved any causal link between the depot and the problems. Peter Yates, the director of the Sydney region of the NSW EPA, has claimed that the region is probably the "most studied piece of land in Australia".

Mills is very sceptical about the studies. In 1977 Golder Associates found that toxic waste was leaking out of the north-west corner of the depot, but concluded that there were no environmental problems because the surrounding clay was impermeable. This has since been proven incorrect.

In 1989 consultants Dames and Moore examined all the ground water testing data in the history of the depot. The data showed extremely high levels of contamination in many bore holes both outside and inside the depot.

"Despite this, the conclusion that Dames and Moore came up with", Mills explains, "read something like this: 'We don't find any deterioration in the ground water at the depot'. The only way that could be construed to be true is if they looked at the severe levels of toxicity in the 1970s and then compared that to the late '80s, when toxic levels were similar. Certainly the data that Dames and Moore examined showed that the ground water was highly contaminated."

Pressure from residents forced the government to do an extensive environmental audit, the initial results of which were released last year. The second part of the audit was completed in March 1994. Consultants Woodward-Clyde found that discharges of surface water from the depot might have been contaminated with chemicals, but concluded that there was no evidence that toxins had leached into residential areas.

Mills disagrees. "At the same time as the audit, we did parallel testings. In one sample we got a reading of 56 milligrams per litre of formaldehyde in a bore hole. There should be no formaldehyde in ground water. The auditors never tested for this substance, so of course they never found it."

Mills claims that RAGE and its investigators found formaldehyde, mercury and phenol in bore water. In one bore hole they found 137 milligrams per litre of phenol — 137,000 times the acceptable level established by the EPA. The audit did not test for these chemicals.

In 1993 the Department of Water Resources put out a press release saying that there was no direct evidence of contamination of ground water near the depot. It referred to a ground water use study which said that there were no licensed bores within a five-kilometre radius of the depot. RAGE did a study and found six, including the Richmond racetrack, which uses bore water to irrigate the trotter and greyhound tracks.

'Too close'

Asked why so many studies have come up with such confusing and misleading information, Mills replies, "Environmental consultants who do studies for the government produce an outcome that suits the government so that they will be employed again".

According to RAGE "Waste Services, the EPA, the environmental consultants and the government are all too close together. They are trying to cover up the problem. We have found so many dishonest and misleading parts of the audit we would have to say that it is fundamentally flawed."

RAGE feels that the case for prosecution of the Waste Service is clear. The residents argue that contamination of ground water has been amply proven. This is a contravention of section 16 of the Clean Waters Act.

The EPA responded by saying that although chemicals are leaching into the ground water, prosecution is "not in the public interest". In a letter to Penrith Council, the EPA claimed that the contamination was not likely to "cause harm to the environment or risk to human health".

"The EPA should prosecute Waste Services", Mills believes, "because the depot is probably the most serious offence in NSW environmental history. RAGE just can't see how such a serious offence can pass without prosecution."

Money may have something to do with it. Mills has information that Waste Services paid a $27 million dividend to the government last year.

RAGE began in 1989 as a community response to the environmental woes of Londonderry. Its main demand is for the closure and clean-up of Castlereagh depot.

Mills explains that it has been hard to mobilise the community because many people simply put their property on the market and quietly leave. Among those who stay, there are "a lot of people who are afraid to speak up". But RAGE is determined to win. "We will not give up, because we are fighting for our lives."