Chemical giant Orica has been hit with more than $750,000 in penalties for a series of pollution incidents, including the 2011 leakage of toxic hexavalent chromium near Newcastle.
The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) said the total sum handed down by the Land and Environment Court on Monday was the ‘highest penalty’ that has been handed down for a matter that it prosecuted.
‘The EPA is pleased with this outcome today; it does represent a significant penalty for Orica for a series of events that really did concern the local communities, particularly in Newcastle but also for Botany,’ EPA chief environmental regulator Mark Gifford told reporters after the decision was handed down.
The EPA launched legal action against Orica following seven pollution incidents between October 2010 and December 2011.
Six of these occurred at the chemical giant’s Kooragang Island manufacturing plant near Newcastle in NSW, while one was at its Botany site in Sydney’s south in September 2011.
The most controversial and highly publicised was on August 8, 2011 when one kilogram of toxic Chromium 6, or hexavalent chromium, was released into the atmosphere through steam from the Kooragang plant.
While the court heard the effects turned out to be negligible, the EPA said it caused real fear and distress.
‘People freaked out, the media freaked out, the government freaked out,’ barrister for the EPA Stephen Rushton SC told the court in a hearing in 2012. ‘There was a parliamentary inquiry.’
As Orica had pleaded guilty to charges relating to this and other incidents, the hearing in 2012 was to determine the penalties that should be imposed.
In handing down her judgment on Monday, Justice Rachel Ann Pepper ordered that Orica pay a range of penalties, ranging from around $31,000 to $175,000 per incident.
This money will pay for environment programs, including monitoring the health of the Hunter River, which runs through Newcastle, and a wetland rehabilitation project.
Justice Pepper ordered Orica to advertise the penalties and judgment against the company in numerous media outlets and to pay the EPA’s legal costs.
Mr Gifford said the incidents had forced changes in the EPA, following criticism it was slow to act.
‘”The government essentially re-established the EPA as a result of that Orica incident [involving hexavalent chromium],’ Mr Gifford told reporters.
He said this had led to improvements in notifications and better communication between Orica and the community.
Orica global head of manufacturing Richard Hoggard said the company ‘regretted’ the incidents in 2010 and 2011.
He said it had invested more than $200 million in the Kooragang site in the last three years, $95 million of which went to environmental improvements.