Sydney's scandalous toxic waste plan by government

Hunter’s Hill is a predominantly wealthy suburb of Sydney with average house prices of around AUD $1.3 million and a harbour-side community made up predominantly of professionals, managers and other traditionally middle to high-income workers. Penrith, on the other hand, located just over 50 kilometres from Sydney’s CBD, is not as affluent, with average property values of around AUD $280,000.

It is for this reason that a class-bias has been suggested by some in regard to the New South Wales government’s decision to have 5,800 tonnes of toxic waste moved from Hunter’s Hill to a landfill site in Kemps Creek, which is on the outskirts of Penrith. The waste is the by-product of a uranium smelter that operated in Hunter’s Hill before the area became a well-to-do suburb with detached homes and waterfront residences.

The toxic waste, according to Sydney news reports, has been categorised by nuclear scientists with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation as ‘hazardous’ in 1987, but was recently re-categorised by the state government ahead of their plans to have it relocated, despite some samples showing radioactive levels seven times the level considered to be hazardous.

The waste has been a headache for the local government for decades.

In the past several years, six people in the area of Nelson’s Parade, where the toxic waste is located, have died of cancer, though there is no clear link between their deaths and the presence of the waste, which is radioactive, but not, the government insists, at dangerous levels.

The plots of land occupied by the waste are worth a combined AUD $9 million and the Sun-Herald has previously reported that the government plans to sell these plots once the waste has been removed. The financial motivation, as well as the under-handed nature of the government’s plans, have caused many Sydney news media houses to label the proposed project a scandal.

Indeed, the information obtained by the Sun-Herald was only done so forcibly through the Government Information (Public Access) Act and shows that the New South Wales government knew the plan would be contentious and tried to deliberately delay informing the City of Penrith of their decision until after they’d signed the contract with SITA Environmental Solutions, the private company that owns the landfill site in Kemps Creek.

“We would prefer to brief council after a contract has been executed between SPA and SITA, so that there is certainty on SITA’s commitment to accept the waste and to mitigate the impact of any opposition by council on the progress of the project,” read part an internal briefing note from early in 2010, written by the State Property Authority (SPA), the government agency responsible for the contaminated land.

Internal emails further show that the SPA was unwilling to “pander” to Penrith Council’s requests for further information, saying the less they knew of the waste the better.

According to the internal documents obtained, SITA would be paid AUD $3.5 million to accept the waste and was told to prepare for a negative reaction from the local community, including protests at the landfill and attempts to block access to the site.

The nuclear scientists that took 266 samples from the plots in 1987 and deemed many of them to be hazardous, recommended that the nuclear waste be disposed of in the specialised manner required of most nuclear waste, but New South Wales does not have the facilities for such disposal and this is part of the reason why the land has remained contaminated since 1916 when the uranium smelter closed down.

The government, in reclassifying the waste as non-hazardous, used data compiled by consultants from Environ, who took just 19 samples and came to the conclusion that the uranium smelter’s by-product was ‘restricted solid waste’, rather than hazardous waste, and therefore requires no special disposal.

Despite this, the government had planned to move the 5,800 tonnes of radioactive waste through the city in specially sealed trucks, but abandoned the plan only when Sydney news media began reporting on it. In an abrupt about-turn, Kristina Keneally, the Premier of New South Wales, informed the public that the Land and Property Management Authority had been instructed to examine other options.

While maintaining that the waste was not dangerous, the premier indicated that “given the community concern regarding this material, I have instructed [the Land and Property Management Authority] to examine alternative options – including interstate or overseas locations – for the transfer of this waste.”

This presents the possibility of a smaller, less powerful and less wealthy country within Australia’s sphere of influence being saddled with the waste on Sydney’s behalf, much like the city originally intended for Penrith.