There are many well known examples of large-scale industrial contamination events from across the world. Think the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which led to radioactive strontium, iodine, americium, caesium, and plutonium contaminating more than 200,000 km2 of Europe; the poisoning of the Vietnamese people and many foreign soldiers as a result of the 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD) in Agent Orange being sprayed across the jungle as a defoliant during the Vietnam war; or the near-extinction of the American Bald Eagle as a result of the insecticide DDT (or rather, its metabolite DDE) biomagnifying through the food chain to toxic levels in the eagles.
While Australia’s major contaminated sites might not be as infamous and information on them less easy to find than their overseas counterparts, the risks they pose to human and environmental health are just as substantial. This blog therefore sets out to create a list of some highly-contaminated sites in Australia, albeit a small one. The listing of the sites below has been undertaken subjectively, rather than using an objective measure such as data evaluation. That said, it is fair to say the contamination at the sites listed below is substantial and in some cases the worst in the world.
Maralinga/Woomera, South Australia – Radiation
If you drive from Adelaide into Australia’s red centre, you will pass a sign warning “Travellers on this road are not permitted to deviate”. This sign indicates you have entered Maralinga, arguably one of the most contaminated sites in the world.
The contamination at Maralinga is the result of a range of nuclear tests. Of these, the most toxic were the Vixen B tests which were undertaken on at least 15 occasions and in such a way as to hurl molten uranium and plutonium almost one kilometre into the air. This resulted in 22.2 kilograms of radioactive plutonium-239 and as much uranium being spread across the soil surface at Maralinga’s Taranaki test site, and was the cause of the radioactive contamination which now exists. As the half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,000 years, this contamination will continue for many thousands of years yet.
The British Government, who undertook these tests on Australian territory, ploughed the contaminated soils to dilute the radioactivity as a means of remediating the radioactive contamination in a final clean-up of the site before they left in the 1960s. Some of this soil was also pushed into a pit and some was covered with concrete and fenced. A monument was then built. All of this was undertaken in secret.
In the late 1970s, journalists eventually found out what had happened at Maralinga. Further rehabilitation of the site was then commissioned by the Australian Government in the 1980s. Indications are that this additional remediation was not undertaken to levels which would be acceptable to many scientists and engineers, with the radioactive contamination at the site still a significant health risk to any visitors.
Orica, Botany Bay - Metals and hydrocarbons
Orica, formerly ICI, commenced chemical manufacture in Botany Bay, Sydney in 1942. This manufacture has led to soils and groundwater at the site being contaminated with:
• mercury, used in ICI’s chlor-alkali plant between 1944 and 2002;
• 1,2-dichloroethane, a byproduct of the manufacture of plastics such as PVC.
The hexachlorobenzene which contaminates the site is now thought to be the world’s largest stockpile of this highly toxic, persistent, and internationally banned chemical.
The contamination at the Orica site and the Botany Sands Aquifer is currently regulated under some of the most robust contamination legislation in Australia, with remediation of groundwater being undertaken at more than 100 groundwater extraction wells.
Omex Waste Dump
The Omex waste dump was located in the residential suburb of Bellvue, Western Australia, and was a large leaking pit filled with sulfuric acid, waste oils and lubricants, building waste, car bodies, and drums generated by the oil refining and blending activities which occurred at the site between 1954 and 1985.
The dump was the size of a soccer field and contained a variety of contaminants including metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and dioxin in a highly acidic ooze. A nauseating, blue haze sourcing from the waste pit and the associated oil processing activities frequently blanketed Bellvue in the 1970s, with accidental fires in the 1960s and 1970s sending pulses of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons into the suburb’s residential properties.
The Omex pit ceased being used by around 1985, and for a while the site was slowly forgotten. In 1995 however, new residents in the area found toxic groundwater surfacing in their backyards. These residents were finally successful at lobbying the Western Australian Government to remediate the site in 1997. This remediation was poorly implemented and expert warnings ignored, however, with the community being exposed to highly toxic gas fumes sourcing from the site during its remediation on hundreds of occasions, with many community members becoming ill.
Waste control disaster
Land in Bellvue was also being used for another industrial waste dump at the same time the Omex Waste dump was active. It is estimated up to 3,000 litres of halogenated solvents, thinners, acids, oils, and other unknown wastes were stored in drums at this waste dump, located near the Helena River. Drums were located side-by-side and on top of each other, with up to 1 million litres of waste thought to have been stored at the site altogether.
Handling of chemical safety at the site was poor and spills at the site were common. At times workers were forced to wade around inches of spilled perchloroethylene waste. They were told to mix unknown chemicals and acids, an absolute “no no” to anyone formally trained in chemistry. Injuries, especially eye injuries, occurred on a weekly basis. By January 2001 most workers had quit the site due to its poor conditions, leaving only the manager, his assistant, and a truck driver.
At 1045pm on 21 February 2001 a series of explosions rattled the windows of Bellvue and lit the night sky. Drums were hurled hundreds of feet into the air and landed on neighbouring properties. Firefighters, told that it was a factory fire, struggled to contain the blaze with water and failed. Millions of litres of this water poured from the site, into roadside drains, and on to the Helena River, carrying a concoction of chemicals previously contained at the site with it. Heavy metals, phthalates, phenols, and chlorinated solvents were detected at high levels on site and in drains the weeks after the blaze.
Lake Macquarie North, Newcastle
Estuaries have the potential to be highly contaminated. This is because contaminants “stuck” to the soil and sediment carried in rivers fall out of the water column within estuaries as the fresh water reacts with the salty water. If the river carries substantial pollution, estuaries can therefore accumulate significant amounts of contaminants. Add to this the location of many highly contaminating industries such as sewage treatment facilities, smelters, tanneries, and refineries near estuaries, and you have a recipe for a highly contaminated site.
Lake Macquarie, an estuary located near Newcastle, New South Wales, has some of the most contaminated sediments in Australia as a result of industrial activity since the 1890s. These activities have resulted in cadmium, lead, mercury, selenium, silver, and zinc contamination of the Lake’s sediments. Some recent research found that it these contaminants do not exist within Lake Macquarie’s sediments in a form where it physically available to wildlife. Other experiments, however, have shown shellfish growth and health to be significantly affected.