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Orica didn't tell fire service of leak

CHEMICAL giant Orica, responsible for the leak of cancer-causing fumes over Newcastle on Monday, failed to alert the Fire and Rescue Service, which should have been called immediately to assess the situation.

CHEMICAL giant Orica, responsible for the leak of cancer-causing fumes over Newcastle on Monday, failed to alert the Fire and Rescue Service, which should have been called immediately to assess the situation.

Instead, the fire service, which has the hazardous materials response team - Hazmat - was told by a member of the public about the leak the day after the incident.

"We then rang the company [Orica] ourselves and were told they did not require our assistance," a fire service spokesman said.

Asked about this yesterday, Orica declined to comment.

Environmental and emergency management experts said Hazmat should have been on site immediately, setting up a command post.

The failure to alert the emergency response teams has raised questions about the corporate governance at Orica Australia, whether it has an on-site emergency response plan at its Kooragang Island plant and whether that plan was followed.

Orica was told in June that a variation to its licence to run the chemical plant was contingent on its having an on-site emergency response plan.

The Sun-Herald understands that Orica has been asked to hand over to authorities all its internal records and logbooks of the incident, as well as its emergency response plans.

The state government has ordered Orica to shut down its chemical plant until further notice after the leak of the hazardous chemicals into the beachside suburb of Stockton.

A plume of hexavalent chromium, the chemical agent made famous by US environmental campaigner Erin Brockovich, escaped from the ammonia plant on Monday night.

The chemical can cause skin irritation and potentially, with long exposure, cancer. But residents were not told about their exposure to emissions from the production facility until Wednesday. About 20 staff were also exposed.

The Hazmat team was called to the site on Thursday.

Orica notified the Office of Environment and Heritage at 10.30am on Tuesday, about 16 hours after the leak and the emergency shutdown at the plant. The government has since announced an independent review of notification requirements for pollution incidents.

NSW Environment Minister Robyn Parker said yesterday test results showed that out of a total of 36 samples taken, only three showed low levels of hexavalent chromium.

The only sites found to have detectable levels were along the foreshore, closest to the plant. No chromium was detected in five samples from a childcare centre on Barrie Crescent.

A spokeswoman for Orica said yesterday the company would begin a full clean-up of all properties where contamination might have occurred.

The company was fined $10,500 in 2005 by the NSW Land and Environment Court for spilling acid waste into the Hunter River.


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