My Speech to SSROC's Contaminated Land Conference


Last week on the 23rd of November, it was my pleasure to present the keynote speech to a Conference on Contaminated Lands organised by Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (SSROC). The conference was held at what was once the headquarters of Fairfax where I previously worked in their corporate division. It is now the University of Technology’s Aerial Function Centre.

“Good morning everyone.  Firstly I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we meet on today and pay my respects to elders past and present. It is noted that we are talking to day about caring for the land as they managed to do for 40,000 years.

I also acknowledge today’s distinguished speakers and open by congratulating SSROC organisers for putting on an important conference like this. And thank you all for taking time out of your demanding jobs to be here today.

It’s my pleasure to present this keynote speech about the importance of working together to rehabilitate contaminated land in NSW, on behalf of the NSW Minister for the Environment Mark Speakman, who can’t be here today.

But I will also add a few side comments of my own having been a Councillor on the City of Sydney for 12 years and advisor to Liverpool City Council for two years prior to entering parliament. That gives me 14 years in the policy space for land use and of course land contamination issues.

Population growth continues to pace pressure on land rezoning and development across Sydney. Whether that be in the inner city as former petrol stations or industrial lands become sites for apartments or at Liverpool on the Georges River where former abattoirs and paper mill sites give way to riverside apartment developments.

Decades of poor industrial practices have resulted in the contamination of land and groundwater across NSW with toxic chemicals. Contaminated land can pose significant environmental health risks by potentially exposing the public to toxic chemicals in soils and groundwater.

The NSW Government is focussed on reducing human exposure to contaminants and on turning unproductive contaminated lands into lands that benefit the community of NSW. Returning contaminated land to a useable state can have major economic, legal and planning implications for the community.  Contamination may limit land use potential or increase costs for developers and councils.

Sites that have been contaminated by former waste disposal, industrial and similar activities are frequently discovered during changes to land use – for example, from industrial to residential use. In most cases these can be managed at the time that the change of land use occurs.

In rare cases, some sites are found to present an unacceptable risk to human health or to the environment and must be dealt with as a priority. Such sites are typically subject to clean up and / or management under EPA directions.

NSW has a robust planning framework where past land use is considered prior to redevelopment and / or rezoning, in order to enable the identification and management of land contamination.

Much of NSW has a history of impact be it from industry, commerce, agriculture or mining.  With that history comes the potential for significant contamination legacies.

Whether it’s an early 19th century gasworks or recently leaking service station– no two contaminated sites are the same, with every site requiring an individualised clean up solution. For instance, gas manufacturing plants, known as gasworks, used to produce town gas for heating, lighting and cooking. Gas was generated by heating coal. The resulting gas was captured, piped off and used as fuel.

There were many gasworks in operation in NSW from the late 1800s. With the introduction of alternative fuel sources (such as LPG and natural gas), most were phased out by mid-1980s. The operation of gasworks has left a legacy of soil and groundwater contamination, in some cases extending to adjoining sites. The major contaminants include tars, oils, hydrocarbon sludges, spent oxide wastes, and ash. While many of these materials were recycled or reused, it was common for some to be buried on or near the gasworks site (for instance in underground tar wells, liquor wells, pipes and purifier beds) and not removed when the gasworks were decommissioned. 

Some of these contaminants are carcinogenic to humans and toxic to aquatic ecosystems and so may pose a risk to human health and the environment if significant exposure were to occur. As a result, many former gasworks sites require remediation before they can be put to other uses. One familiar to me is of course the huge gas works site on Hickson Road now part of the Barangaroo development. I recall there were major legal and liability issues around this site as well as challanges of decontamination on the edge of Sydney Harbour. But Barangaroo is not unique in this regard.

There are more than 60 former gas works sites in NSW. The site of a former gasworks in Wagga Wagga was cleaned up at a cost of $12 million, making it one of the most expensive remediation projects ever undertaken by a regional council in NSW. The Tarcutta Street Gasworks in Wagga Wagga operated between 1818 and 1964, and the site was partially remediated in the 1970s. However, over time, tar and other contaminants migrated from the site under a nearby recreational area and into the Murrumbidgee River.

The impact to the river was unacceptable and needed to be addressed, leading the EPA to declare the gasworks a remediation site in 2007. The Environmental Trust and the EPA, through the Council Gasworks Program, has provided over $1 million in grants to assist Wagga Wagga City Council with the investigation and clean-up works, which began in 2007. The Tarcutta Street Gasworks is one of the most significant remediation projects ever undertaken by a council in a regional area and I congratulate the council on their investment so far and the commitment they have given to the local community to address this legacy issue.

Leaking fuel from underground storage tanks is another source of serious pollution and can cause significant contamination of groundwater, risks to neighbouring properties and very substantial clean-up costs for the owner and the community if the leaks remain undetected.

