A FEW weeks ago the then deputy chief executive of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Greg Sullivan, cautiously praised chemical company Orica for progress in writing new emergency plans for its Kooragang Island plant.
This "progress" was said to have come during an enforced shutdown that followed an August 8 leak of chromium six that spread across homes at Stockton.
It seems, however, that while Orica may have made progress in rewriting procedures, its performance in the real world has remained extremely unimpressive.
Leaving aside Orica's arsenic spill into the Hunter River on August 19, Wednesday's ammonia leak has made a mockery of the company's alleged progress and raised troublesome doubts about the credibility of the government's environment protection experts.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the ammonia leak was that it was first identified by firefighters responding to an alarm raised by the hospitalisation of two railway workers at Mayfield who were affected by the plume of escaping gas.
Mr Sullivan, now head of the revamped Environment Protection Authority (EPA), has confirmed that it was fire and rescue officers who traced the leak to Orica and alerted the company.
By the time the company was told of its leak at 4pm about 900kg of ammonia had escaped from the plant over a period of about an hour.
Mr Sullivan said the gas had been released through a safety valve that should have been a "last line of defence". Other safety mechanisms had evidently failed, suggesting that the company's recent modernisation efforts at the plant may have been somewhat piecemeal.
People who live near the facility will be wondering how closely the government's watchdogs are actually monitoring Orica's factory revamp, if such a comprehensive system failure has been permitted to occur.
If this failure reflects poorly on Orica and raises doubts about the diligence of government inspectors, it has also done no favours for the beleaguered Environment Minister, Robyn Parker.
Mrs Parker had already seemed conspicuously out of her depth in the portfolio, but her press conference yesterday plumbed new lows as the Minister was cornered by accusations that she was ill-informed and inert in the face of a potentially damaging new incident.
It might seem reasonable for the Minister to say that the matter had been safely in the hands of the proper agency, but her inability to demonstrate strong personal leadership has again left her blinking in the spotlight of harsh public scrutiny.
The government has ordered Orica to shut its plant. The string of dangerous incidents - the latest coming on the day legal action began over the previous leak - means the facility's entire operation must be regarded with grave suspicion.
While jobs and livelihoods depend on the Kooragang plant, public safety demands that Orica demonstrate much more than "progress" on paper before it is given a renewed licence to operate.