BHP steelworks site: pollution time bomb – Newcastle Herald

By MATTHEW KELLY and IAN KIRKWOOD

Sept. 1, 2012, 4 a.m.

AN environmental deed that BHP Billiton and the state government refused to release under freedom of information shows taxpayers will pay the costs of any problems at the Newcastle steelworks site once BHP’s initial payment of $100million is gone.

Environmentalists believe the site is a ticking time bomb,  with most of the hydrocarbons and other potential contaminants still in the ground because the decade-long clean-up has been based on containment rather than removal of toxic materials.

BHP handed the steelworks site and four other parcels of land to the state government in 2002, and while $13million of the $100million was reportedly paid back to the government as payment for the land, few details of the environmental responsibilities lumped on to the public have ever emerged.

Details of the deal, which the former Carr government instigated, are  in a 55-page environmental deed obtained by the Newcastle Herald.

The extraordinary legal document reveals how BHP transferred its liability to the Crown for land-based contamination, including where it migrates off the site after the land was transferred.

‘‘The Crown agrees that the Environmental Payments are fixed and that no Claims may be made against any Protected Person [BHP employees and its agents] at any time seeking any payment in addition to the Environmental payment,’’ the environmental deed says.

Although significant decontamination work has occurred over the past decade, many believe BHP’s $100million payment will fall well short.

‘‘This was a great deal for BHP but a lousy deal for taxpayers,’’ NSW Total Environment Centre director Jeff Angel said.

‘‘No one can really say what the implications of such a badly contaminated site are going to be in years to come.’’

The concerns have heightened since the recent revelation that workers at the nearby Port Waratah Coal Loading facility had had  higher than normal incidences of some cancers.

There are also concerns a containment wall installed on the site will be ineffective from preventing groundwater leaving the site.

Major flooding is seen as another potential  risk that would allow contamination to escape.

‘‘My understanding is that you will not completely decontaminate that site because it would cost billions. You would have to get incinerators on to that land and burn it,’’ former BHP external affairs manager Greg Cameron, who worked at the Newcastle BHP site until November 1999, said.

Mr Cameron said he believed the company would have been prepared to pay far more in remediation costs if it had  been pressed.

‘‘How can you blame BHP? It was a sell-out by the state government. The government was only interested in blocking Newcastle from competing with Port Botany as a container terminal site,’’ he said.

‘‘BHP simply said if that’s what you want then that’s what you can have. I reckon the only mistake they made was to think it wouldn’t come back to haunt them.’’

A BHP Billiton spokeswoman said the company had honoured its agreement with the NSW Government for remediation works and would continue to fulfil its obligations in accordance with the agreements reached in 2001.

The company retained liability for contamination that had already migrated off the site before the land was transferred.

This included contamination of the Hunter River, which the company spent $600million cleaning up.

Greens environment spokeswoman Cate Faehrmann said it was unacceptable that any government would relieve a multibillion-dollar corporation of its responsibility to clean up pollution.

The Regional Land Management Corporation and the Hunter Development Corporation are responsible for rehabilitating the site on behalf of the state government.

Hunter Development Corporation general manager Bob Hawes said about $82million worth of works had been arranged for 83 hectares to date.

This included a barrier wall ($20million), improved site drainage ($10million) and regrading and capping ($52million).

Mr Hawes said he was satisfied sufficient funds had been set aside for the clean-up project.