SPEECH: Pollution incidents at the Nyrstar smelter, Port Pirie

In addition to his question to the Environment Minister in today's Question Time, Mark spoke about the incident in January this year, where a quantity of sulphuric acid was spilled or leaked from the Nyrstar facility at Port Pirie, polluting the marine environment and killing hundreds of fish. 

I rise today to explore a little further the incident that occurred in Port Pirie at the start of this year where a quantity of sulphuric acid was spilled or leaked from the Nyrstar facility and ended up polluting the marine environment and killing hundreds of fish. I note that I asked a question in question time today, and the Minister for Human Services kindly took that on notice, and I expect I will get a response at some stage.

The reason I wanted to reflect further on it is that, having accused the EPA of noncompliance with the law, I felt I should take the opportunity to spell out why I say that is the case. The starting point for me is the act, the Environment Protection Act. I was involved in the formulation of that act in the early 1990s. I know the act very well and one of the things we fought hard for when that legislation was being developed was a public right to know. Whilst I think the act is deficient, it does include the public's right to know in the form of a public register.

The Public Register was a paper-based register, now it is an online register of things like pollution licences, exemptions, orders that might have been issued, prosecutions that have been undertaken. It is basically a list of all of the enforcement actions and some of the investigatory actions that the EPA undertakes. One of the clauses in the public register provision of the act—that is section 109(3)(h)—provides that the authority must record in the register the following:

details of serious or material environmental harm caused or threatened in the course of an activity that come to the notice of the Authority;

In other words, if the EPA knows about it, they need to report it. When do they need to report it? Again, according to section 109:

as soon as practicable but, in any event, within three months after the information becomes available to the Authority;

So what we see is that this acid spill into the environment took place in January. Nyrstar apparently told the EPA straightaway. The EPA knew about it certainly the next day. It took them five days to get out and have a look. But certainly the EPA was aware of this in early February. Three months gives us March, April, May, so at the start of May we should have been told about it. We were not. It is not on the Public Register.

In fact, what bothers me as well is that, having gone online to the Public Register earlier today just to check, because if I am going to accuse them of not doing something, I wanted to check that it was not there. I could not find any reports of pollution incidents. There is not a category in their online register. In the drop-down menu, there is no category of pollution incidents, so I do not know whether there are any on there. I could trawl through all of the thousands of licences and go through every postcode to see what I can find, but my gut feeling is that there are not any.

The Minister for Environment and Water today in another place made a ministerial statement where he said that, despite the advice that he has received from the EPA—that advice being, 'We did not have to tell anybody about this pollution incident because we judged that no public health risks were involved.' That is not the test: the test is public health or the environment. There are two parts to the test, not just public health. They cannot just say, 'Well, it was only hundreds of fish that died, no people were at risk,' I guess unless they tried to eat any of the fish, 'therefore we don't have to notify.'

The Minister has taken that advice and said that despite this advice there are questions regarding how the EPA, as an independent statutory authority, informs the community of environmental incidents and under what circumstances the public should be notified. The Minister has said he has asked the EPA for a report, so it is an inquiry of sorts but an internal inquiry. We have no indication of whether or not they are going to seek submissions.

I can tell the Minister now that I will be putting in a submission, and I hope they actually ask members of the Port Pirie community whether they think they have a right to know of major pollution incidents that result in fish kills in the local environment. I think they would have something to say. I welcome the limited internal inquiry. I will certainly be making a submission. However, my question (and I am looking forward to the answer) still remains: what is the Minister doing about the noncompliance by the EPA with their own legislation?

Mark's question to the Minister of Environment and Water can be read here