Stirring the waters
The NSW government is exposing children to significant health risks by sanctioning an incomplete clean up of industrial contamination on the Parramatta River, according to scientific experts and residents. Elizabeth Pearson investigates.
Dangerous pollutants and carcinogens leached into Kendall Bay from the Mortlake gas works during 85 years of heavy activity on the foreshore.
The state health department told a community meeting last year that 30 days exposure per annum to sand at the Kendall Bay beach was a serious concern for children under the age of five, exceeding all reasonable health levels.
But locals are outraged that the same beach has now been excluded from remediation plans put forward by Jemena, the company that’s inherited legal responsibility for the cleanup.
“Only a very little part of Kendall Bay is to be remediated and the area does not even cover the pollution at the southern end of the bay between the mangrove stand and the seawall,” said Greg McGrath of the Breakfast Point Residents Group Inc.
“This is the most visually polluted part of the whole area, it is chemically as bad as the worst of the bay and is often walked over by teens and children, posing great risk to them. We are not happy with the proposal.”
Risk assessments dating back to 1999 indicate the presence of high levels of toxins including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene, sulfur and ammonia across the 3.3 hectare marine site to a depth of more than 1.6 metres.
Unsuspecting families who play on the sand, in the water or the mangroves face increased health risks from PAHs, which are described by the State of Marine Environment Report for Australia as “environmentally suspect” and “relatively toxic” to humans.
Benzene is known to cause leukemia in cases of extreme exposure. Ingestion or short-term exposure to the toxin can cause symptoms like vomiting, dizziness, convulsions, said the Australian National Toxins Network.
The Department of Environment and Climate Change maintains health risks are unlikely.
“Any serious health risks assume long term exposure where contaminated mud is not washed off the body for a number of hours and with regular and frequent exposure over a number of years,” said Senior Public Affairs Officer Emma Petersen.
But locals are concerned that remediation plans proposed will not rectify the full extent of contamination.
A spokesperson for Jemena has said these concerns are unwarranted.
“Quantitative human health risk assessments were carried out using very conservative assumptions and on the basis of the findings, the remediation areas were determined and agreed with DECC as posing areas of potential risk,” they said. “Concerned members of the community should read the assessments thoroughly to gain a full understanding of how the current remediation plans were arrived at.”
But the size of proposed cleanup sites has been downgraded over a series of reports.
The Environmental Protection Agency declared all sediment within 200 metres of the gasworks shore a remediation site in 2004 as it “poses a significant risk of harm”.
It mandated that 256 000 square metres of river bed in Kendall Bay and the adjoining Parramatta River must be left undisturbed or else cleaned up.
But remediation work is now necessary due to a submission by the developer of the Breakfast Point residential complex to build a 177 berth marina in Kendall bay.
Construction and marine traffic would stir up the pollutants buried in the sand.
Yet Jemena’s Final Preliminary Environmental Assessment plan released last year would rectify less than 4 percent of the area stipulated by the EPA.
The report, produced by the environmental engineering consultant group URS Australia, earmarks two sites within the bay for rectification, covering just 9 300 square metres.
“The proposal does not address the contamination over the bay and river area covered by the EPA remediation order,” Mr McGrath said.
Initial health risk assessments stated that visitors to the beach and mangroves were at risk of exposure to toxins buried in sand and silt up to one metre below the tide line.
The latest proposed remediation site now excludes most of the mangrove and southern beach area. This is despite locals reporting lumps of coal washing up onto the shore during high tides and rough seas.
The Department of Environment and Climate Change approved Jemena’s plans on December 28, 2008.
“The original area where the remediation order applies does not necessarily equate with the area that requires remediation as the remediation process is focused on protecting public health ie areas accessible by the public that could be disturbed in day to day activity such as swimming or wading,” said Ms Petersen. “The sandy beach area does not require remediation at this stage as the levels of contamination have been found to be very low and do not pose a risk of harm in day to day activity.”
But an independent review commissioned by the City of Canada Bay Council has challenged the scope of the plans.
“Council has reviewed the plans and raised a number of questions and clarifications which will be put to the consultants carrying out the remediation,” said the Manager of Environmental Health and Building, Nigel Bertus.
“Much of the detail on how the remediation work will be undertaken is unknown at this stage.”
The report proposes five different courses of remediation, identifying the removal, rectification and replacement of sediment as most feasible.
However, it fails to detail the extent of infrastructure, personnel and cost involved.
Residents maintain that tidal movements will only re-contaminate remediation sites if the rest of the bay is neglected.
Geosciences Professor Gavin Birch from Sydney University said these fears are legitimate.
“I don’t have first hand information but the area that has been agreed to presumably by the governing authorities as well as companies is a very small area in the shallow embankment in the inter-tidal zone,” he said.
“The vast majority of contamination [tends to] occur in deeper water in the bay itself and I don’t know that anyone’s done any extensive work on that to determine the spatial extent of the contamination.”
For more information, visit Elizabeth Pearson’s website.