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Wednesday, 18 March 1987
Page: 928


Senator MASON(7.30) —I rise tonight on the adjournment to pursue a matter I have followed for the past nine years. I refer to the existence of dioxin contaminants at the former Union Carbide plant at Rhodes in the inner western suburbs of Sydney. I first raised the existence of this dangerous material in 1978. Its existence prior to that had been kept secret and no real effort to dispose of it had been made. That was regrettable, to say the least, and indeed irresponsible on the part of all concerned. However, since disclosures were first made the matter has been publicly ventilated many times, and I am glad to hear now that the 15 kilograms of dioxin stored on activated charcoal in drums at the old Union Carbide building in Rhodes has left this country for final disposal. It is probably one of the largest concentrations of dioxin in the world and, of course, one of the most dangerous chemicals in the world.

However, there remains another major issue. There are, as I understand it, proposals to build a multi-million dollar development on the land at Rhodes which would include underground carparks. I am deeply concerned at recent statements from the New South Wales State Pollution Control Commission which have been quoted by the Minister for Planning and Environment, Mr Carr, that concentrations of dangerous chemicals which include the 2378 dioxin at the Rhodes site are too small to be harmful to the public. This is totally irresponsible and quite intolerable. I have today checked with responsible experts, who confirm my view that if major earthwork is carried out on the site it is virtually inevitable that the dioxin and other organochlorines will be released into the atmosphere as dust. In view of the high toxicity and carcinogenic nature of the substances involved, it is essential in the public interest that no soil disturbance be permitted on the land until the dangerous chemicals with which it has been saturated are removed.

I am strongly supported in this view by Dr John Pollack, reader in histology at the University of Sydney, who is an acknowledged expert on the organochlorines. Dr Pollack has advised me that in several places in the United States of America and in Germany there are established procedures for cleaning chemical contaminants from soil through the use of specialised bacteria which are created by modern gene technology. In other words, it is quite possible, and it has been carried out, to engineer bacteria which will digest and remove these contaminants. The technology has been established. It is important to note that work in this area is also well advanced at both Monash University in Melbourne and Sydney University. To give the Senate some idea of cost, a 1985 cost in the United States to remove and process the material biochemically was between $60 and $120 per cubic yard. In view of the fact that Union Carbide expects to get between $10m and $20m for its property this seems a not unreasonable cost to expect of it.

My proposal then is that Union Carbide activate the system that it developed for that industrial site before it is developed, and encourage people preferably from Sydney University or from Monash University-at least Australians-to clean this industrial site before it is developed. It is a reasonable proposition, one with which I think Union Carbide would agree, that the polluter should pay. Not only would this remove a permanent source of danger from the community and make the site safe to develop; it would allow Australian research to develop in an area which could provide us with a new and perhaps profitable industry in the high technology area. There is little doubt in many parts of the world that the patience of the public is very properly at an end with chemical companies who scatter dangerous substances about and then expect to collect their considerable profits without repairing the damage they have done.

I wish to make two other points which bear on this matter. One is that I am assured that there are dangerous contaminants on the Rhodes site other than the 2378 dioxin. Phenol was manufactured at Rhodes and there is good reason to suppose that it is in the soil at well above the generally accepted tolerance of 100 parts per billion. I understand that there was also an analine plant at Rhodes, and contaminants from this are probably still in the soil. These, I am told, can also be removed by biochemical means. It is the responsibility and indeed the duty of the State Pollution Control Commission of New South Wales to see that this is done.

Finally, I draw attention to the quite unpardonable air of secrecy and reluctance with which that Commission goes about its work-work which should be carried out promptly and responsibly and in the fullest possible public view. I recall that when I raised this matter first in 1978 officers of the Pollution Control Commission had the impertinence to suggest that no dioxin existed there and that I was making the whole thing up for political reasons. Fortunately, I had a letter in my possession from Union Carbide at that time admitting to the existence of the dioxin. I recount this incident as typical of the sort of obscurantism, the sort of dishonesty, that ought not to occur in a public authority with the responsibilities that the Pollution Control Commission has. However, since then, I have found the Pollution Control Commission evasive, unwilling to give any information and dilatory. The substances which it is supposed to control could be the cause of death or serious illness to many members of the public; there is no doubt about that. It is one of the most dangerous man made substances, if not the most dangerous, in existence. I suggest that at Rhodes the New South Wales Pollution Control Commission now has the chance to redeem that most unfortunate public reputation.