Contamination Notification Protocols

23 Mar 2011 archivespeech

This speech is to move that the Statutory Authorities Review Committee inquire into and report on the operations of the Environment Protection Authority, particularly regarding public notification protocols of contamination.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (15:50): I move:

That the Statutory Authorities Review Committee inquire into and report on the operations of the Environment Protection Authority, particularly regarding public notification protocols of contamination.

As many honourable members would be aware, there are a lot of contaminated sites around South Australia due to unfortunate past practices. Regular offenders are old dumps, service stations, foundries, tanneries, factories, etc. In 2007, we agreed to the site contamination legislation, which had the effect of retrospectively establishing a statutory responsibility regime for pollution which had occurred pre 1995. The situation prior to that was that the EPA could not pursue polluters who had caused contamination before that time.

The legislation provided that, depending on the circumstances of particular contamination, the polluter would be required to pay, or if the land has been onsold with full disclosure to the current owner of the source site they would then be liable for the pollution. That is done on a risk management process which, generally speaking, I think all stakeholders agreed to. There are high standards required for remediation for what are termed 'sensitive use sites', which include residential sites and preschools due to the risk to children.

There is a requirement in the Environment Protection Act in section 83 to notify where there has been either serious or material environmental harm caused or threatened. Section 83A requires that notification of site contamination of underground water must be made to the EPA. There are some fairly stiff penalties for people who are made aware, through whatever means, that there is contamination or environmental harm but do not do so. I understand that, for any contamination that had taken place prior to the promulgation of the act in 2007, in effect, any body corporate or individual would be off the hook because that aspect of it may not have been retrospective.

It does the beg the question, though, what really is the requirement for the EPA to notify the public? This is partially addressed in section 103N of the act, which refers to special management areas. Subsection (1) provides:

If the Authority has reason to believe that site contamination of a particular kind exists in a wide area, or in numerous areas, as a result of the same activity or proximate or related activities, the Authority may, by notice in the Gazette—

declare the area or declare them to be under special management.

They also need to engage in publicising the matter, having a consultative process and further arrangements to remediate. I am not entirely sure whether that took place in the recent Edwardstown and South Plympton situation. I think that is something that needs to be further examined.

Another topic that has been quite topical has been the site contamination register. I understand that my colleague the Hon. Mark Parnell will have a few comments to make on that shortly. Section 103O refers to registration of site contamination assessment orders or site remediation orders in relation to land. I am not entirely sure whether that is same thing that he is talking about, but I will listen to his comments with interest. That, and some of the subsequent sections of the act, refer to some of the matters which have come up quite recently and which I will go through in further detail.

In terms of the governance of the EPA, we had a review which was conducted by the Environment, Resources and Development Committee several years ago and which made a number of recommendations, a number of which have been adopted by the government, and we supported those at the time including the separation of the role of the chair.

If I turn to more recent events, we have had quite a number of events which have highlighted what I would regard as inconsistencies in relation to public notifications by the EPA which, if they are not covered by section 103N, I assume are internal policy decisions of the EPA. There are a number of unanswered questions about what set of criteria triggers a decision to make public that there is contamination present and that it may be a threat to human health.

Some of the questions are: is there a trigger level based on the type of contaminants and its toxicity? Is the decision dependent on the level of risk to public health? If it is the latter, how is the threat to public health determined? What is the distinction between notifying for land and water contamination? How proactive is the EPA if it is aware of contamination? That goes to what further tests are undertaken once it has been notified that there is an issue. To be fair to the EPA in relation to Edwardstown and South Plympton, when it was made aware that there was contamination, it sought to undertake further testing.

I turn to this issue specifically of Edwardstown and South Plympton, and we have an almost daily diet of new matters that have been uncovered in relation to that particular contamination. In the initial stages, 2,200 residents were potentially affected, and the EPA had known about that for more than 18 months since August 2009 and yet residents were not notified at that point. In their media release of 23 February, the EPA said that it was advising residents to stop using bore water for any purposes until further notice. The media release stated:

While only about 30 registered bores are known in the area, the EPA is taking the precaution of notifying all residents in the affected area. The chemicals which have been found are fuels and industrial solvents which were widely used in the past as a metal cleaner and degreaser. These chemicals have been found at levels above the Australian Drinking Water Guideline values. The source is believed to be the former Hills Holdings site on South Road and is likely to be the result of historic waste disposal practices. Both Hills Holdings and the new owner of the site Colonial First State Global Asset Management, have been working closely with the EPA, and have been conducting comprehensive assessments over the past 18 months to determine the extent of the contamination.

