Digging up old poisons

THERE is no reason, in principle, why a new section of the Pacific highway should not be built over the site of a notorious 1980 truck accident and toxic spill.

But once a decision was made to disturb the site, proper precautions should have been taken to prevent any risk of harm to road workers.

A review has been announced by the government to determine why adequate precautions were not taken, and the Premier, Mr O’Farrell, said he hoped this inquiry would reveal how the toxic burial site had come to be ‘‘forgotten’’.

The fact is, however, that the accident and the burial of waste near the scene at Port Macquarie were not forgotten. Documentation prepared before the highway section upgrade work began referred to the burial of waste, and although its precise location may not have been pinpointed, the recognition of its existence ought to have been enough to justify a cautious approach.

According to news reports from the time of the accident, and to police officers who attended the scene in 1980, the materials involved included the pesticide DDT, drums of radio-isotopes owned by a private company and other chemicals including toluene and benzene.

It is said that the radioactive material remained contained, and testing has reportedly found no radiation at the site.

But police and a doctor with knowledge of the original spill are adamant that exposure to the materials caused disturbing symptoms of illness to as many as 11 people. Indeed, the government has been accused of covering up the issue and one of the most extensively involved former police officers has alleged that the police force refused to recognise his subsequent sickness as work-related.

Now, more than 30 years later, the long-buried toxins have been blamed for causing illness among roadworkers at the site.

Considering the volatility and toxicity of the chemicals named, this is not an implausible suggestion.

The government has appointed a former Hunter environment protection authority chief, Brian Gilligan, to head its inquiry.

With all that has emerged in the days since the old burial site was re-exposed, it would be reasonable to widen the inquiry to consider not merely the most recent events, but also the adequacy of the response to the original accident and its effects on those – including emergency workers – who were involved.

NOBODY doubts the economic importance of Port Waratah Coal Services’ T4 loader project in Newcastle. But that was never a good reason to rush the environmental approval process, especially when some vulnerable areas of ecologically sensitive wetlands may be involved.

Under the circumstances, the community needed a reasonable time to read and comprehend a complicated environmental assessment document that runs to thousands of pages.

The government has taken the responsible path by extending the time allowed for public comment and submissions on the coal-loader proposal.

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