Benzene emissions from Mayfield coal tar plant ‘overstated’, says company

CLEANER THAN FIRST THOUGHT: The Koppers plant at Mayfield, the subject of recent Environment Protection Authority concerns over emissions of the potentially carcinogenic hydrocarbon, benzene.
CLEANER THAN FIRST THOUGHT: The Koppers plant at Mayfield, the subject of recent Environment Protection Authority concerns over emissions of the potentially carcinogenic hydrocarbon, benzene.

A SCARE over apparently worrying levels of benzene emissions from the Koppers plant at Mayfield has eased after the company convinced the Environment Protection Authority that the figures it had given the National Pollutant Inventory were wrong.

According to the inventory, Koppers was putting an average of 47 tonnes a year of the potentially carcinogenic hydrocarbon into the atmosphere from its Woodstock Street, Mayfield, address.

But Koppers operations manager Nick Moretti told the Newcastle Herald on Wednesday that an external review had found a major error in the way the company had been “indirectly measuring” the amount of benzene and other pollutants leaving the plant during its processes.

Mr Moretti said that as a result, it had recalculated the amounts to be “about 10 per cent of what we had previously said”.

He said the company had revised its pollution outputs for the past three years and resubmitted them to the federal government inventory. The inventory was still showing the old figures when the Herald looked on Wednesday.

Concerns over the benzene levels were reported last month after the EPA issued a statement saying it had been “closely examining” Koppers for six months in response to community complaints but had found the company complying with air pollution regulations.

Even so, it had directed Koppers to change the way it handled its raw product, coke ovens tar, and ordered it to “undertake daily benzene monitoring while benzene emitting activities are occurring”.

But it said nothing at the time about the mixup over the figures.

As a result of the EPA investigation, Koppers is holding a community information session at its plant on Saturday from 10am to 2pm.

Mr Moretti said Koppers, the independent air quality consultants that undertook the assessments, the EPA and other relevant government agencies would be present to explain the assessment reports and answer questions.

John Hayes of Correct Planning and Consultation for Mayfield Group said the Koppers figures “should have been ringing alarm bells” for years before they were picked up.

He was concerned the community day had not been advertised widely enough but Mr Moretti said Koppers had letterboxed about 2000 premises in “the immediate community around the plant”.

It has also emerged that the Newcastle Community Consultative Committee on the Environment, set up in the wake of the 2011 Orica controversy, had been briefed on the Koppers situation some weeks ago but committee members say they had been asked not to say anything publicly about it before the information day.

The committee’s chair, former Newcastle lord mayor John Tate, confirmed the briefing and said the committee would be looking at the Koppers situation at its next meeting.

Asked about the revised benzene outputs, Mr Tate said the committee was guided by the opinions of the experts.

“But it’s to the company’s benefit to explain the process to the community, because where there is a lack of information there is a possibility of people misinterpreting or embellishing the problem,” Mr Tate said.

“I said to the EPA if you put the facts out there things can only get better.”

The Koppers plant began operating in 1968 as a joint venture between the Koppers Company of Pittsburgh and BHP, to distil coke ovens tar from BHP’s steelworks in Newcastle, Port Kembla and Whyalla to make a variety of carbon-based products.

Owned outright by Koppers since 1997, Mr Moretti said Mayfield was the only coal tar plant in Australia. It employed 58 people and was “travelling OK” financially in a “mature market”.

Its products included carbon pitch for the anodes in aluminium smelters, napthalene, used as a water-reducing plasticiser in concrete, creosote, used as a wood preserver, and carbon black, used in the tyre industry.

The bulk of its coal tar came from Whyalla and Port Kembla, with some imported from Asia, and it mainly supplied the Gladstone, Tomago and Portland aluminium smelters, and sometimes Bell Bay in Tasmania.

Mr Moretti said the tall structures in its plant were not chimneys, but distillation towers.

Although Koppers had been “overstating its own emissions” it had also improved its “thermal destruction” of waste gases as part of the orders it received from the EPA.

Mr Hayes said his group acknowledged that Koppers was an established industry that had been operating for  50 years but it had also been the subject of regular community complaints about its smells and emissions.

He said it was difficult to have faith in Koppers, the EPA and the pollution inventory if the company had been reporting benzene emissions for years that were apparently nine times higher than they were now claiming them to be.

The plant was “hard up against dense populations in Mayfield” and there should be regular, independent testing of its emissions.