The chemicals include petroleum hydrocarbons (petrol) and TCE (trichloroethene), PCE (perchlorethene); DCE (dichloroethene); and vinyl chloride. SA Health advises that long-term exposure from these chemicals can be harmful, if people are exposed to high enough concentrations over a long period of time, usually many years.

I read that out for the benefit of members, because things have expanded since then and some of the contaminants are worse than first anticipated. Unfortunately, some residents said that they did not first learn of this issue via the EPA's notification but had found out through the media, which I think is a very distressing way for anybody to have to find out that the bore that they might be using is contaminated—they might be watering their veggies and fruits—or there may be contamination leaching through soils.

There is also the question of the role of the Marion council which had access to reports in 2007. At that point in time, it was not required to notify the EPA because the site contamination legislation had not passed. I think there are also question marks about the role that SA Water played. I understand that it had some knowledge of the contamination and either did not pass that onto the EPA or did not make public its knowledge.
Since that story broke in late February, The Advertiser took it upon itself to undertake some testing at the Hills site in early March, and it found that the levels of TCE were at three times Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, and dibromochloromethane levels were increasing to more than double the guideline standard.

We also then had another Edwardstown site, which is the old McLeod's site. In early March it was discovered that there were chemicals there, including cyanide, and I assume that The Advertiser was sent the same anonymous tip that was sent to me, headed 'Polluting the aquifers', which states:

While the topic of conversation is pollution of the underground aquifers, it is worthwhile noting that the electroplating companies of the McLeod Group of Companies...have dumped Cyanide wastes into the borehole on the property. Other McLeod electroplating companies have similarly dumped Chromic Acid wastes into boreholes.

If those facts are correct, then the owners of that site are required under the act to notify the EPA. The document further states:

This practice has been taking place over 30+ years, involving hundreds of gallons of waste per month...

There are some fairly serious allegations made in this anonymous note that I have received. I am not going to indicate whether or not I can necessarily confirm that it is true. We always have to take these things as they are received, but I think that is also worthy of further investigation in this inquiry.

We then had the issue of the four former Housing SA blocks that have been placed on the market, one of which had been sold. As recently as yesterday, the government has indicated in Hansard, according to the housing minister:

Once we were made aware of the fact that there was an issue in that area, we put a hold on the sale of that land...there was one contract that had been signed and another potential purchaser who was interested in buying the land. We discussed the situation with the person who had signed the contract, and they were allowed to withdraw from that contract.

I think that indicates the seriousness of this particular issue which the government has certainly been seeking to downplay. Indeed, if the government has taken that action only in March, after this was exposed in February, then one has to wonder why these particular blocks were allowed to proceed to the market. It goes back to the public notification issue: the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

Housing SA is trying to sell potentially toxic properties, and the EPA was aware of this 18 months ago, so I think that is a further issue that warrants investigation because I assume that Housing SA was not made aware of it in any sooner than anybody else in late February. Of course, there is an issue of a potential liability. If someone purchases or has purchased that property and has not been provided with full disclosure of the contamination, there is the potential that they will sue the government.

There have been concerns spreading in relation to the Hills contamination site of groundwater to Clarence Gardens and Melrose Park which the EPA is unable to rule out. Just in today's paper, concerns have been raised about Clovelly Park potentially being contaminated as well. I should have referred to this earlier, but I have here the letter that the EPA sent to residents on 23 February, and it contains much of the material that is in its media release but is given the title 'Contamination Investigations—Edwardstown, South Plympton.'