This is the most common cause of significantly contaminated land in NSW. These sites have the capacity to cause potential public health and explosive risks.  In response, NSW has developed a risk-based regulation that focuses on a preventative approach to minimise the risk of soil and groundwater contamination from leaking underground tanks. It follows that ‘prevention’ is better than a ‘cure’; in particular, once groundwater is polluted, it takes many years to reduce the risks posed to public health and the environment.

The impact on soil and groundwater from contamination may take many years to remove, and may disrupt or delay the redevelopment of former service station sites and adjoining land. When it comes to cleaning up contamination, the NSW Government sees the protection of environmental health as a collaborative effort and allocates resources to facilitate the sharing of knowledge between the state government and local governments.  Under this framework we have already seen the completion of a number of large remediation projects in NSW, including the Rhodes Peninsula and parts of the former BHP Newcastle site and adjacent Hunter River remediation.

The Rhodes Peninsula has undergone remediation since the late 1980s which has resulted in unproductive industrial land being turned into a populous residential area open to the community. The contamination of the Rhodes peninsula is a good example of a legacy site burdened with more than a hundred years of contamination. The early settlers dealt with industrial facilities and pollution by moving the activities away from populated areas to the outer reaches of the settlement. At the time, it meant moving pollution down along the Parramatta River.The Peninsula was laden with industry and filled with land using chemical industrial waste for many, many years, resulting in the current landform being very different to its pre-settlement form.

As you may know the remediation of the area was conducted in a number of phases, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of contaminated materials being treated across the entire peninsula over more than 5 years. We can all be proud of the newly developed community of Rhodes Peninsula of today, which has upwards of 15,000 residents since the remediation opened up the land for development, transforming it into one of Sydney’s most desirable residential locations.  We are also witnessing one of the world’s largest groundwater clean-up projects at the Orica site in Botany. The clean-up aims to prevent thousands of tonnes of chlorinated solvents that are dissolved in groundwater from discharging into Botany Bay.

The remediation works involve the extraction of contaminated groundwater from more than a hundred wells. The groundwater is then treated at a groundwater treatment plant located at the Botany Industrial Park. The groundwater treatment plant has operated effectively since its commissioning in 2006 to protect both the community and the environment in Botany. To date, about 16 gigalitres of contaminated groundwater has been extracted and the groundwater treatment plant has destroyed over 1240 tonnes of chlorinated solvents.

In 2013, the NSW EPA announced that it would conduct an independent review of all information related to historical mercury emissions from the former Chlor-Alkali Plant at the Botany Industrial Park. This comprehensive review is overseen by a review panel, which includes representatives from the EPA, the community, Randwick and Botany Councils, the Office of Environment and Heritage, NSW Health, an expert toxicologist and an independent chemical engineer. The EPA engaged WSP Environmental to conduct Stage 2 environmental testing within a 1.5km radius of the former Chlor-Alkali Plant. The testing involved sampling soil and vapour on public land, including parks and road reserves. Sediment and fish samples were taken from the Penrhyn Estuary.From 300 samples collected, it was concluded that the risk from mercury being present in soil and stormwater drains in the area is very low.

Additionally, it was also found that:

  • Mercury concentrations in the sediments in the Penrhyn Estuary are low and levels in fish are all below health safety limits.
  • Mercury concentrations in soil were less than the human health criteria for public open space land use.
  • Mercury vapour concentrations in stormwater and at each soil test site were less than the criteria for long term inhalation exposure.
  • Mercury concentrations in sediments in and around the Penrhyn Estuary were below thresholds protective of human contact.
  • Mercury concentrations in fish collected from Penrhyn Estuary were less than the criteria for human consumption.
  • Concentrations of lead and chromium were less than human health criteria for public open space land use.

This is a great example of how even the most complex sites can be rehabilitated with effective cooperation between government, industry and communities.

While sites with significant contamination are regulated by the EPA, other contaminated sites, for example sites that may pose a risk to public health only as a result of redevelopment, are regulated most commonly by local governments.  Previously, workshops have been held to build the capacity of local governments to manage contaminated land issues and increase communication between levels of government.  The workshop program was run in cooperation with selected regional councils, the Australasian Environmental Law Enforcement and Regulators Network and the Local Government and Shires Association. The workshops attracted attendance of over 300 council officers across 106 local government areas.

There are also currently four selected regional areas participating in the Regional Capacity Building Program, again funded by the NSW Government to provide long term contaminated land management capacity building in regional areas. Cooperation between local government, state government, industry and community is crucial to ensure effective regulation of contaminated land in NSW.

Continued cooperation is vital if we are to continue to turn unproductive contaminated lands into spaces that benefit the community of NSW.  Events like today’s conference facilitate this cooperation - so once again, I thank the Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils for inviting Minister Speakman and I to be a part of this important effort.

Thank you.”