Residential outrage may spark an independent review of potential mercury contamination near Orica’s Botany site.
Chemical giant Orica has tried to keep secret a potentially damaging report into whether the dangerous metal mercury might have been leaking off site from its former chlor-alkali plant, which it operated at the Botany Industrial Park for almost 60 years.
The report, written by two University of Sydney professors 20 years ago, only recently came to light when a former Orica employee revealed its existence. It was written after revelations that about a kilogram of mercury a day was being lost from the site.
A company spokesman said the secrecy was because ‘Orica has concerns the report must be seen in the correct context’.
It is understood that the report, a copy of which is now in the possession of the Environment Protection Authority, concluded that the mercury was going down the drain which ran from the Botany site to Malabar.
The secrecy has sparked outrage among residents, who had to fight to get the EPA to agree to an independent review of potential mercury contamination around their homes, after being repeatedly told there was no reason to believe the situation needed investigation. They have called for the report to be released for public scrutiny.
Long-time resident and campaigner Len Mahoney said it was ”absolutely astounding” Orica could withhold information that could be critical to the health and safety of residents. ”What gives them the right? We have the right to know, and it makes you question what else they are holding that we don’t know about,” he said.
Labor’s leader in the upper house, Luke Foley, has threatened to use a parliamentary call for papers to order the EPA to release the document.
Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi said: ”Given Orica’s toxic waste legacy, it is imperative that they fully disclose all activities past and present likely to endanger the health of the surrounding community.”
Orica expressed concerns about giving a copy to the EPA and did so on the strict condition that the report be viewed only by the EPA and a panel set up to consult on an independent review of potential off-site mercury pollution.
The EPA told panel members the document could be viewed at its offices but its contents had to be kept confidential.
NSW EPA chief environmental regulator Mark Gifford denied it had agreed to secrecy but said: ”It is the EPA’s practice to not release third party documents without permission from the owner.”
A company spokesman said the secrecy was because ”Orica has concerns the report must be seen in the correct context” and that the latest risk assessments of the mercury contamination – which have been approved by the EPA – considered 30 more up-to-date reports.
He said the report recommended improvements for effluent treatment to ensure compliance with the then Sydney Water Board’s requirements, and the majority of those recommendations were adopted.
A spokesman for Environment Minister Robyn Parker said the report would be made public after the review was completed.
The document, titled ”Review of the mercury pollution abatement programme at ICI Operations Botany” by W.A. Davies and R.G.H. Prince, dated October 1991, was written after Orica, then known as ICI, tried to reassure the public in a 1990 newspaper ad that it was reducing the amount of mercury going down the sewer pipes.
The sewer led to Sydney Water’s Malabar treatment plant, where it was disposed either by going into the ocean at Malabar headland before 1990, or subsequently into the deep ocean outfall, or into sludge waste deposited to authorised landfill.