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Toxic shock for Canberra

A multinational corporation was allowed to pollute Canberra water with toxic chemicals in a case exposing more than a decade of failings by ACT authorities. Sources: The Canberra Times, 7News

Koppers Wood Products’ timber treatment plant in Hume caused hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made infamous by environmental activist Erin Brockovich, to leach into groundwater at up to 2430 times the safe limit by 2007.

A Fairfax investigation found the ACT government, despite knowing of the pollution, obtained no independent tests in the past seven years to ensure the carcinogens have not spread from the now mostly vacant 20-hectare site.

Records also reveal a string of missing groundwater monitoring results, which Koppers was legally required to submit to the government from at least 1998 until it closed the plant in 2005.

The contamination and the missing lab reports were noticed by the ACT Environment Protection Authority in 2005, when it first conducted a compliance check of Koppers’ legally binding environmental authorisation, something it should have done annually from 2002.

The EPA has never taken any action against Koppers, despite the haphazard groundwater testing and the pollution at the site.

The revelations have outraged former ACT environment protection chief Bob Dunn, who worked on laws in the 1980s designed specifically to guard the region’s waterways from the copper, chrome and arsenic Koppers used to treat timber.

Dunn now believes it is an “absolute certainty” the company has breached criminal law. He has urged ACT authorities to launch an inquiry and to consider taking action against Koppers.

The contaminated water lies one kilometre uphill from a small tributary of Jerrabomberra Creek, which flows through the ecologically rich Jerrabomberra Wetlands and into Lake Burley Griffin.

The EPA remains confident the hexavalent chromium is isolated to a pocket of groundwater called a perched aquifer, and said it would be impossible for it to reach Jerrabomberra Creek.

Yet it has obtained no groundwater tests since 2007 to confirm the pollution has not shifted offsite, instead relying on the findings of a seven-year-old audit and an update provided by Koppers’ consultants four years ago.

The lack of testing has attracted criticism from the ACT Environmental Defenders’ Office, a non-profit community legal centre, and Dunn, who believes the pollution is likely to spread over time.

“They really should be doing periodic monitoring because there’s no telling what might cause that to move off, to start moving around,” Dunn said. “Monitoring is not that expensive, and I think what they’re talking about is just an excuse.”

Koppers, through its Sydney office and Pittsburgh headquarters, has refused to respond to repeated requests for comment from The Canberra Times, saying only that it no longer owns the site.

The company had already raised the ire of activists after arsenic was reportedly found at 40 times the safe limit in a street gutter outside another of its treatment plants near Bungendore.

To alleviate the concerns, strict conditions were placed on Koppers’ lease in Hume, while federal bureaucrats, led by Dunn, introduced new environmental ordinances to protect the ACT in the period before self-government.

Analysis of laboratory testing conducted at the Koppers site in the late 1990s and the early 2000s shows that some parts of the former timber treatment plant were heavily contaminated with copper, arsenic and chromium-6.

The tests, commissioned by Koppers, showed that arsenic levels in some of the site’s water rose above the acceptable levels set by the company.

Soil tests also indicated that the ground surrounding the treatment plant on the site breached the company’s designated limits of copper, chromium-6 and arsenic.

Daniel Walters, senior manager at the ACT’s Environment Directorate, said Koppers had conducted its own private tests since 2005 but has not released results publicly.

“After the site closed there’s been extensive groundwater monitoring done by Koppers as part of the assessment and remediation of the site,” he said.

Walters said Koppers has described the problem as localised.

“They’ve provided us with yearly updates that the case is, that this material is not leaving the site,” he said.

“They’ve done a full health risk assessment and it does not pose a risk for human heath.”

Walters said his directorate would only intervene if there is a danger to human health or neighbouring areas. However, he says he cannot give any guarantees about the material being contained on the site in future.