THE state government has announced an independent review of notification requirements for pollution incidents.
It follows criticism authorities waited days to tell Stockton residents about a carcinogenic chemical leak from the nearby Orica plant.
The NSW opposition yesterday demanded an inquiry into the company and government’s ‘‘shocking failure’’ to tell residents swiftly about the plumes of hexavalent chromium that were emitted from the Kooragang Island plant for half an hour on Monday from 6.15pm.
The incident forced the closure yesterday of the suburb’s childcare centre and furious parents said they were appalled they were not told sooner what had occurred.
The company notified the Office of Environment and Heritage at 10.30am on Tuesday, about 16 hours after the leak and emergency shutdown at the plant. Minister for the Environment Robyn Parker told NSW Parliament of it on Thursday afternoon.
After defending the government’s handling of the incident at a press conference yesterday, Ms Parker decided last night to seek a review.
“The last 24 hours have demonstrated to me that the processes that are currently in place to deal with issues like Orica are totally inadequate and as such I call for a comprehensive review,’’ Ms Parker said.
‘‘The people of Stockton have, in good faith, relied on the industries that operate in their neighbourhood to act and communicate in a way that protects them and their way of life.
‘‘They also expect the same from government and its legislative framework.’’
It would examine legislation, licensing conditions around such industries, and the community engagement surrounding such an incident.
The review would seek to strengthen the obligation of industry to immediately notify authorities of pollution incidents that threaten to cause harm to the community and the environment, setting clear thresholds.
It was unclear last night if it would encompass the government’s handling of the Stockton leak itself.
Ms Parker said the Office of Environment and Heritage had issued a legally binding clean-up notice to Orica, and a second prevention notice to provide the government with independent expert advice on the cause of the incident.
Asked why she waited until Thursday to inform the NSW Parliament of the incident, Ms Parker said: ‘‘The Office of Environment and Heritage collected samples and went off to the labs for confirmation.
‘‘Once that action had been taken, we informed the Parliament.’’
Labor’s environment spokesman Luke Foley visited the suburb yesterday, including the childcare centre.
‘‘Children were playing there on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday because the state government covered it up and failed to tell parents and citizens of Stockton about the dangerous chemical leak on Monday night,’’ Mr Foley said.
‘‘We need openness and transparency so the people of Stockton can get answers and get guarantees about living in a healthy environment in the future.’’
The Greens supported his calls for an independent inquiry. ‘‘The fact that Orica notified authorities within the 24-hour regulatory deadline is little comfort to residents who have been told to drain swimming pools, wash surfaces, and not let children play outside,’’ Greens MP Cate Faehrmann said.
‘‘We still don’t know why it took 16 hours for the incident to be reported. Orica executives still have a lot of explaining to do.’’
Ms Parker said Orica’s delay in informing the government was ‘‘completely unacceptable’’, and it had provided information that the leak was onsite.
The plant would remain closed until the government was satisfied it was safe.
Orica must complete the clean-up of the affected north Stockton residential area by September 2, with other areas to be cleaned by September 23.
Orica said it would be in touch with residents over the weekend about cleaning properties.
‘‘We regret how long it took [for residents to be told],’’ Orica Mining Services general manager James Bonnor said.
‘‘We owe them better.’’