A line in the letter I have highlighted is, 'The EPA is sending this letter to all residents who live in the area where contamination might exist.' As I said, it has since been discovered that there is further contamination and then perhaps even further contamination than that. To have assumed that it was limited to these particular suburbs I think shows that there was potential for further areas that may have been contaminated that, clearly, the government was not aware of.

There have been other issues raised over time. There is a well-known case which I think has been highlighted in the Sunday Mail, certainly by that great organisation, the People's EPA, concerning an old foundry at Kapunda where a lady purchased a property and was not aware that there had been contamination of that property. She was not aware of the history of it, and it is quite an unsafe place for her grandchildren to play.

In February 2010, we were made aware that there was rotting material under a public park at Seaford which was causing methane to escape. There is the former Actil Sheridan site in Woodville which has, potentially, a significant amount of contamination. Also, at Solomontown Port Pirie 100 houses have been affected and, apparently, the EPA has known about that gas contamination since 2004 and it was even considering the extraordinary measure of evacuating residents earlier this year. We have had an issue at Port Adelaide where explosion risks were exposed in October 2010. So there are quite a number of different sites where there has been potential contamination that has been known about but the public has not been alerted to it until the issue has escaped into the media.

I understand the EPA is now using its resources to doorknock houses in Edwardstown and has been doorknocking at houses in Port Pirie. I appreciate that is a very time-consuming process for officers but it does beg the question as to whether, if the EPA had acted sooner, it might not have needed to have all its resources on the ground, talking to people about how they may be impacted on in relation to these potential hazards. Indeed, if a culture of not notifying the public because the government is afraid of adverse publicity has developed I think this also needs to be exposed.
Regarding the Marion council, I think there is good cause to examine the role of local government in the mandatory notification process. As I understand it, that particular council's elected members were not told for some 13 months about that matter. Returning to the Edwardstown matter, the EPA's 'frequently asked questions' section states a few things which may highlight what is going on in terms of the management practices or, indeed, the culture of whether these things should be publicised or not. It states:

Site contamination is normally initially identified at the source site and investigated in stages until the nature and the extent of the contamination is fully understood.

We have heard that a fair bit this year in media reports. I think it goes to the heart of the question: at what point is it appropriate that people should be notified about potential hazards to their health? Do we need to confirm that, yes, it is dangerous and may potentially give you cancer, or were they thinking that, if the contamination is at a fairly low level, unless we are told otherwise, we do not need to tell people?' Further in this document it states:

SA Health consistently advises all South Australians not to use bore water unless they have had the water adequately and frequently tested and it is shown to be safe for its intended use.

I think that is a bit of a butt-covering exercise, quite frankly; not that anybody should assume that things are safe, but if people are new to the area and are not aware of the history of these things then there ought to be some public agency which is at least able to provide some information. It goes to the issue of the public register, as well, which will be addressed further, as I said. Under the heading 'What is the problem posed by PCE, TCE and its breakdown products?' the answer is:

The full extent of the contamination has not been determined; however the contaminant levels of the chemicals detected in the groundwater are significantly above water quality guideline values. The bore water in the area of concern should not be used under any circumstances.

The comment that I would make is that if the bore water is not to be used under any circumstances people should have had a right to know that prior to the issue breaking in the media. Possibly for people's financial security (if we are moving away from the health issues) the last paragraph in that document states:

It is possible that the EPA will in the future declare a bore water restriction zone. If this occurs, the titles of properties in the affected area will be flagged to ensure that future purchasers of the property are aware of the restriction on using bore water.

I think a lot of residents in that area ought to rightly be concerned about that particular matter because, if they were not aware of the contamination when they purchased the property, they may well have been prepared to pay more for it. If you have something registered on your title—and I do not per se disagree that things should be registered on a title—clearly that will affect people's property values. Clearly, that will affect people's property values because, as we are going to discover in coming years, if people have asbestos in their houses that is also going to be flagged on their titles, and they are the sort of the things that do scare off future buyers.

I think that the residents who are living in that area at the moment would have every reason to be annoyed, angry and concerned that they were not informed as soon as possible, because that will affect their property values and the houses that they have been diligently paying loans off of and so forth. With those comments, I commend the motion to the house and look forward to further debate on this issue.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. Carmel Zollo.