The Queensland government is permitting Clive Palmer’s nickel refinery to discharge a much higher level of toxicity of contaminated sludge than six months ago.
Premier Campbell Newman and Environment Minister Andrew Powell have repeatedly insisted a new permit introduced in November was a major step forward in regulating the refinery’s environmental impacts, but analysis by The Australian shows it lets Mr Palmer’s refinery discharge hazardous waste at toxicity levels many times higher into the waters surrounding the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
The new permit has also given Mr Palmer’s refinery two additional release points from the refinery, at the Alick Creek and Blind Creek mouths.
The original permit specified only an ocean outfall pipe into Halifax Bay, with permission required on a case-by-case basis from a federal government body, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
The contaminants ammonia, chromium, cobalt, lead and nickel are among those the refinery is now permitted to release at toxicity levels significantly higher than specified in national water quality guidelines.
Each of the contaminants is well above the default criteria under Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council guidelines, which underpinned the previous permit.
The ammonia compliance limit is more than 10 times higher than any council trigger level, while the compliance level for lead is almost three times higher, according to an environmental scientist who examined the limits. He said the compliance limits for chromium, cobalt and nickel were “set at the least stringent level” and would mean acute toxicity or chronic toxicity would be expected in key test species.
The previous permit specified that the risk of spill from the dams must be less than 1 per cent but this condition has also been removed from the new permit.
Mr Powell said last night he “rejects outright” that environmental regulation had been weakened. He said the maximum limit for ammonia was “assessed as being adequate to protect the environmental values taking into consideration the characteristics of the receiving environment, the mixing zone and diffusers, the characteristics of the contaminants including ensuring there is no direct toxicity”. He said that the new permit “provides clear, unambiguous, enforceable conditions that must be met” by the refinery. But the changes to the permit mean Mr Palmer’s refinery’s discharges of toxic sludge this week are unlikely to breach the limits set in the new permit.
Mr Palmer has denied his overflowing tailings dams pose any risk, despite warning two years ago there was an “8 per cent risk the ponds will collapse and cancer-causing tailings will spill into Townsville waterways’’.
Federal government scientists have described a major discharge from the dams to the ecosystem of Halifax Bay in the World Heritage Area as “similar to the daily discharge of treated sewage from a city of seven million people”.