Professor warns of future chemical leak risk at Pasminco

Professor John Lucas.
Professor John Lucas.

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UNIVERSITY of Newcastle chemical engineer John Lucas believes there is a risk the containment cell on the former Pasminco smelter site could leak in years to come.

More than 1.9million cubic metres of toxic waste will be locked in the site’s containment cell by the time it is sealed next year.

Planning documents show the cell will be constructed with low permeability materials to minimise the interaction of surface water and the contaminated materials.

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But Associate Professor Lucas said history had shown some containment cells had leaked because their surrounding barrier had broken down over time.

‘‘A lot of people think they are concrete-lined but they aren’t because of the cost,’’ he said. ‘‘The only concrete-lined containment cell that I know of is at Chernobyl.’’

Professor Lucas, who has consulted on major land decontamination projects around Australia, said there was evidence that the containment cell installed at Sydney Olympic Park 15 years ago was starting to leak.

‘‘NSW pollution laws are inadequate when it comes to cleaning up contaminated sites,’’ he said.

‘‘Victoria’s laws are far more stringent when it comes to making polluters clean up a site to a satisfactory standard.’’

Associate Professor Lucas unsuccessfully applied for funding in 2006 for a small-scale demonstration project that would have removed lead from the soil if successful.

It was based on a technology already used in the mining and minerals processing industry where particles are separated based on their density or size.

‘‘The decision to go with a containment cell had probably already been made,’’Associate Professor Lucas said.