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Time for NSW to take chemical leaks seriously

The EPA has made great strides in protecting waterways, but its pollution licences still don’t do what they should. Ian Wright

Time for NSW to take chemical leaks seriously

The EPA has made great strides in protecting waterways, but its pollution licences still don’t do what they should. Ian Wright

NSW is not doing enough to prevent excessive environmental damage from chemical leaks: it is more common than many people realise for liquid wastes to be discharged into waterways.

The NSW Environment Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for regulating the disposal of waste discharges from medium and large operations into the environment. For each location this is done through a licence called an Environmental Protection Licence (EPL). These licences are commonly known as “pollution licences”.

A recent research paper in the Environmental and Planning Law Journal examined the current regulation of water pollution in NSW. It identified many failures which are causing water pollution and environmental degradation.

The EPA has been reconstituted with amendments to its legislation and can now impose severe new penalties for causing pollution and also for any failure to promptly report pollution. This was a direct result of a NSW Government inquiry. While this is a major improvement, so many of the pollution licences specify pollutants limits that are irrelevant to the actual environmental risks and damage.

Pollution licences aren’t working

Pollution licences (EPLs) are not preventing environmental contamination. Recently, a highly hazardous material (sodium chromate) was released from the Orica Kooragang Island industrial complex near Newcastle to the Stockton residential area. The general public was only informed of the potentially carcinogenic “fallout” three days after the incident. Both industry (Orica) and the regulator (the EPA) were criticised.

Collecting water samples from wastewater spilling from the Canyon Coal Mine. Ian Wright

The upper Coxs River illustrates the issues with EPLs. This river, in the western Blue Mountains of NSW, has more than 22 licensed premises discharging waste to waterways. The upper Coxs is a sensitive and highly valued region. The river has identified values of ecosystem protection, irrigation, livestock water supply, fishing, visual amenity and recreation. It is also one of the largest rivers flowing into Lake Burragorang, the giant domestic water reservoir behind Warragamba Dam, the largest drinking water storage for Sydney.

Delta Electricity operate two coal-fired power stations in the area. The older power station (Wallerawang) has an EPL licence to release waste water that does not match the pollutants released. Remarkably the EPL failed to regulate salinity, as the discharge had a level of salinity measured at up to 2,380 µS/cm. This is nearly seven times the Australian water guideline for protection of aquatic ecosystems. It’s about 50 times higher than background levels of salinity (in upstream clean reaches of local freshwater streams). The current EPL for this facility has no discharge limits for salinity.

This discharge also includes highly elevated heavy metals, such as copper. Again, there were no discharge limits for copper or other heavy metals in the waste discharge.

In 2009, the Blue Mountains Conservation Society took Delta to court over this discharge, using data I collected. The Wallerawang Power Station is now in the process of an ambitious upgrade to its treatment of wastewater, following an out-of-court settlement. Delta Electricity have also requested the EPA to licence its waste discharges to include many water pollutants including salinity and heavy metals.

Coal causing cumulative impacts

Another criticism of water pollution licensing in NSW is the lack of consideration of cumulative impacts. The upper Coxs River includes more than 20 other licenced discharge points in addition to the Wallerawang Power Station. There are two sewage treatment plants (Lithgow and Wallerawang) and a very large and growing number of coal mines that “dewater” waste water that collects as part of their mining operation and is pumped out to nearby waterways.

Water pollution from coal mining is more persistent and ecologically damaging than many people realise. A nearby coal mine, the Canyon Coal Mine, operated for about 70 years before closing in 1997. This has been the subject of several research papers as contaminated drainage still emerges today and every day from a mine shaft that emerges near the edge of the cliff lines in the spectacular and highly valued Grose River valley.

Grose River above the Canyon coal mine waste inflow. Ian Wright

This area is one of the most highly valued environments in the world. It is a National Park, a declared Wilderness area, a declared Wild River, and is also part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage area. These protections have not prevented or even remediated any of the water pollution effects from the legacy of this coal mining operation.

One study of aquatic ecosystems of the Grose River using freshwater invertebrates, showed that more than 10km of the river was ecologically degraded by toxic water originating from the coal mine. Water chemistry suggested that toxic levels of zinc were responsible for the pollution and ecological degradation.

The NSW EPA accepted the surrender of the EPL (#558) when commercial mining ceased, even though polluted water continued to emerge from the mine. It appears that this pollution discharge now occurs in a regulatory vacuum. When it was in operation, the EPL allowed the mine to release highly elevated levels of zinc, hundreds of time higher than ecosystem protection guidelines recommend.

Time to make a change

Reforms of water pollution licensing are needed in NSW. Licences need to include all pollutants being released from waste discharge points. Licences need to include concentration limits and monitoring requirements for all environmentally hazardous pollutants in each discharge.

The NSW Government demanded this type of information from Sydney Water when it was corporatised. Providing the information turned out to be an important incentive for Sydney Water to clean up beaches, and particularly its discharge of sewage into the ocean (some may remember the 1980s fight against sewage pollution at Bondi, Malabar and North Head). The standard of treatment was improved and the quality of water for swimming has improved. This example of good pollution management has turned out to be a very isolated one.

The cumulative impact of all licensed discharges needs to be considered. The EPA should publicly explain the rationale for its EPL discharge limit decisions, particularly for its discharge pollutant concentrations for key pollutants.

The NSW Government has made one very important step towards improved regulation of pollution. In the aftermath of the August 2011 Orica case, EPL licence holders are now required to make all environmental monitoring data publicly available. This was an important step and has improved the transparency of water pollution in NSW. I hope that it helps the community understand what potentially dangerous chemicals may be discharge in their local environment. However, people may be disappointed that in so many cases the EPLs for water pollution fail to specify limits for the most damaging chemicals in the waste disharge. But then again, how would people know?